I came across Mike Piazza, former baseball player and now, apparently, die-hard Italian soccer fan, in the Sao Paulo airport Saturday morning.
Piazza, the former Dodgers and Mets catcher who finished his 16-year major league career with a record 396 home runs as a catcher, played for the Italian team in the inaugural World Baseball Classic, and that turned into a long-term relationship with his ancestral homeland.
"They just took me under their wing," he said while waiting for a flight from Sao Paulo to Manaus, where Italy was opening its World Cup on Saturday night against England. "I really wanted to help them out further."
And he has, coaching the Italian team in the WBC, a baseball World Cup and two European Championships.
But it also helped Piazza, who played soccer as a child, reconnect with that sport. Growing up outside Philadelphia, Piazza used to go with his father to watch the Philadelphia Fury of the North American Soccer League, the New York Cosmos and the Philadelphia Fever indoor team. All those teams are now defunct.
Piazza said he also played soccer before his dad told him to drop the sport and concentrate on baseball.
"I was a central defender," he said. "But I wasn't fast enough. "My lack of speed killed me. My dad said there wasn't any money in soccer. He made the right call."
Piazza and agent Dan Lozano were at Thursday's World Cup opener between Brazil and Croatia in Sao Paulo and were planning to leave Brazil early Sunday morning after the Italy game. Retirement, he said, has allowed him to reconnect with soccer.
"When you're retired and you have cable TV... ," Piazza, who lives in Miami Beach, said with a smile.
The World Cup, he added, was always a dream -- but it was an impossible dream when he was playing baseball during the summer.
Saturday he was wearing the colors and emblem of Palermo FC, the Sicilian team that recently won promotion from Italy's second-tier league to the Serie A.
"I've been there for them. Even when they were relegated," Piazza said. "I'm not a fair-weather fan."