Lenny Randle is a man on a mission. "I'm trying to find the next Joe DiMaggio," he says. "I'm gonna bring the next Mike Piazza, the next Roy Campanella, the next Yogi Berra over to America."
Sure, everybody in baseball wants to discover prospects with Hall of Fame potential. But Randle believes he'll find them in a country that's thus far been almost entirely ignored by MLB scouts: Italy. "The international market is all about Japan, Korea and Cuba," he says, "but it's like, 'Hello! There are some ballplayers over here!'"
Randle should know. The 66-year-old former major leaguer, who played for the Senators, Rangers, Mets, Yankees, Cubs and Mariners from 1971 to 1982, became involved with Italian baseball in 1983, when, as the first ex-MLBer to play professionally in Italy, he won the Italian Baseball League batting crown in his debut season with the Nettuno ball club. Dubbed "Cappuccino" by local fans, Randle's hard-hustling play, charismatic swagger and impish sense of humor made him an Italian cult hero. Now, through his involvement with the Nettuno team (in October, he signed a three-year deal to be its manager, and says he's also a co-owner and GM), Randle is trying to return the Nettunesi – whom he calls "the Italian Yankees" – to their former glory (the venerable franchise boasts 17 championships, but hasn't won it all since 2001), while also beating the drum for Italy as a viable MLB talent pool.
Running the Nettuno team is just the latest chapter in a fascinating life and career – if a contest was ever held to pick baseball's version of "The Most Interesting Man in the World," Randle would certainly be a viable candidate. A multisport star at Compton's Centennial High School, Randle was drafted by the baseball Cardinals in 1967, but opted instead to attend Arizona State, where he played second base for the 1969 Sun Devils team that won the College World Series. Two years later, he made his major league debut with the Washington Senators, where he was managed and mentored by the great Ted Williams.
Randle's MLB career was, at times, a rocky ride: He was in the dugout for the Senators' final game in D.C., a contest that ended in a forfeit when angry fans rioted at RFK Stadium in protest of the team's defection to Texas; and he was playing second base for Billy Martin and the Rangers against the Indians at Cleveland Stadium on June 4, 1974, when the infamous "Ten-Cent Beer Night" promotion resulted in a pitched battle between wasted Tribe fans and players from both teams. Though normally possessed of an extremely sunny disposition, Randle threw some punches of his own in 1977, when an ongoing Spring Training dispute with Rangers skipper Frank Lucchesi exploded in a flurry of fisticuffs that sent Lucchesi to the hospital with a fractured cheekbone. Randle's uncharacteristically ugly actions resulted in a 30-day suspension and a trade to the Mets, for whom he enjoyed the best season of his career, putting up a .304/.383/.404 line while stealing 33 bases. Randle also went into the history books that summer as the answer to the trivia question, "Who was standing at the plate when the NYC blackout plunged Shea Stadium into darkness?"
The early Eighties saw Randle branch out into other areas of play. In Chicago, he rubbed elbows with the Belushi brothers and did stand-up routines at local comedy clubs after Cubs games – "I'd do six minutes, and they'd give me a steak," he laughs. In Seattle, where he once struck additional comedy gold by blowing an Amos Otis grounder into foul territory, Randle recorded a number of electro-funk jams with his band, Ballplayers, one of which was recently included on Light in the Attic's awesome Wheedle's Groove Volume II compilation.
A true renaissance man, Randle is also fluent in five languages, including Italian, and holds a master's degree in adapted physical education from Arizona State. He's active in the world of fashion design, overseeing various lines of clothes, shoes and handbags; he runs the Lenny Randle Sports Academy, which offers baseball instruction for kids and fantasy camps for adults; and he still makes music – he says he recently shot a video for a song called "Another Touch," which contrasts the idyllic aspects of Italy with the grittiness of his old SoCal stomping grounds.
At 66, Randle radiates the energy of a man half his age – check out this clip of him goofing around at Stadio Steno Borghese – something he attributes to his positive mental attitude ("I'm blessed and staying away from stress!" he repeatedly tells me) and the rejuvenating effects of wine, pasta and life on the Italian coast.
"It's the Fountain of Youth out here," he says. "This is home to me, man. It's like utopia!"
In fact, he says life in Italy is so sweet that it's difficult to sell the country's best ballplayers on the idea of a big league career. Though MLB scouts have begun to sniff around the Italian Baseball League – the Braves signed 18-year-old infielder Mattia Mercuri in 2013, and the Dodgers signed outfielders Federico Celli and Federico Giordani last year – few teams have thus far been willing to shell out the kind of money that would tempt IBL players to actually leave their homeland for the States.
"We only play two or three games a week over here," Randle explains. "The players get tax-free money, they get a free place to stay, transportation is first class, and they get a five-course meal at lunch and dinner, because eating over here's a religion! So you're gonna give up a utopia to live in the States, and have drama and have all your money taken away in taxes? You're treated like a gladiator over here, and then you go to Double A, Triple A, and you can't get enough meal money to buy two Subway sandwiches or lunch at HomeTown Buffet?
"The major league teams used to offer like forty or fifty thousand dollars to Italian players; now they've figured out that these guys get eighty just playing for the national team, and they get to tour the world," he continues. "So they're realizing that they've gotta step up their offers if they wanna get these guys to play for 'em!"
While Randle is trying to get more MLB teams to export Italian talent, he says he's also trying to interest current major leaguers in joining the IBL once their careers wind down.
"I told Mark Teixeira, 'Mark, be a part-owner with me; own a team for life, and you never have to go back!'" he chuckles. "I joke a lot, but I'm not kidding about this. These guys don't realize that they could have a utopian life here forever after baseball. You know how we go to Puerto Rico for winter ball? I want to make Italy the home of winter ball for Major League Baseball."
Nettuno, a resort city located about 40 miles south of Rome, was the first (and quite possibly only) place baseball took hold in Italy; the U.S. servicemen who landed at Nettuno and nearby Anzio in 1944 as part of World War II's Operation Shingle brought bats, balls and gloves with them, and introduced the game to the local populace. Stadio Steno Borghese, where the Nettuno ball club plays, is the country's biggest baseball stadium – Randle describes it as "a mini-Dodger Stadium that fits 10,000 people." But it's rarely been filled to capacity in recent years, a situation that the ever-resourceful Randle hopes to rectify by booking various celebrities and former major leaguers to make personal appearances, as well as musical acts to perform following the ballgames.
"We're competing with basketball, soccer and bicycling," he says, "But we've got reggae, pop and rock groups from all over that want to come in and perform. They love Italy; they're like, 'We'll make our money, eat pasta and do babes!' and I'm like, 'I don't wanna know about the babes; just do the pasta!'"
Even without the pasta, Randle clearly has a lot on his plate these days. The reigning king of Italian baseball says he rarely gets more than four hours of shut-eye a night; but even with the lack of sleep, he still finds plenty of time to dream big. Especially when it comes to his adopted homeland.
"You know how the NFL teams go over to London and play there? Well, that's what I want to do," he tells me. "I want to bring the Cubs to Rome! That would be so awesome; do you know how much publicity there would be for that?"