So, in 2008, I decided I wanted to go to Rome. To prepare for that trip, I used Rosetta Stone to try to learn Italian. I had had problems communicating in Paris the previous year, so I wanted to have the ability to speak the language at least a little bit just in case. I was okay at it, but I frequently thought of the Spanish words rather than the Italian words when trying to speak Italian. For the most part, though, that learning was not necessary -- nearly everyone in the Italian hospitality industry around Rome speaks English.
There was one day, though, when I needed the Italian I learned...or at least it seemed that way. I took a tourist bus tour from Rome to Florence for a day to see that city's architecture and art. We had small earpieces that picked up our tour guide's microphone on a short-wave FM system to guide us along and hear him over the din of the area around Il Duomo. A second solo traveler asked me to take her picture in front of the church, and I obliged. When we looked around for our group -- poof! -- they were gone.
The woman whose photo I took recalled that the guide had said that we were meeting for lunch at a restaurant called "Fantasia" on Via San Giuseppe. We found a police officer in the area around the church baptistery, and in my best Italian I asked, "Scusi, aiutame per favore. Dove la Via San Giuseppe or il ristorante Fantasia?"
The police officer replied to me exactly as follows: "ristorante fantasia? No. Via San Giuseppe -- you go up three blocks and take a left!"
Molto Grazie, signore!
Now, 6-1/2 years later, I find myself saying, "Molto grazie, signore!" That is because The Italian Completist reached out to me and asked if I would like to trade some cards back and forth across the Atlantic. I agreed and, though I am delinquent on sending cards to him, Riccardo sent me a 400-count box via aerea.
While I never made it any further north than Florence, how about I turn this into a travel blog meets baseball cards? Careful, y'all -- this one will have a lot of photos!
I stayed at an InterContinental Hotel in Rome, and I got a room on the top floor. It wasn't huge, but it had a small balcony from which the view did not suck:
Yes, that's the dome on St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican. My first impressions were positive of Rome -- it's a great city, but it's a crazy city. There's an old joke that goes around about the divide between north and south in Italy that the northern citizens of Milan complain that the Romans do not know how to work and, in return, the Romans complain that the Milanese do not know how to have fun. I can tell you -- the Romans do not know how to drive either.
What cards go along with first impressions? 2009 Topps, of course.
I say "of course" for these because all of these were new to me. 2009 cards generally seem to have eluded me more than they should have for cards of such a recent vintage. I'm pretty sure I have purchased or received more cards from 1971 than I have from 2009. It's not a bad design, but that gold-on-black for the name plates sure doesn't scan well.
What a dump. Okay, I didn't spend enough time in Naples to be so cruel to the city as to stick with that thought, but the parts of Naples I saw (again on a bus tour) were dingy, dirty, and filled with graffiti -- which, bear in mind, is an Italian word meaning "scribblings." But at least the view out to the Isle of Capri was pretty cool.
What goes along with this sort of "well, it's better than a sharp stick in the eye" talk?
The well-traveled, frequently swinging-and-missing Jose Hernandez. He spent three years in Milwaukee; in two of those years, he led the National League in strikeouts with 185 one year and 188 the next. Famously, in that 2002 year with 188 strikeouts, then-manager Jerry Royster held Hernandez out of the lineup for four of the last five games so that Hernandez would not set a record for strikeouts in a season.
At least the card has a Brewers logo on it, I suppose.
No, I won't subject you to the video for the song by the band Bastille again.
Pompeii is an incredible place to visit, because you really get a sense of how people were living their day-to-day lives almost 2000 years ago. Everything from brothels with sex scenes on the wall to what look to be restaurants with pizza ovens all are still there -- and historians and archeologists work daily to try to preserve it. One of the most incredible parts of the tour there is the storage area where castings of people who were caught unaware by Mount Vesuvius's explosion are kept. Here's one.
Just chilling to think that someone could have been just living their lives, carrying out their errands, flirting with someone, and suddenly, they are balled up in a fetal position hoping that their pain ends quickly.
It's not a good parallel by any means, but Brewers fans viewed the early 2000s similarly. We just wanted each season to be over quickly so we could get our high-round draft pick and rebuild for the future. And yet, people still had to play those games for the Brewers. One guy whose career came just a bit early for Brewer glory was Ben Sheets.
There were more Sheets in this incredible box than just these 8, but this gives you the flavor. It's too bad for Sheets that GM Dean Taylor and managers Davey Lopes and Jerry Royster and Ned Yost decided to expend Sheets's arm toward the greater good of avoiding 120 losses, but that's neither here nor there.
If you have ever been to the Vatican and taken the tour there, you know that, just before you walk into the Sistine Chapel, you are warned about two key rules. First, you are to be quiet. Second, you are not supposed to take photos. So, when my tour group walked in, of course we were greeted with a loud buzz not unlike the moments before a rock concert starts and literally hundreds of shutters on cameras snapping. Who am I to argue with that?
Sorry it's blurry -- I drew the line at using my flash and the photo suffered accordingly.
This was 2008. I was doing selfies before selfies were a thing.
So what cards can measure up to the Sistine Chapel? Um, there aren't any. Topps tried to go for art with its "Gallery" brand -- which I actually like, but it's not art -- so how about a Jeff Cirillo from that brand:
Ah, Florence. My favorite city of the whole trip and not for the story I told above. No, it's the art and the history. Seeing Michelangelo's David is incredible -- it's absolutely huge. Giotto's Bell Tower is pretty cool. Brunelleschi's dome on the church is amazing. But the Basilica di Santa Croce was my favorite. I'm a sucker for seeing where historic figures are buried -- I guess it's like I feel I'm in their presence, and it's awe-inspiring to me. I mean, who wouldn't want to me in Michelangelo's presence?
Being in the presence of such greatness calls for great players' cards to be shown.
Molitor and Spahn are in the Hall of Fame, just as Michelangelo would be in any artistic Hall of Fame for which he would be eligible.
Tivoli: Hadrian's Villa and Villa d'Este
Perhaps my favorite day on my Italian trip was the day I spent just 30 km outside of Rome in Tivoli. It was a combination of a beautiful day with beautiful scenery. Two noteworthy former residences are located there. First, you have Emperor Hadrian's Villa and the stunning view of the early morning sun on the Canopus.
After walking around that complex for a couple of hours, the next stop was in Tivoli itself at the Villa d'Este. This residence was commissioned by Cardinal Ippolito II d'Este, the son of Alfonso d'Este and Lucrezia Borgia (and grandson of Pope Alexander VI), who had been appointed Governor of Tivoli by Pope Julius III. d'Este had marble appropriated from Hadrian's Villa to help build some of the stunning water fountains in the gardens below this incredible house.
To go with these views and this beauty?
Y'all know what a sucker for full-bleed photograph I am -- even if Dave Nilsson looks pissed off and Jeff Cirillo looks like he is training for a speedskating event rather than running the basis on his 1996 Fleer card.
Riccardo, thank you very much for the huge box of cards. I hope some day to make it to Milan, the Cinque Terra, and the north of Italy so that I can be taken aback by the beauty of the Italian Alps in the same way I was so impressed with Tuscany and even parts of Lazio.