SB Nation

Tony Rehagen | May 13, 2015

Down & Away

Leo Mazzone might be the best pitching coach in major league history. And no one will hire him.

It’s the top of the first inning, and Leo Mazzone is already rocking.

Each croak of the springs in Mazzone’s brown leather recliner is punctuated by a knock in the wooden frame, like an old screen door blowing open and shut.

Creeeak-clack. Creeeak-clack.

Watching the Braves play the Marlins on the 60-inch flat-screen in the den of his home on Lake Hartwell in South Carolina, Mazzone isn’t conscious of the nervous back-and-forth tick that became his accidental trademark during four decades in the dugout. He is focused instead on the mound and Miami right-hander Tom Koehler, who leans in against Atlanta leadoff man Jace Peterson.

First pitch: Fastball down and away. Called strike one.

“Perfect pitch,” says Mazzone. “Aimed for the catcher’s crotch, and he got it there.”

Creeeak-clack. Creeeak-clack.

Fastball at the knees. Strike two.

Creeeak-clack. Creeeak-clack.

Curveball inside. Ball one.

The pace of the rocking quickens. Creak-clack-creak-clack-creak-clack. The old pitching coach has spotted something. “Changed his arm slot,” he says. “Tried to overpower him.”

If there is one thing about the game today that will wear out Mazzone’s lounger, it’s the increased emphasis on power in pitching. He’s worked with 12-year-olds, who compete against the radar gun as much as the batter, and tried to get through to high school and college hurlers who’ve been taught that a scholarship or professional contract depends more on M-P-H than E-R-A. In the pros, speed is fetishized by teams and fans alike, the reading on each pitch displayed right alongside the score in the corner of the TV, a CG flame occasionally flaring up when a fastball reaches the high-90s or low-100s.

It makes for great entertainment, sure, but Mazzone says it also leads to pitchers becoming erratic and missing location. More importantly, their release is not as smooth, increasing the risk of arm injury. Mazzone believes the modern game’s infatuation with velocity is one of, if not the primary reason for the recent plague of Tommy John elbow-ligament replacement surgeries. “Now everybody seems to be getting a pass on all the sore arms,” he says. “I don’t get it. If we’d have had all the breakdowns that are happening now, there would have been a lot of pitching coaches fired.”

Mazzone held that job for more than 27 years, including almost 18 in the big leagues. He attributes his longevity to the success of the pitchers who were indoctrinated with his unorthodox philosophy of actually throwing more often between starts but with decreased intensity, concentrating, instead, on the feel and location of their pitches, controlling the lower outside part of the strike zone — down and away, down and away. The results are well known: In Mazzone’s 15-plus seasons with Atlanta, his staffs led the Braves to 14 straight division championships, combining for four individual ERA titles, nine individual 20-win seasons, six Cy Young Awards, and eventually, three plaques in Cooperstown. Less heralded is the number of careers that were salvaged under Mazzone’s watch and his reputation for taking care of his players — especially the starters, who rarely missed a turn. “Sure he had great pitchers,” says Steve Phillips, who was an executive for the rival New York Mets in the 1990s and early-2000s. “But he kept them on the field. He kept them healthy.” In almost two decades as major league pitching coach, Mazzone only had two starters, John Smoltz and Mike Hampton, play a full season under him and succumb to Tommy John, and they were both approaching their mid-30s.

These days, news of season-ending elbow surgeries is almost a weekly rite (through April there had already been 11 such announcements), and it’s not uncommon for a kid to go under the knife twice before he leaves his 20s. Today’s answer to this scourge is strict innings limits and pitch counts, even shutting down a perfectly healthy starter midseason — things Mazzone believes actually hurt more than help. “It’s pathetic,” he says. “An insult to my intelligence. A pitcher’s greatest teacher is innings pitched.”

This isn’t idle sniping from the rocking chair. Mazzone has made it clear to anyone who’ll listen that he’d love to be back on the bench or advising or even just visit spring camp and help straighten these organizations out. In 2010, he was on Sirius XM lobbying for pitching coach openings with both the Yankees and Mets. After the 2013 season, when Philadelphia’s Rich Dubee was fired, Mazzone took to Twitter: @Phillies I would be very interested in being your pitching coach. #championshipball.

The phone hasn’t rung. This is the eighth season since Baltimore fired Mazzone in 2007 that he watched Opening Day from his den. And here he is today, a 66-year-old man creak-clacking himself into a frenzy, imagining what advice he’d give Tom Kohler once he retired the side and got back to the bench.

After the Braves set down the Marlins in the bottom of the first, the rocking suddenly stops. “I’m pretty much done with this game,” Mazzone says, as he clicks the channel to cable news. These days he rarely sits through an entire game, unless it’s Opening Day, the playoffs, or maybe a marquee pitching matchup. “When you’ve watched from the dugout for 42 years,” he says, “TV is just not the same.”

Mazzone has been rocking since he was in his high chair, occasionally banging the back of his head against the kitchen wall in Westernport, Md., near the West Virginia border. Though the internal metronome is involuntary, Mazzone has come to understand what the motion indicates. “It means my wheels are turning,” he says. “When I’m not rocking, I’m bored. When I am, I’m ready to roll.”

Mazzone’s father, Tony Mazzone, kept his son busy. The World War II vet and former catcher set aside his own ball-playing dreams to support his family and filled his son’s head with the game at an early age, always making time after a day at the paper mill for a quick father-son catch. Tony Mazzone molded his son into a left-handed pitcher, teaching him to throw a curve, coaching him from age 9 in Little League through Pony League and into high school. “The first thing my dad ever told me was that there was only one way to have fun playing baseball,” says Mazzone. “And that’s to win.”

“He enjoyed beating you,” says Sam Perlozzo, a childhood friend who grew up competing against Mazzone. “Winning and striking you out meant the world to him.” That competitive fire made young Mazzone exactly the kind of pitcher who would drive Mazzone the pitching coach off his rocker — not changing speeds enough, relying on velocity, maxing out, and trying to overpower hitters. Nevertheless, Mazzone managed not to blow out his arm and rode a decent curveball to Triple-A. Over nine years between the Giants and A’s systems, Mazzone posted a record of 50-50 with a 3.63 ERA. In 1976, he showed up to Oakland spring camp ready to start his 10th season, but A’s exec Syd Thrift saw no future for Mazzone in the big leagues — as a player. “I knew very well that he had a great baseball aptitude, that extra sense about how to pitch and how to play,” Thrift told in 2005, a year before he died. “He was a very astute judge of what was going on in the present.” But when Thrift called Mazzone into his office to tell him about a managerial opening in independent Single-A Corpus Christi that he had heard about, the 27-year-old southpaw erupted. “He blew a gasket and called me all kinds of unusual names,” Thrift said. Mazzone returned the next day to apologize. He also asked about the job.

The transition from the field to the dugout did little to snuff out Mazzone’s fire. He was a vocal manager, known to argue with umpires, and even toss bases after being ejected. He won two straight independent league pennants in Corpus Christi before moving to the Carolina League, where his Kinston Eagles finished fifth, but pitched fairly well (3.65 team ERA) with what Mazzone deemed lesser talent. It was enough to catch the attention of the Braves, who offered Mazzone a job as a pitching coach in their minor league system.

On the first day of spring training 1979, Mazzone met the pitching coach he had always wished he’d had, and the one he would aspire to become. At the time, Johnny Sain was coaching for Richmond, the Atlanta Triple-A affiliate. But it was the downward slope of a storied career. Sain had been a three-time All-Star and four-time 20-game winner with the Yankees and Boston Braves. In 1948 he and Warren Spahn had carried the Braves to a pennant down the stretch, inspiring Gerry Hern’s poem in the Boston Post:  First we’ll use Spahn/ then we’ll use Sain/ Then an off day / followed by rain … Later, as a coach, Sain had spent two decades with the A’s, Yankees, Twins, Tigers and White Sox, mentoring nine different pitchers to 20-win seasons — a list that included Whitey Ford, Ralph Terry, Jim Bouton and Denny McLain. A bit of an eccentric, Sain skipped the team motels at spring training and instead slept in a Winnebago parked near the ball field. Mazzone spent almost every night that spring sitting outside that RV, grilling beans and cornbread, drinking vodka and orange juice, and talking pitching into the wee hours.

Diamond Images

Sain was a revolutionary figure in baseball. One of baseball’s first recognizable pitching coaches, he focused on the mental approach to the game and was often seen carrying books and tapes on positive thinking. He believed in not over-coaching and letting pitchers express themselves. He advocated changing speeds and deliveries to stay a step ahead of hitters. And he disdained running and excess physical fitness and instead had his staff throw from the mound as often as possible, but with regulated effort, to work on getting the feel of their pitches — this not only kept them in pitching shape, but taught them how to actually pitch. Many in baseball worried that Sain’s philosophy would ruin pitchers’ arms, and that fact, along with his outspoken, no-compromise nature, irked certain managers and organizations. “He was ahead of his time,” says Mazzone. “People were very critical. They feared his knowledge.”

Mazzone embraced Sain’s insight. Henry Aaron, who was director of player development for the Braves, gave Mazzone the freedom to implement a similar throwing program at each level he coached in the minor leagues through the 1980s. The latter part of the decade was an exciting time to be in the Atlanta farm system. While the major league club was a perennial 90-loss laughingstock, the farm system was stocked with young arms like Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, Steve Avery, Kent Mercker and Mike Stanton. And with his reputation of keeping pitchers healthy, Mazzone was also rising fast through the ranks.

At first, Tom Glavine thought his new pitching coach was crazy.

When GM and newly minted manager Bobby Cox called Mazzone to Atlanta two months into the 1990 season, the new major league pitching coach took his starters aside and told those who didn’t know him from the minors about his throwing program — two bullpen sessions between starts instead of the one that almost every rotation in the majors had been doing for decades. “My first reaction was, ‘Seriously? My arm already hurts, and you want me to throw more?’” says Glavine, who at 24 was already in his fourth big league campaign. Echoing Sain, Mazzone left it up to each individual. Glavine, like most of his young teammates, reluctantly agreed to give it a shot. “Throwing twice as much actually wasn’t any more physically demanding,” says Glavine, who admittedly was never a high-velocity guy in the first place. “Much to my surprise, by the end of the year I actually started feeling better physically.”

John Smoltz was ready to try almost anything. Mazzone had already helped him fix his mechanics (by being the first coach that let Smoltz throw the way he wanted to) and taught him a curveball back in the instructional league. Now a 23-year-old All-Star power pitcher, Smoltz dove into the new low-intensity throwing program. “It allowed me not to max out,” he says. “I developed a feel for my pitches without max effort — even during the games. It kept me fresher.”

With the steadfast support of his manager, Bobby Cox, Mazzone went about changing the culture of the pitching staff, doing everything he could to get his pitchers on the mound as often as possible. And not just the starters. “People would tell me, ‘You can’t have a reliever throw before a game, he might have to pitch that night,’” says Mazzone. “Well that’s what I was preparing them for! Jesus Christ!” The coach made an effort to spend time with each of his pitchers. And while he didn’t fret about pitch counts, he kept spiral notebooks filled with each time a pitcher threw — in practice, in a game, in the pen, or on the side — and what pitches they worked on.

After the game, he was always free to hang around, open a beer, and talk pitching. “You got some of your best coaching done when you were sitting in the clubhouse, drinking beer until 3 a.m.,” says Mazzone. “Players open up. Maybe something’s going wrong at home.” The following February, Mazzone held a voluntary week-long throwing program at Fulton County Stadium before the team was to report to spring training — such a novelty that the media started calling it Camp Leo, to the chagrin of the other coaches.

The results were almost immediate. The team ERA went from a major league worst 4.58 in 1990 to third-best 3.49 in 1991, to a big-league best 3.14 in 1992. In 1991, Glavine, who had only won 10 games the previous year, went 20-11, the first of three straight 20-win seasons for the lefty. Twenty-one-year-old phenom Steve Avery went from three wins in 1990 to 18 in 1991. Smoltz’s ERA dipped by nearly a full run between ‘91 and ‘92. Even free agent Greg Maddux, who had won the NL Cy Young with Chicago in ‘92, bought into the program (though Mazzone is adamant that he “wasn’t dumb enough to fuck with Maddux’s approach”) and went on to win his second Cy with the Braves in 1993. Perhaps most impressive is the fact that from 1991-93, the top four in the Braves rotation missed a total of one scheduled start — and that was after Maddux took a line-drive off his elbow in September 1993, and sat out his next turn, only to return four games later. At that point Glavine, Smoltz and Avery had not skipped a start in 586 games.

Mazzone critics are quick to bring up Glavine, Smoltz and Maddux and question whether anyone could have looked like a genius coaching three future Hall-of-Famers. Coaches, players, reporters, fans have stepped up and said it to his face. “I tell people to go fuck themselves,” says Mazzone. “That bothers me because there were so many more.”

Chris Bernacchi/AFP

First, it’s important to note that Glavine and Smoltz developed under Mazzone’s tutelage, and both are effusive in their praise for the coach’s vital role in their careers. And while Maddux was already an elite starter when he arrived in 1993, he hardly regressed under Mazzone, winning 194 games and three Cy Youngs as a Brave, never experiencing serious arm trouble.

Second, Mazzone is right — there are a lot more names to consider. During his tenure, the Braves staff had seven other All-Stars, including Denny Neagle, Kevin Millwood and Russ Ortiz, players who were unable to duplicate their success after leaving Atlanta. There were also more than a few career reclamations. Mike Remlinger went from being a struggling starter with the Reds in 1998 to a valuable reliever and All-Star with the Braves from 1999-2002. In 2001, journeyman John Burkett represented Atlanta as a 36-year-old All-Star with a career-low 3.04 ERA. Jaret Wright had washed out as an effective pitcher due to shoulder problems in the late-1990s; but he washed ashore in Atlanta and in 2004 made 32 starts, won 15, and posted a 3.28 ERA — all career-bests. In eight seasons bouncing from Colorado, New York and Texas, John Thomson had never put up an ERA below 4, until he went 14-8 with a 3.72 mark under Mazzone in 2004. Economist and Sabernomics blogger J.C. Bradbury looked at the park-adjusted ERAs for 98 pitchers who had thrown at least 30 innings in a season for Mazzone and compared those seasons to those pitchers’ numbers for other teams and found that Mazzone lowered a pitcher’s ERA about .63, more than half a run. Bradbury’s conclusion: “Starters and relievers pitched worse both before and after playing for Mazzone.”

Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Mazzone was hardly a sabermetrician, and some aspects of his impact are, admittedly, unquantifiable. Take, for instance, Paul Byrd: When the Mets traded Byrd to the Braves in 1997, he was a 26-year-old power pitcher. “I didn’t 100-percent buy [Mazzone’s philosophy], and when I got in jams, I overthrew,” he says. Byrd was put on waivers the following year, and by the time he came back to Atlanta via Philadelphia and Kansas City five years later, his arm was shot. He hurt his elbow before the season even started and missed all of 2003 after Tommy John surgery. When Byrd took the mound for Mazzone in 2004, his mindset had changed. “I had matured,” says Byrd. “Now Leo and I were on the same page — I was more into slowing the game down.” Byrd pitched fine for Atlanta in 2004 (8-7, 3.94), and he left as a free agent the following year. He then went on to win 49 mores games and pitch for five more seasons before retiring at age 38 — a longevity Byrd credits to Mazzone. “Leo helped me reinvent myself,” he says.

None of this is to say that Mazzone wasn’t given due credit at the time. On the contrary, the media loved him, as he was always a blunt and colorful quote. During televised games, the cameras would always find him rocking back and forth in the dugout. In September 2005, published a feature by Jeff Merron called “The Rock of Atlanta,” decreeing Mazzone the greatest assistant coach of all time in any sport, and asking whether he should be the first coach enshrined in Cooperstown.

Other organizations were appreciative as well. When Mazzone’s Atlanta contract was set to expire after the 2005 season, teams came looking for that Mazzone magic — including Joe Torre and George Steinbrenner, who reportedly was willing to make Mazzone the highest-paid coach in the game. In fact, Mazzone says he had informally accepted the job as Yankee’s pitching coach that October, when he got a call from Sam Perlozzo, who had also climbed through the minors, broke briefly into the big leagues, and had just been named manager of the Baltimore Orioles. It was a chance to coach in his home state alongside his best friend since childhood. And Baltimore was offering a three-year deal worth $1.35 million — which would tie him with the Cardinals’ Dave Duncan for highest-paid coach in baseball, a salary almost twice what he had been making in Atlanta. Mazzone reneged on his agreement with Steinbrenner and announced he was going to be an Oriole in 2006.

Upon hearing the news that Mazzone was coming home, an 82-year-old Tony Mazzone phoned his son. Mazzone will never forget the call: “My father told me I was the dumbest person in the world.”

Marc Serota/Getty Images

The Baltimore fans welcomed Mazzone as a savior, and with good reason. The Orioles had finished higher than fourth place in the vaunted AL East only once in eight seasons and hadn’t had a winning record since 1997. They’d had only one All-Star pitcher in six years, and hadn’t had a true ace since Mike Mussina left for the Yankees in 2000. That offseason, position players were openly pointing fingers at a young Baltimore pitching staff that had just posted the fifth-worst ERA in the American League. “It was a big deal when [Mazzone] came, a real coup for Baltimore,” says Baltimore Sun beat writer Dan Connolly. “Getting Leo was like getting a huge free agent.”

The media lapped up the feel-good story of Perlozzo and Mazzone, Maryland boys and childhood friends reunited to revive the home-state franchise. Mazzone went along with the narrative, calling this situation his dream job and telling reporters he’d like to retire in an Orioles uniform years down the road.

“It was a good ol’ boys club and these good ol’ boys had been losing for a long time.” —Leo Mazzone

But even though the organization had been dogged in their pursuit of Mazzone (Perlozzo says his connection to Mazzone helped him land the manager job in the first place: “At the time, I thought they were more interested in getting Leo than getting me.”), they questioned his methods almost from the beginning, when the medical staff suddenly canceled Camp Leo. “The doctors and trainers said I couldn’t have anyone on the mound until they passed a physical,” says Mazzone. “In Atlanta we did everything we could to keep the players on the field. In Baltimore, they did everything they could to keep them off.”

Perlozzo introduced Mazzone to the team at spring training by essentially reciting the coach’s Atlanta résumé, and Mazzone could already sense the eye rolling that only worsened as time went on. “Nobody wanted to listen to our philosophy from Atlanta,” Mazzone says. “Other coaches were like ‘I’m tired of you talking about the Braves.’ It was a good ol’ boys club and these good ol’ boys had been losing for a long time. They didn’t particularly care for me coming in there with the contract that the Orioles gave me. They didn’t like it at all. They were scared to death.” Mazzone remembers driving up to the ballpark one day to find the orange cone Perlozzo had put out to mark Mazzone’s special parking spot crushed to bits — he suspects at the hands of another coach.

Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

The 57-year-old Mazzone also butted heads with some of his younger pitchers, like Erik Bedard, who grumbled about the throwing program and chafed at Mazzone’s direct personal approach. A little over a month into the season, Mazzone ripped his staff in the Sun for having an overall “lack of passion.” Later, when some pitchers, like Rodrigo Lopez and Adam Loewen, spoke out themselves, Mazzone fired right back. “They reacted wrongly,” he told the Sun. “Apparently, they thought I was too hard on them or something. If one or two of them didn’t like hearing the truth, then they have to look in the mirror themselves. Some people in this game have to look in the mirror more often.” All of this tension was exacerbated by the fact that Mazzone’s first season in Baltimore was a disaster. The team lost 92 games, finishing fourth again in the East. The pitching staff closed with a whopping 5.35 ERA — next-to-last in the major leagues and second-worst in franchise history.

Still, there were signs of hope. Despite his initial resistance, Bedard used Mazzone’s circle-change to break through with 15 wins, a 3.76 ERA, and 171 strikeouts. Twenty-four-year-old Chris Ray came out of nowhere to save 33 games, and Loewen and fellow prospect Daniel Cabrera showed sparks by year’s end. Pitchers and coaches told reporters that Mazzone arrived at camp the following spring more optimistic and laid-back. That season, the staff entered June with the fourth-best ERA in the AL. But the team swooned that month, due in large part to a bullpen breakdown, losing 13 of its first 15 games and falling to last place. On June 18, owner Peter Angelos fired Perlozzo.

Mazzone stayed on under new manager Dave Trembley, but his pitching staff collapsed. Closer Ray blew out his elbow and underwent season-ending Tommy John surgery, joining starters Loewen and Jaret Wright on the DL. In August, the team lost to the Texas Rangers 30-3, the worst loss in the history of the American League. The team ERA blew up (6.89 in September) and finished second-worst in the majors once again. The lone highlight was Bedard, who was in the midst of Cy Young conversations when Mazzone got a call from the front office worried about the number of innings Bedard was pitching and the wear on his 28-year-old arm. “Are you kidding me?!” Mazzone told them. “He’s about to break the Orioles strikeout record!” Bedard fell just short of the Baltimore franchise record — when his season ended in early September with a strained oblique.

After the 93-loss season had ended, Mazzone says the Orioles assured him that he would be brought back for 2008. But on Oct. 12, 2007, Mazzone was fired with a year left on his contract.

“I thought we were going to have a little more time to get it done,” says Perlozzo. Connolly says it was less a lack of time than a lack of talent. Mazzone agreed with both of those assessments, but when he left he said all the right things in his statement to the press: “I understand and wish the team great success.” He was 59 years old. With his track record, he felt he’d have no trouble finding a new job. All he had to do was go back to his home in Atlanta and wait for the phone to ring.

That first spring sitting at home was the hardest. Mazzone nearly drove his wife crazy because he had no idea what to do with himself. They planted a backyard garden — tomatoes, onions, strawberries. He joined the local YMCA. Golfed. He set up a rocking chair on his porch to roll away while watching games on TV for the first time in 40 years.

Not counting Baltimore, there had been six pitching coach vacancies in the majors that winter. Mazzone did not receive a single call. Instead, he signed on to do color commentary for a few games on Fox. When no coaching offers came the following winter, Mazzone joined the crew of a local sports-talk radio show, voicing his unvarnished opinions to weekday commuters across the Atlanta metro. After the 2010 season, he went on Sirius XM and made his pitch for openings with the Mets and Yankees, to no avail. Instead, he started working with local youths and traveling around to speak to various high school baseball organizations, extolling the virtues of throwing more often while regulating effort, controlling the strike zone — down and away, down and away — and learning how to pitch.

The only major leaguers he talked to were the old friends who still phoned to check in. “When he and I talk about baseball, he still gets fired up,” says Perlozzo, who was hired as a third-base coach by Seattle just months after his firing and today does the same for the Twins. “I’m shocked that somebody hasn’t needed his talents. But he’s firm in his beliefs. Maybe organizations are a little leery of that.”

When Mazzone talks about the late Johnny Sain (and he does often), he speaks reverently of a cantankerous, misunderstood genius. “Sain was a rebel,” says Mazzone. “So was I.” But while Sain may have been ahead of his time, today many in and around baseball seem to think that Mazzone is behind. “His philosophy worked in his time,” says Connolly, who has been covering baseball for 16 years. “But baseball thinkers have moved on.”

The fact is that the annual average salary of major league players has almost doubled since 2001 (from $2.2 mllion to $4.25 million). Starting pitchers, especially, are viewed today as expensive commodities whose arms must be protected at all costs, and the prevailing wisdom on how to do that is with pitch counts and caps on innings pitched. When the Nationals shut down a healthy Stephen Strasburg in the midst of the 2012 pennant race, Mazzone was all over sports-talk, blasting the decision as “pathetic,” and touting his method. “They’re scared of hurting somebody and the investment,” says Mazzone. “Most coaches can’t do it and won’t do it because they’re afraid of getting fired.”

To be fair, the health record of pitchers under Mazzone’s wasn’t immaculate. There were still injuries and Tommy Johns. In addition to Smoltz and Hampton, relievers Mark Wohlers and Kerry Ligtenberg blew out their elbows, as did Ray that last year in Baltimore, and there were various other arm injuries over the years. Critics are quick to bring up Steve Avery, whose stellar career fizzled after throwing more than 1100 professional innings before age 24. (Avery did not return calls for comment.) Mazzone’s response: Today, Avery “wouldn’t have even had a career” because of the way young pitchers are overprotected.

But at the rate pitchers are going down these days, one would think teams would be open to trying anything, especially a philosophy that is associated with so much success. “People say it’s old school,” Mazzone says. “That’s bullshit. You could take a pitcher right now from the minor leagues when you sign a guy and do the same thing.”

Perhaps it’s not the old-school thinking that teams are wary of as much as the old-school coach prescribing it. “You have to understand who’s running baseball now and who’s feeding information to the owners and general managers,” says Smoltz, who is now a broadcaster and analyst for MLB Network. Gone are the Bobby Coxes, Joe Torres, Jim Leylands, and Tony La Russas — strong personalities that could shield an outspoken coach like Cox did Mazzone — and they’ve been replaced by younger managers who are relatively inexperienced. And they now share the ear of the front office with the trainers, physical therapists, doctors and front-office number crunchers, many of whom have never played the game. “With all the sabermetrics, sometimes it can feel like they don’t even need a coach,” says Perlozzo. “They could almost send the lineup down to the manager.” “I’m not saying there aren’t places for (data),” says Smoltz. “But when you’re trying to change a game that has been successful for a long time because you have a mathematical equation for everything? I don’t know about that.”

Even if there was a formula that accounted for the human element, it might be difficult to fit an outsized personality like Mazzone into that equation. After Mazzone was let go in Baltimore, Trembley explained to the press that he “felt we would be better served with someone else working with our young staff.” Mazzone says that someone in the Orioles front office later told him that some thought he had been a little hard on the younger players. “I don’t think you would call Leo a diplomat,” says Stan Kasten, who was Braves president from 1986-2003, and currently holds that office with the Dodgers. “Some people don’t like how direct he is.” Ex-player John Kruk, an ESPN analyst and lifelong friend of Mazzone from West Virginia, points out that the young players who’ve come up through this system are less receptive to the hard-ass approach. “Players are sensitive now,” he says. “You have to go through channels.”

“I don’t want a strength coach or trainer telling me how to tell a pitcher how to pitch,” says Mazzone. “I’m not going back to have somebody tell me what to do.”

As Smoltz says: “Sometimes when you feel strongly about something, people think you’re not open to change.”

It’s 5:30 a.m., and the night is still thick over Lake Hartwell. Mazzone pads to the kitchen, pours coffee into a paper cup — an old clubhouse habit — and picks up a stack of papers that his wife has printed out for him. He plops down on the couch, in the den and spreads the papers out on the coffee table. MLB headlines, rumors, last night’s box scores, and pitching matchups for this weekend’s Braves-Mets series. As he reads, he begins to slowly rock back and forth on the edge of the cushion.

Mazzone’s flip phone buzzes to life at 7:15. It’s the radio station in Atlanta. Since moving to South Carolina last year, Mazzone has cut back his radio appearances to a 10-minute morning call-in once a week and before the first game of every Braves series. “Just enough to keep you in the game,” he says.

It also keeps him connected to the franchise and the years that, he hopes, will forever define him. When Mazzone’s father called him the dumbest person in the world, he didn’t mean for going to Baltimore as much as for leaving Atlanta and Bobby Cox. Today, Mazzone is inclined to agree with his father, who died in January and was buried in a Braves hat and jersey. The old coach says he wishes he had stayed and walked away alongside Cox, his manager and sponsor, when he retired in 2010.

Mazzone won’t utter a cross word about Cox. But he is upset that his former team hasn’t reached out over the past eight years. When Mazzone left the Braves in 2005, former GM and current president John Schuerholz and Cox told reporters that the pitching coach never approached them about staying, that he had an opportunity to make more money and he took it. Strictly business; no hard feelings. (The Braves did not respond to requests for comment from Cox, Aaron, and Schuerholz for this story.) Mazzone admits he never tried to negotiate with Schuerholz. The Braves usually only signed coaches to one-year deals and were known for not paying them very much. He says he left for the money and the contract, and the chance to work with Perlozzo.

And while Mazzone isn’t expecting Atlanta to displace their current coach Roger McDowell, who’s held the post since Mazzone abdicated, he would like to be involved. Perhaps a position in the farm system overseeing development, or being sent to some outpost to scout a young pitcher with promise, or simply be invited down to spring training to help out. He’s been at camp as part of the radio crew, but never went into the clubhouse. “I could go down,” he says. “But when you’re not invited … a lot of people prefer you not.”

Mazzone’s segment starts at 7:17 a.m. Over the flip phone he hears the intro: Welcome to Rockin’ With Leo presented by Better Baseball, the largest baseball store in the U.S. …

Then the host chimes in: It is the home opener for the Braves tonight … we’re joined by Leo Mazzone right now, and Leo: 20 years ago you guys win the World Series, does it seem that long ago?

“No,” says Mazzone. “It seems like it was yesterday, and I’ll tell you what, I’m having a great morning, the Braves are undefeated, you just got me depressed.

You’ll get more depressed if you look in this morning’s paper — there are pictures of guys getting their World Series rings … everybody looks so young and spry …

“Well you know, I’ve been told I’ve always looked young for my age,” says Mazzone. “I’m 66. But a lot of people tell me I only look like I might be approaching 50 … I got real old in Baltimore in two years.” Then he laughs.

They talk about the Braves bullpen. Mazzone praises McDowell’s preparation of the pitching staff and their approach. They start going over the other teams in the division, and Mazzone gets in a quick dig at Washington, calling them soft for sitting Strasburg three years ago. They wrap up, Mazzone signs off, and then snaps the flip phone shut.

It’s 7:30. Mazzone’s plans for the day include mowing the lawn, washing his truck, and running to Sam’s Club to pick up food for a low-country boil that evening. Cocktails at 4. But first he pours a second paper cup of coffee, turns on ESPN, and falls into his lounger. As the morning sunlight starts to spill into the room, it unveils a museum of Atlanta memorabilia: A display case filled with signed baseballs, signatures that are hard to make out, the ink starting to fade. A magazine rack of programs from World Series and All-Star Games. 1996. 1998.  2000. Walls covered with framed and autographed photos of the coach with the Big Three and Bobby Cox. Trophies of a time that is now more than a decade past.

On the TV, Mike and Mike are running down yesterday’s highlights — the Mets 26-year-old ace Matt Harvey, fresh off Tommy John surgery, outdueled Strasburg, who had his ligament replaced five years ago at age 22.

Meanwhile, as the morning wears on, the lake outside is quiet.  In a nearby closet are some briefcases full of old spiral notebooks, every pitch his pitchers ever pitched. Sliders on the black. Fastballs down and away. Mazzone begins to rock.



About the Author

Tony is a freelance writer based in Atlanta, Ga. His work has appeared in Men’s Health, ESPN The Magazine, Atlanta, Indianapolis Monthly, and others. He is a five-time finalist for the City and Regional Magazine Association Writer of the Year award, and he was anthologized in Next Wave: America’s New Generation of Great Literary Journalists.