When I first heard the news, I was absolutely positive that the rock jock on WBCN, the generally reliable radio station that rocks the greater Boston area, was having some sort of episode, or that it would soon be exposed that someone was playing one mean angry joke on him. The problem was, I couldn’t figure out why this would be occurring. All the way up here in the northern wilds (natch) of urban Massachusetts, why would someone toy with the local media outlets about the occurrences of the pitching staff of the most gentile of southern Major League Baseball National League teams, the Atlanta Braves.
It had already been a cruel off-season. With the loss of Rafael Furcal to the LA Dodgers and Johnny Estrada to the Arizona Diamondbacks, I had already burned out a therapist and two local Dunkin’ Donuts franchises mourning the losses to my beloved Braves roster. But Leo Mazzone? This news was incomprehensible.
Until dark days following the 2005 post season when his defection was reported, Leo Mazzone had been a pitching coach with the Braves organization since 1979, and in Atlanta at the Major League level since 1990. The 15 year span that followed saw the great baseball triumvirate of General Manager John Schuerholz, Manager Bobby Cox and Mazzone band together to lead the Braves to an unprecedented 15 straight division titles, the longest division winning streak in professional sports history.
And what can be said about the “big three” pitching dynasty that was Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, and John Smoltz? One of the greatest starting pitching rotations of all time was crafted and fine tuned, pitch by pitch, under the watchful eye and stoic guidance of the crusty pitching coach. Their prowess was legendary from 1993, when the Braves’ acquired ace Maddux, through 2001, when shoulder and elbow problems and resulting Tommy John surgery forced Smoltz out of the starting rotation.
And, yet, some might say that the loss of Smoltz as a starting pitcher led to one of Mazzone’s greatest acts of brilliance in a remarkably brilliant career. While many organizations might have cut their losses and released the injured 34-year-old pitcher from his contract, Mazzone had other thoughts in mind for the astonishing right-hander. Under Mazzone’s tutelage, Smoltz returned in 2002, took a place in the bullpen, and instantly became one of the best closing pitchers in baseball. While continuing to work intensively with Mazzone, Smoltz has continued to strengthen, heal, and pitch around and through his pain, and in the 2005 season he was able to return to the starting rotation as the Braves ace starter. The man who had the eye and the intuition to retain Smoltz for the bullpen, and then signed off on his return to the starting rotation, exhibited an intensity and intelligence for the game that is second to none.
And now the space on the bench beside Bobby Cox is disturbingly still, without Leo Mazzone rocking back and forth, back and forth, back and forth and staring grumpily, fatherly at his pitchers. Mazzone has taken a job with the Baltimore Orioles, who were not only able to offer him the sort of increase in pay that the salary restrained Braves could never afford him, but he now has the opportunity to work side by side with Orioles manager Sam Perlozzo, with whom he grew up and at who’s wedding he served as best man. It’s a good move for Mazzone personally, and the Orioles have been giving it a good run the past couple of seasons, so who knows what they might achieve with Mazzone leading and teaching their pitching staff as only he knows how, but it is a devastating loss for the Braves.
The new Braves pitching coach Roger McDowell appears to be a more than able replacement, and the pitchers report feeling very comfortable with him and happy and excited to be working under his watchful eye, but looking into the dugout is odd these days. The bench is remarkably still.