O's put their faith in 'old-school guy' Mazzone

After 16 seasons as the Braves' pitching coach, Leo Mazzone finds himself in a new environment in Baltimore.

Originally Published: January 24, 2006
By Tim Kurkjian | ESPN The Magazine

The new pitching coach for the Baltimore Orioles spent the day at the club's Fanfest in mid-January.

"I already started telling our top four starters that they should be thinking about pitching 200 innings apiece this year,'' Leo Mazzone said before the acquisition of a fifth starting pitcher, Kris Benson, in a recent trade with the Mets. "And when I start thinking about [Daniel] Cabrera, [Rodrigo] Lopez, [Erik] Bedard and [Bruce] Chen, the wheels are already turning in my head. Cabrera says he's ready to go tomorrow. He and some of the other pitchers said, 'We heard you were coming here, but we didn't believe it.'''

Leo Mazzone
Kevin C. Cox/WireImage.comLeo Mazzone had tremendous success with the Braves during his 16 seasons as the club's pitching coach.
Believe it. Mazzone left the Braves after 16 seasons to go to the Orioles and become their new pitching coach.

"My best friend [Orioles manager Sam Perlozzo] is the manager, and they're giving me security and money -- what else could you ask for?'' Mazzone said. "I made a promise to Sammy on a cocktail napkin 20 years ago that when he became a manager, we would finally hook up.''

They have known each other since their fathers coached against each other from Little League through high school. Now, the lifelong friends are members of the same baseball family, the Orioles. This provides a challenge for Mazzone, who has been one of the engineers for the most successful and most efficiently run pitching program in the major leagues for the last 16 years.

Four 200-inning pitchers? The Orioles have had only four of those in this decade, and haven't had four in a season since 1982. Mazzone had eight 20-game winners in Atlanta; the Orioles haven't had a 20-game winner since Mike Boddicker in 1984. Mazzone had six Cy Young winners in Atlanta; the Orioles' last was Steve Stone in 1980. The Orioles' ERA last year was 4.56; Atlanta's highest under Mazzone was 4.10.

Mazzone seems unfazed by the lack of success of the Orioles, who have eight straight losing seasons; the Braves won a division title in every completed season with Mazzone as their pitching coach. He says he's going to implement the same program in Baltimore that he had in Atlanta even though he doesn't have Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine or John Smoltz. He knows he's following one of the game's best pitching coaches, Ray Miller, who did an excellent job bringing along the young pitchers the last year and a half. But those pitchers are still young, unproven and without an established ace.

"Not everyone was proven like Maddux when they got to Atlanta, but some other guys like [John] Burkett and [Jaret] Wright were rejuvenated there,'' Mazzone said. "We're going to do the same things in Baltimore -- I've already talked to the guys about fastballs down and away. I'll tell them what Maddux told me: If you can throw your fastball where you want it, and you change speeds, whatever you do beyond that is cake. I'll use what other guys taught me in Atlanta.''

That includes throwing on the side in between starts more than most teams.

"Our theory in Atlanta was, 'Throw more often with less exertion,''' Mazzone said. "I'm an old-school guy. I've already got these starters thinking about going as deep into a game as they can, going seven innings or more every time out. There isn't a bullpen in the world that can't be overexposed at times.''

My best friend [Orioles manager Sam Perlozzo] is the manager, and they're giving me security and money -- what else could you ask for? I made a promise to Sammy on a cocktail napkin 20 years ago that when he became a manager, we would finally hook up.
Leo Mazzone
The Orioles' bullpen is an issue as well with B.J. Ryan having signed with Toronto, leaving Chris Ray and LaTroy Hawkins as the prime candidates to become the new closer. But the Braves won all those division titles and didn't have a top-flight closer other than one year with Mark Wohlers and three with Smoltz. The rest of the years they had, among others, Alejandro Pena, Juan Berenguer, Kerry Ligtenberg, Greg McMichael and a fading Jeff Reardon.

It will be odd to see Mazzone in an Orioles uniform, but it will be even stranger to see someone other than Mazzone running the Braves' pitching program. The person doing that will be Roger McDowell, who worked the last four years as a pitching coach in the Dodgers' system, but has never been a major league coach.

"We put together a list of about 20 candidates, and the name Roger McDowell kept getting fed back to us,'' said Braves general manager John Schuerholz. "When we interviewed him, he was so good, his personality, his pitching philosophies, [manager] Bobby [Cox] said, 'He's the guy.' We interviewed only one other candidate.''

McDowell doesn't fit the Braves' profile given that he comes from outside the organization, and, as a player, he was known as a free spirit, and a flake.

"Oh, he was the premier hot-foot giver,'' Schuerholz said. "He used to climb the center field fence to sign autographs for fans. He was in the middle of a brawl against us when he was with the Phillies. It's a little strange for us. He's not the staid, button-down type. But I find all of that refreshing. He is the full spectrum of a person. We have a lot of young guys on our staff. He will relate very well to them because he's smart and a very good communicator and studies a lot of film. The prankster, the wild-card side, we're putting that on the plus side.''

Maybe both teams will benefit from the change in pitching coaches. Maybe Mazzone needs a new challenge; maybe 16 years in one place was long enough. Maybe the Braves' pitchers need to hear a new voice -- in McDowell's case, a completely new voice. Maybe the Orioles need someone to help them end the longest stretch of losing seasons since the team moved to Baltimore in 1954.

"It was a very emotional decision to leave Atlanta -- I left the greatest manager in baseball history in Bobby Cox, and the greatest general manager in baseball history in John Schuerholz,'' Mazzone said. "But I'm really excited about going to Baltimore. At the Fanfest, I talked to a bunch of fans. And I told everyone in Baltimore how much I loved Johnny Unitas when I was younger. I laid the groundwork. Johnny U. was my main man.''

In Baltimore, that's a good start.

Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.

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