BY DON SCOTT
Leo Mazzone, one of the featured speakers at the recent Reading Hot Stovers banquet, started his association with the Atlanta Braves in 1979 as a minor league pitching coach, before joining the major league club in June of 1990. That was the start of a 16-year, extremely successful career for Mazzone, who pitched in the minors for eight years before becoming a coach.
His Atlanta staffs won 14 division championships, four ERA titles, six Cy Young awards, produced nine 20-game winners, and to date, two Hall of Fame inductees.
“Having Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine go in, and before that Bobby (Cox), just brought back a lot of great memories,” said Mazzone about his pitchers and manager. “I think what separated Bobby from all the other managers was his ability to handle a pitching staff as well as anyone in the history of the game, plus the way he treated people.
“He could be firm, but never embarrassed anybody,” Mazzone added. “He had the greatest influence on me other than my father. Those 16 years with him were the greatest of my life.”
He continued:“Glavine to me never was a rookie. He was a veteran when he signed right out of high school. He never gave in to a hitter because he’d use hitter’s egos to take advantage of them. Other managers told me they knew where he was going to be and still couldn’t do anything about it. Tom was also really the first guy to throw inside changeups to right-handed hitters.”
As for Maddux coming to the Braves in 1993, after the Braves had been to the World Series the previous two years, that came about because the team made the decision to sign him rather than Barry Bonds.
“All he did was put the finishing touches on a 10-year run of the greatest pitching in the history of baseball,” Mazzone said. “When Maddux walked out the door and we knew he wasn’t coming back, I told him he taught me more than I ever taught him and he replied that I did give him some good tips.”
Admitting the only thing he really misses about being out of the game is the practice sessions in the bullpen, where ideas were exchanged and all the things done to prepare for a game.
“I always felt I have a degree in psychology but never spent a day in college,” said Mazzone. “Glavine was a very strong-minded individual, so I could be firm with him. but going to John Smoltz with the same presentation I’d have to use a sense of humor, because he was a more emotional guy. All Maddux wanted was an answer and not being afraid to tell him what you think. They all wanted to add something to their game, whether it was a pitch or strategy change. They also took great pride in never missing a start.”
Prior to his promotion to Atlanta, Mazzone spent time coaching along with Johnny Sain, who had a completely different philosophy about how pitchers should be handled, but it was one the old lefty agreed with he said.
“Johnny was running the Braves farm system pitching when I joined them in 1979, and was an advocate of throwing more often with less exertion,” said Mazzone. “Sain taught me that, so how stupid would I be if I didn’t pick his brain and learn everything he did. He was looking for someone to pass the information on to and nobody wanted it.
“A lot of people don’t know he had the most 20-game winners and appeared in the most World Series of any pitching coach in the history of the game,” Mazzone added. “What happened in Atlanta all those years was the result of my time with him. The thing we’re most proud of is that during that 16-year run. We had just two Tommy John surgeries and one of those was Smoltz.”
Mazzone then recalled how the successful streak of division titles started and who was responsible for making it happen.
“In September of 1990, we were in last place, but started playing better,” said Mazzone. “The staff included Glavine, Smoltz, Steve Avery, Pete Smith and Charlie Leibrandt. Bobby (Cox) told me to bring them in for a meeting when the last game ended, and that’s when he told them that when they came to spring training, they were the starting five. He didn’t care what happened in spring training. They were to be prepared to start every game of the 1991 season, and see how far we could go.
“None of them missed a start,” added Mazzone. “Glavine won a Cy Young, and we went to the seventh game of the World Series. With the staff in place, we needed guys who could catch the ball, so those changes were made and we became a great defensive club.”
Following the 2005 campaign, the New York Yankees tried to hire Mazzone, but he opted to go to Baltimore, where his childhood friend Sam Perlozzo was the manager. That stay lasted just two years.
“Since that time, I’ve talked to a top official in Major League Baseball asking if I had done something wrong, that nobody was knocking down my door,” said Mazzone, about why he’s not currently back in baseball. “He told me that a club will call and say we want you to join them, and this is what we want you to do, and how will you answer?
“I replied: ‘If they called me in, I should be telling them what I’ll be doing and how we did that to be successful in Atlanta,'” he continued.
The executive responded: “They know that and don’t want to mess with that!”