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.
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.”
Fastball at the knees. Strike two.
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.”