In an era of high-priced free agents, it's rare that the arrival of a new pitching coach is the most exciting off-season acquisition for a baseball team.
But this isn't just any team - it's the Baltimore Orioles, a storied franchise that hasn't had much to cheer about lately. The Orioles haven't won the World Series since 1983. They've had eight consecutive losing seasons, including last year, when they finished 21 games out of first.
And this isn't just any pitching coach. It's Leo Mazzone, for 15 years the king of Atlanta's hill. During his reign as the Braves' pitching guru, his protégés won six Cy Young Awards and 20 games a season nine different times. His staff led the league in earned run average (ERA) for 11 straight years and 12 times overall.
The gruff, plain-speaking West Virginian has enjoyed unprecedented success, despite never having tossed a major league pitch, even as his blunt approach has been known to antagonize players, owners, and observers alike with his dogged pursuit of perfection on the mound.
"He's one of my favorite people in the game," says Furman Bisher, who, as sports editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, studied Mazzone's manners and methods close up. "We'd get into plenty of arguments about pitching, and he's never had an opinion he didn't express. There's nothing soft about him at all. But if I were hiring, I would have him today."
Yet last October, after a 14th- consecutive National League East title, the Braves bid him farewell with not so much as a backward glance. Manager Bobby Cox announced that he would not miss Mazzone's rocking (his trademark motion during a game) in the dugout. Meanwhile, starter John Smoltz said his former instructor had simply made "a good job of not screwing it up."
Mazzone is expecting big things from his new staff in Baltimore, as he joins manager Sam Perlozzo, his childhood friend and best man at his wedding. Spring training in Ft. Lauderdale, he says, is going well.
"I'm not looking at eight successive losing seasons," he says. "We're starting a season trying to get to the World Series and win it. I'm going in to get us to the postseason, otherwise there's no point being here."
It's a tall order. Even with the newly acquired Kris Benson, a former No. 1 draft pick, and last year's 15-game winner Rodrigo Lopez on the mound, the Orioles lack the experience of his Atlanta staff. Baltimore finished 23rd in the major leagues in ERA in 2005.
According to Mazzone, there is no secret to his success. "They made me look real smart," he says of Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux, and Smoltz, who together won those six Cy Young Awards. Mazzone is the first to agree that they would have made it big even without his tutelage. "I'm only as good as pitchers who have talent," he says.
That modesty masks success stories such as Jorge Sosa, who struggled to muster nine wins in three summers at Tampa Bay before Mazzone coaxed a 13-3 record from him last season. Or Mike Hampton, who rediscovered his dominant form after two tough years in Colorado.
Ask any of Baltimore's pitchers what Mazzone brings to a regenerating clubhouse and you will get a different answer. Benson says his new coach makes him "think about every pitch" in a way he didn't before. Lopez says it's all about hitting targets: "Leo wants me to find a rhythm on the mound, find the pitches and a level I'm comfortable with," he says.
The less experienced pitchers, such as Daniel Cabrera and Erik Bedard, might find Mazzone's aggressive coaching methods more of a handful. "People say he's hard on the younger pitchers, but he should be," Bisher says. "He's different, but he's a winner."
One thing is certain - that Perlozzo brought his old friend to Baltimore to win games, not make friends.