Mazzone returns to roots vs. Braves

Mazzone returns home, but in visitors' dugout

NEW YORK -- When Leo Mazzone opted to leave Atlanta during this past offseason, Braves fans reacted as if the sky were falling. Never before had a pitching coach's departure brought so much disdained reaction.

During his 16 seasons as Atlanta's pitching coach, Mazzone handled some of the greatest starting rotations ever assembled and gained even more fame for being the guy who did all that rocking while sitting next to Braves manager Bobby Cox.

Now, with the Orioles pitching staff giving Mazzone plenty of reason to rock in Baltimore, Braves pitchers are having troubles of their own. But the Atlanta staff member who has been around the longest doesn't believe anything would be different, even if his long-time mentor were still around.

"It's different times, and it would be different times if he were here," said John Smoltz in reference to the fact that this year's Braves pitching staff has far less talent than most of the ones he and Mazzone were associated with over the course of the past two decades.

With Mazzone's Orioles coming to Turner Field this weekend, Braves fans will have a chance to show an appreciation for the man who, while in Atlanta, became the nation's most recognized pitching coach. There will be no special tributes or anything of the like.

In fact, when twice asked about Mazzone's return over the past two weeks, Cox has responded, "I haven't even thought about it."

Cox instead must focus on the present and not worry about the past, during which he and Mazzone were surrounded with many more experienced and talented hurlers. During 12 of his final 14 seasons in Atlanta, Mazzone's pitching staff ranked either first or second among National League teams in ERA.

But even before he exited and provided an unenviable task to current pitching coach Roger McDowell, there were signs that times were changing in Atlanta. During two of his final three years in Atlanta, the Braves pitching staff's ERA ranked sixth and ninth among NL teams.

"Last year was a bad year for pitching, too," Smoltz said. "When you have this many different faces and this many young guys, you've got a lot of challenges."

When the Braves finished last season ranking sixth in the NL with a 3.98 ERA, they possessed a number of young and unproven arms. But there weren't quite as many as this year's staff, which has been following the lead of "American Idol" and basically staging open auditions for relievers throughout the season.

Because of injuries to Mike Hampton, Horacio Ramirez, Kyle Davies, Blaine Boyer, Joey Devine and John Foster, who have all missed the entire season or significant portions of it, the Braves have been forced to fill their bullpen with Minor League journeymen like Ken Ray and Chad Paronto, or Australian surprises like Phil Stockman and Peter Moylan.

Throughout most of Mazzone's tenure, the Braves never possessed the financial restraints that have made McDowell's first year in Atlanta so trying. Entering this weekend's series, the Atlanta staff's 4.65 ERA ranks ninth among NL teams.

"[McDowell] has done a great job," Chris Reitsma said. "I just think it's an unfortunate set of circumstances where we haven't thrown the ball consistently as a staff for long periods of time. I think all of us are responsible. It's not one guy. It's not five guys. It's all of us."

Mazzone may find the magic touch that helped him revitalize the careers of guys like John Burkett, Jaret Wright and Chris Hammond. But for now, he's also dealing with some of the same lack-of-talent problems that are plaguing McDowell. The Orioles' 5.17 staff ERA ranks 13th in the 14-team American League.

"You've got pitching coaches that are better than others," Hampton said. "But you can't totally have a guy come in and have him take a team with the worst ERA in baseball and turn them into the best. You work with what your talent level is and try to make them the best they are."

While he certainly had a hand in the rebound Hampton enjoyed after coming to Atlanta in 2002, Mazzone's most important influence may have been on Smoltz.

Shortly after Smoltz was obtained from the Tigers in 1987, he met Mazzone, then a Minor League coach, at the Braves Instructional League. There he found a man capable of refining his mechanics and teaching him how to pitch.

During his days with the Tigers, Smoltz's only pitching tutelage came when the roving Minor League pitching instructor was in town. He was able to spend time with Mazzone at Triple-A Richmond in 1988 and the two were reunited for the first of 16 consecutive seasons together in June of 1990, when Mazzone became Atlanta's pitching coach.

"He really helped change my focus and my career and where it was going," Smoltz said. "He did it with simplicity."

Mazzone's gruff approach and determination to have all of his pitchers keep the ball low and away worked with pinpoint artists like Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux. So too did it help many others along the way.

But recently, younger hurlers like Davies and Ramirez had trouble communicating with the older, less patient and much more established Mazzone. Thus a change may have been needed for both the team and the pitching coach who had helped bring them so much success.

"There's no doubt that if a change was going to be made, this was the right time," Smoltz said. "But it's also an impossible job for Roger to have. Time will tell how Roger deals with it. So far, I think he's done great."

In his first year as a big league pitching coach, McDowell has quickly gained the trust and appreciation of all of his pitchers. Their ability to communicate well is helped with the fact that he spent 12 seasons as a Major League hurler and consequently has first-hand knowledge of the troubles a pitcher can experience during the course of a long season.

Mazzone, who played before the expansion era, never made it to the big leagues as a pitcher. But as he proved during his 16 successful seasons in Atlanta, he was quite capable of being as successful as any other man who has ever held a job as a Major League pitching coach.

"That Leo never pitched in the big leagues, I'd have never known that," Reitsma said. "He was very good to me. I never had a problem with Leo and I respect him a lot."

So too do the Braves fans who will show their respect when their favorite rocking pitching coach comes home this weekend.

Mark Bowman is a reporter for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.