5 for Friday: Leo Mazzone, pitching coach to the HOFers

Much of the fame and glory typically bestowed upon people in sports goes (and rightfully so) to the players on the field (or court, or ice) and, to a lesser extent, the manager or head coach who’s orchestrated a winning formula for his or her team. 

And then there are the assistant coaches, who help the keep the machine running smoothly, offering their expertise where applicable and experiencing both successes or failures on the periphery of our collective attentions.

Leo Mazzone, who spent 15 seasons as the pitching coach of the Atlanta Braves, is widely regarded as the Platonic ideal of what an assistant coach should be: intense, supportive, wise and otherwise willing to step aside from the spotlight. His Braves teams, under the leadership of manager Bobby Cox, won 14 National League East titles in a row and made four World Series, winning it all in 1995 for the franchise’s first championship in 38 years. His pitchers won 20 games in a season nine times, hardly ever missed a start due to injury and earned a collective six Cy Young Awards.

And now, he’ll get to watch as Cox, his old manager who gave him his big break once upon a time, and his two best pitchers — Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine — accept their induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Earlier this week, FOXSports.com caught up with Mazzone by phone from his home near Atlanta, as he prepared to make the trek some 800 miles north to Cooperstown. He leads off our new Five for Friday series, which each week will feature five questions with a timely subject.

1. MALINOWSKI: You had seen Tom Glavine develop since he was a teenager, and Greg Maddux was a good free-agent pickup after the 1992 season, but he certainly wasn’t yet the dominant hurler that he would become. Entering that incredible 1991 season, did you have any inkling of what lay in front of you, with the four World Series in 15 years?

MAZZONE: What we felt was that in September of 1990, what had gone unnoticed was that Glavine was pitching extremely well and our rotation was beginning to come together, but it went unnoticed because the Braves were in last place. But here’s what Bobby Cox did at the end of that year. He said, "Leo, before the last game of the season, I want to have Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, Steve Avery, Charlie Liebrandt and Pete Smith. I want those five guys in the dugout at 2 o’clock with you and me." I said, “OK.”

We get there — and it’s end of the season, so everyone’s going to scatter after the last game — and he says, "I want to tell you five guys right now that we’re going into spring training in 1991 and you’re the five starters. You’re going to be the five starters in spring training. You’re going to be the five starters for the whole season. And you’re going to be the five starters who take us as far as we can go. So I want you to prepare your mindset for that." So they became the five starters in spring training, they didn’t miss any starts the whole year, and we got to the seventh game of the World Series.

See, Bobby wanted them to go into next year knowing they were the starters. And that’s how that happened. Avery became an NLCS MVP. Smoltzie was a great, great postseason pitcher. Glavine wins the Cy Young. Liebrandt was the veteran influence, and Pete Smith was a great No. 5 starter.

And this is something you need to know, it’s important: In that particular year at the All-Star break, I think Bobby Cox made John Smoltz’s career possible. You know how? He was 2-11 at the All-Star break — and Cox did not take him out the starting rotation. He said, "Leo, that’s the best 2-11 I’ve ever seen." So by not kicking John out of the rotation, John turned it completely around in the second half and pitched absolutely outstanding in the postseason. He went from 2-11 to 12-2.

2. MALINOWSKI: As a pitching coach, what is it like to have such talent in a rotation as you did with Maddux, Glavine, John Smoltz and others over the years? Certainly, you don’t ever plan to have two (and possibly three) Hall of Famers in your rotation.

The one thing I told Maddux when I knew he wasn’t coming back after his last run with the Braves, he was walking out the door and I said, ‘You know, you taught me more than I ever taught you.’ And he said, ‘Yeah, but you gave me some good tips.’ And with Glavine, Tommy was the never-give-in guy, and that was something he and I talked about all the time.

MAZZONE: Nothing changes. Your coaching is a constant. I would coach a Tom Glavine just like I would coach anybody else. But my presentation would be different. In other words, if it was Glavine, my presentation could be a firm one because he’s strong-minded. With Smoltzie, it was saying the same things but with a lighter presentation. With Maddux, it was more of a cerebral presentation. So basically, you did the same type of coaching, but once you got to a particular point in the season, you’ve got your base down but then you started to exchange ideas.

The one thing I told Maddux when I knew he wasn’t coming back after his last run with the Braves, he was walking out the door and I said, "You know, you taught me more than I ever taught you." And he said, "Yeah, but you gave me some good tips." And with Glavine, Tommy was the never-give-in guy, and that was something he and I talked about all the time. He said, "Hitters have ego, and I can take advantage of that." And then with John Smoltz, it was great stuff and about just keeping him from getting too emotional at times. But he was able to change that emotion into totally upgrading his game when there was more money on the line.

3. MALINOWSKI: In addition to Maddux and Glavine, Bobby Cox, your longtime manager and mentor, is also entering the Hall of Fame. An ESPN Radio ranking once named you the No. 1 assistant coach in the history of sports. What’s the secret to being a good No. 2?

MAZZONE: No. 1, you have to have a great No. 1. And No. 1 makes No. 2 look real smart! And then Hall of Fame pitchers make No. 2 real smart!

But it was a great working relationship. Bobby said, "Those are your pitchers, take care of them." That’s the thing we were most proud of. We took care of them the way we handled them, and the program we had in between starts. The way he handled the staff, we never had any sore arms. We had, what, two Tommy John surgeries in that 16-year run? Kerry Ligtenberg was one, and John Smoltz later down the road. That was it. We’d go two or three thousand innings without missing a start, at times. That’s the thing that I’m most proud of, and they’d say, "I’m not going to be the first one to miss a start." It was tremendous. You could use that mindset these days, too, but nobody preaches that anymore. They encourage you to miss starts.

I had a conversation with Glavine a couple of months ago and I told him, "If you told other organizations now what we did in between starts, what do you think they’d say?" He said, "Well, they’d say you can’t do that." And he went 20 years without going on the DL! We threw a lot, but they learned how to pitch without maxing out their effort. That’s the key to this whole arm problem situation. You know how many times I used the term velocity in my 16 years as Atlanta’s pitching coach? None. I didn’t give a s*** about velocity. That’s what’s killing kids now. They’re trying to figure out the reason for all these Tommy Johns. I’m going to tell you what it is: It’s a term called velocity, which people are being told now if they don’t reach a certain number on a radar gun, or a certain velocity, then they aren’t going to make a team or get a scholarship or get signed.

4. MALINOWSKI: You were 30 when you joined the Braves organization back in 1979 as a minor league pitching coach. How did you envision your career playing out at that point?

MAZZONE: I envisioned eventually being a coach in the big leagues. I always had a reputation of having healthy arms in the minor leagues, and Hank Aaron was my boss in the minor leagues. Hank Aaron was one of the greatest bosses I ever worked for because he said, "Those are your pitchers, Leo, take care of them. I don’t care how you do it." Well, guess what, when I got the big leagues and Bobby Cox was there, he said, "Leo, there’s your pitchers. I don’t care what else you do, you take care of them."

So I did that, but when Bobby became the general manager in 1986 was when I started to gain more of a say in the organization and became more in charge of the pitching in the organization. He believed in my programs and he believed in me and he saw the proof of guys not getting any sore arms. And then when it was time to go to the big leagues, and he got down on the field, he took me with him.

He’s meant more to me than any other male in my lifetime, with the exception of my father.

5. MALINOWSKI: There’s been a trend this season where we’re seeing more position players pitch in games than ever before, but the Braves haven’t had one do so since 1989, the longest such streak for any team. Was that something that was just never considered, and what do you make of this new acceptance we’re seeing these days?

MAZZONE: Yeah, I know it wasn’t when I was there. There’s no way. That’s an embarrassment. That’s embarrassing your pitching staff.

No, it wasn’t considered at all. What we’d do is, if we felt we were short and it could go a long way in extra innings, I held back one of the starter’s practice sessions, so that he was available down in the bullpen if it went extra innings. And then if it looked like he wasn’t going to go in, then he could have his practice session, to get ready for his next start. That happened very rarely.

If someone has the sense to figure this out — which we did — if you have your setup guys learn how to throw great straight changes, how many times do you have to change righty/righty, lefty/lefty? It negates a changing of the pitcher for every single hitter. So therefore you don’t use as many pitchers.

It’s absolutely asinine how pitching staffs have been handled in the big leagues so far, the trend anyway. They’ll say, ‘Well, everyone’s pitching good.’ Well, they’re pitching good because the hitters are off the ‘roids and the amphetamines for chrissake!

Now, why’s it going on a record pace? Because there’s eight pitchers used every game, four on one side at least and four on another! So therefore, you run out. It’s absolutely asinine how pitching staffs have been handled in the big leagues so far, the trend anyway. They’ll say, "Well, everyone’s pitching good." Well, they’re pitching good because the hitters are off the ‘roids and the amphetamines for chrissake! I mean, let’s be real about all this. And the way (Maddux and Glavine) pitched and they’re going in the Hall of Fame and they did that in the era of offensive baseball? Makes it even more of a tremendous accomplishment.

He might be a screwball, but you can follow Erik Malinowski on Twitter at @erikmal and email him at erik.malinowski@fox.com.