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The arm whisperer

Jeff Passan
Yahoo Sports

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. – All it took was a bottle of wine and an idiot.

The former lubricated Leo Mazzone real nice one night last spring. And the latter – that would be Kevin Millar, the No. 1 boob of the Boston Red Sox's 2004 band of self-proclaimed "Idiots" – convinced the Baltimore Orioles' pitching coach, sneaking up on 60 years old, to visit his first tattoo parlor.

"Everybody makes fun of this tattoo," Mazzone said, pointing to his left shoulder. The drawing isn't fancy; it's rather crude, actually. The message is what matters: 14 straight, it says, inside of a triangle shaped like a pennant, an homage to the unparalleled stretch of division titles he won as pitching coach of the Atlanta Braves.

"I don't mind people knowing that because I'm so proud of it," said Mazzone, now trying to whisper arms with the Orioles. "It won't ever be duplicated in the game of baseball. And it was the greatest pitching run in the history of the game, considering the environment.

"What we did was destroy the myth of the launching pad."

Mazzone leaned forward and considered: The ballparks shrunk. The hitters ballooned. The bats hardened. And the Braves led the National League in earned-run average 10 times, with seven of those years better than 3.50.

"But that's in the past," Mazzone said, wary that he who lives through previous accomplishments just hasn't done anything lately worth talking about. Mazzone makes such a concession about 2006, his first season with the Orioles: Their 5.35 ERA was the second-worst in baseball, ahead of only the Kansas City Royals.

The present is promising. Mazzone loves talking about how Erik Bedard could mature into one of the best pitchers in the game, how Chris Ray already is among the top closers, how Adam Loewen and Daniel Cabrera could dominate, if they just …

That, Mazzone believes, is where a pitching coach makes his money: On the margins.

He makes $450,000 to convince Bedard that he is one of the AL's best pitchers, to ensure Ray stays one of the top closers, to nurture Loewen and Cabrera toward domination – to rescue pitchers from their own insecurities and inadequacies while rescuing the Orioles from their nine-year morass.

"I've got a degree in psychology and never went to college," said Mazzone, 58. "You can't teach it. You can't put it on paper. You can't do it with a radar gun. You have to read people because the game is always going to be played by human beings, and you can never take the human element out of the game."

In Atlanta, Mazzone played Freud, Jung and Kübler-Ross. Yes, he worked with Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz during their primes, which is like being Beethoven's piano teacher while he was writing his Fifth Symphony.

And still, it was assumed Mazzone had something to do with their success because of all the others he gilded. Russ Ortiz and Denny Neagle and John Thomson and Jaret Wright and Juan Cruz and a dozen more relievers strung together career years under Mazzone's watch. Sure, some like Jason Schmidt and Jason Marquis broke out after they left Atlanta, but an oft-cited study by economist J.C. Bradbury posited, through a complicated regression analysis, that Mazzone saved Braves pitchers 0.63 on their earned-run averages.

If true, it is a staggering number, one that would equate to almost 100 runs saved per year. Mazzone can't validate the study's efficacy because he does not use computers. He seems proud of this, showing off his hand-written schedule and saying, "This is all I need."

Such rigidity surprises no one. Mazzone's philosophies would score an 11 on Mohs hardness scale. He wants pitchers to work low on the outside corner. He wants them to control their fastball because everything works off it. He wants starters to throw between outings.

"Great pitchers make for a good pitching coach," Mazzone said, "and a good pitching coach doesn't mess up great pitchers."

Six Cy Young Awards under his watch are six Cy Youngs. Nine 20-game winners are nine 20-game winners. They're why the Orioles believe Mazzone's magic will translate. And they're also why Mazzone believed he could translate it.

He took a leap, like with that tattoo. Mazzone left the cushiest assistant's job in sports, one where he'd built up enough capital to start a hedge fund. He could have stayed in Atlanta, gotten fat on his legacy as the ace builder and retired without any possibility of a Willie Mays goodbye.

The call of Baltimore was too strong. Mazzone finally would work with his childhood friend from Cumberland, Md., Orioles manager Sam Perlozzo, who now lives three doors down. Perhaps he would vanquish the AL as he did the NL.

That didn't happen. Four-fifths of his rotation was missing for the World Baseball Classic, and though Mazzone said he got a better feel for his pitchers in the second half, their ERA was worse after the All-Star break.

"Last year was awful," Mazzone said. "Now, I really feel like I'm an Oriole. I really feel like I'm a Baltimore Oriole."

It sounded genuine, all the way down to him pronouncing the Charm City's name as the natives do: Bawlmer.

Admittedly, Mazzone's mind was elsewhere this offseason. Mazzone and his wife built their dream home in the suburbs of Atlanta. Lots of square footage. Pool in the backyard.

The perfect spot to retire.

"Not yet," Mazzone said. "I've got some work to do first."

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