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Notes, Quotes and Slants

Pirate Notebook Special, Part One
Wednesday, February 12, 2003

By Denny O'Brien
Staff Writer and Columnist

Mazey primed for Omaha return

[Editor's Note: The following Pirate Notebook Special, by Denny O'Brien, is Part One of two parts. The final installment of this special feature about East Carolina baseball coach Randy Mazey was published on Friday, February 14, 2003, and can be viewed by clicking here...]

In a recent interview in his office, Randy Mazey talked about succeeding his friend, Keith LeClair, as East Carolina's baseball coach, and emphasized the quest begun by LeClair to guide the Pirates to the College World Series will continue on his watch. (Photo: Denny O'Brien)


Randy Mazey understands the amount of pressure he is under.

In just five years, Keith LeClair elevated the East Carolina baseball program from mediocrity to the heady circles of the national elite.

The Pirates have captured a conference championship — either regular season or tournament — in each of the last four seasons, including last year’s run through the Conference USA tournament.

To top things off, LeClair guided East Carolina to three-consecutive NCAA No. 1 seeds and a trip to the Super Regionals in 2001, which the Pirates hosted in nearby Kinston.

As he approaches the opening pitch of his first season as LeClair's successor, Mazey is focused on excellence, not fear.

Despite the gigantic shadow of a predecessor of legendary proportions hovering over him, despite the championship banners which line the outfield wall at Harrington Field, Mazey isn’t intimidated by the lofty benchmark established by his colleague and friend.

Instead, he says duplicating LeClair’s character and fighting spirit will be his ultimate challenge.

“(LeClair) has done great things in Eastern North Carolina, there’s no question,” Mazey said. “Not just on the baseball field, but what he’s meant to this community off the field.

“Everybody tells you there’s a great deal of pressure following him up after four championships and I don’t feel that pressure because I know we’re going to win championships here. I feel the pressure of following Keith LeClair the person. He was a great role model and did great things for the kids in this program. That’s what I’m trying to live up to.”

It has been nearly two years since LeClair first felt the symptoms of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), better known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. The disease, which aggressively attacks the neuromuscular system, forced him to step down as the Pirates’ coach following the 2002 season.

LeClair spent much of last year in the background while assistants Kevin McMullan and Tommy Eason handled the majority of the decisions on the field. But whether the Pirates coach watched from the dugout, listened from a hospital bed, or watched from a van parked along the right field line, his presence was always felt and provided motivation for an overachieving team.

Though LeClair wasn’t calling the shots from the dugout, East Carolina continued to pile up victories during what many predicted would be a rebuilding year.

Mazey knows the same will be expected of him this season.

“These people around here expect to win,” Mazey said. “If the pressure wasn’t put on me by the fans and the media and everybody like that, I’d put it on myself, anyhow. We know we’re going to win here. We know we’re going to be successful. We know we’re going to achieve our goals — it’s just a matter of time until that happens.

“With the new stadium coming in a couple of years, I really believe the pinnacle of this program is going to come two to three years after that stadium is built, after we’ve had a couple of years to recruit to the new stadium. We’re going to be able to attract the best players in the nation once that happens.”

That can’t be a comforting thought for future East Carolina foes.

As a member of LeClair’s staff in 1998, Mazey played a key role in the Pirates’ swift turnaround by recruiting Chad Tracy, Lee Delfino, Nick Schnabel and Jason Mandryk, all key factors in ECU’s memorable run to the 2001 Super Regional. Ironically enough, the Pirates fell to Tennessee, another program which benefited from Mazey’s relentless recruiting efforts.

Now that he has returned to Greenville, Mazey has his sights set on a return trip to the College World Series, a goal he believes the Pirates will soon reach. Perhaps more importantly, it’s an obtainable goal in the eyes of his players, evidence of the championship mentality instilled by LeClair.

With that elusive piece of the puzzle — a belief in themselves — already in place, Mazey hopes the Pirates can draw from his first-hand experience and that of assistant coach Allen Osborne. Both have participated in college baseball's grand ball.

“The first thing you’ve got to do in order to go is believe you can go,” Mazey said. “These guys really believe they can. Myself and coach Osborne are the only two people in this program who have ever set foot in Rosenblatt Stadium. We know what it’s like to be there. We know what it’s like to walk on that field and play in front of those people.”


The picture hanging at the epicenter of Mazey’s office says it all.

It’s frozen evidence of the vision introduced by LeClair and now emphasized by Mazey. The image – Rosenblatt Stadium – has become the Mecca of college baseball, the cathedral in which each player and coach strive to one day play.

For those fortunate enough to make the pilgrimage, it’s an experience unlike any other.

“It’s an unbelievable atmosphere,” Mazey said. “I’ve had a lot of people tell me — administrators and fans, people who have been to bowl games and Final Fours – they tell that the atmosphere in Omaha is better than all of them.

“I believe it. It’s hard-pressed for me to visualize any college atmosphere being as good as that one out there. It’s an experience you’ll never forget.”

There is something special and even symbolic about Omaha, little more than a map dot in Middle America. It may seem rare to host a national title in such an obscure location, especially with bowl games and Final Fours held primarily in tourist-friendly metropolitan areas.

Yet, baseball is America’s Pastime, and Omaha is very much America’s heartland. With college baseball’s dominating programs balanced between the southeast, southwest, and west coast, Omaha seems to offer equal access to each school’s fans, who, when you get down to it, have always been the driving force in the purest of games.

“Baseball is a game that you can get close to as a fan,” Mazey said. “You can get right there above the first base dugout or behind home plate and communicate with the players. You can yell at the umpires.

“Baseball is a game that the fans can really relate to because they feel like they’re a part of it and they really are, whereas in football or basketball, sometimes, you’re 200-300 feet from the action. It’s never more evident than in Rosenblatt Stadium.”

As the Pirates discovered in ’01, everything must fall into place for them to earn that inaugural visit to Omaha's hallowed grounds. Good pitching, timely hitting, and solid defense are all of equal importance, Mazey says, though he notes there are other factors, too.

By and large, the Omaha field is annually stacked with veteran-led teams, most of which earned their way to the CWS by advancing through the postseason in front of their home faithful.

“You need experience,” Mazey said. “You don’t see young, talented teams in Omaha. You see older, more experienced teams that have been there.

“The one thing that helps us is we play a great schedule and we play in some hostile atmospheres, which you have to do to get to Omaha. The last time I was there, there was only one team in the field of eight that didn’t host its Super Regional. Ironically, that was Tennessee. We won that Super Regional on the road (in Kinston).

“But in order to get there, you’ve got to host. It’s hard to get there on the road, playing in those atmospheres. That’s why that stadium is going to be so important.”

Getting there

The Pirates must wait until 2005 before they can play on their new Field of Dreams. Still, Mazey remains one step ahead and has already begun the groundwork for the big move.

The original plans called for the new stadium to be rotated so that home plate would be shifted to the fan-friendly area known as the ‘Jungle’, but that has since changed. That means the dimensions, which are favorable to power hitters, should remain the same.

“It’s going to be conducive to bringing in guys who can hit the ball out of the park,” Mazey said. “We’re going to try and focus our efforts on that. I’ve never done that before. I’ve always recruited guys who can run a little bit, but it’s going to be interesting to see how we can bring some guys in here who can pepper the ‘Jungle’ so to speak.”

Mazey has a history of courting players whose playing styles resemble his.

As a pitcher and outfielder for Clemson from 1985-98, Mazey compiled an 8-1 record on the mound, while batting .331 with 65 stolen bases. Pitching, defense, and station-to-station offense have been more commonly associated with his coaching philosophy, but Mazey says he welcomes a slight tweak in that mentality.

“It’s more fun to coach offense,” he said. “It’s more fun to make things happen, hit-and-run, and steal bases and create runs.

“It’s hard to create strike outs. You recruit good pitchers and teach them how to get better, but once the game starts you’re not as involved in their success as you are on the offensive side. The fans like offense – everybody likes the home run.”

As Mazey begins searching for more offensive pop, the Pirates coach says he will comb the globe. In ‘98, he was instrumental in reeling in a pair of Canadians – Delfino and Mandryk – as well as a standout from California, Erik Bakich.

Keeping the geographic scope in perspective, though, Mazey knows East Carolina is surrounded by a deep pool of high school talent, which is a clear reflection of the importance of baseball to the region as a whole.

“The reason that baseball in Eastern North Carolina is so good is the feeder programs,” Mazey said. “These kids, when they’re 8, 10, 12, 13 years old, they’ve got great coaches and great opportunities to play a lot.

“That’s what makes the high school and legion programs so good — they’ve got great players to choose from because they’ve played so much when they were younger. You can go around the country and look at the hotbeds of talent and that’s the common denominator – the feeder programs. That’s what drives Greenville.”

As for East Carolina, it is a program driven by its dream of reaching Omaha and winning a national title, the final piece of the puzzle which began to assemble in 1998.

For those too young to remember, then-East Carolina College won the national championship on the small college level in 1961. Now, the present-day Pirates are devoted to claiming the BIG ONE.

With LeClair’s foundation and Mazey’s direction, that vision never seemed more clear.


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02/23/2007 01:51:56 AM

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