It's June 1958 and Leo Mazzone is dressed and gone by half past dawn. School's out. Sleep in? Forget it. A mile away, the ballfield beckons. Bats draped over his shoulder, baseballs stuffed in his pockets, glove looped over his wrist, Mazzone heads down the road as fast as his 9-year-old legs can go. For a kid smitten with the game, this is the highway to heaven.
At 7:30 he arrives at the park. Alone. Who else in the drowsy Western Maryland town of Westernport would be playing ball at this hour? So, as he does every summer morning, Mazzone crosses the street to a friend's house and lets himself in.
The Ord family awakens to a familiar sight: Mazzone seated in their living room, watching Looney Tunes and waiting impatiently for the gang to show up, his baseball gear at his side.
"We all wanted to sleep, but Leo had to play ball," Mike Ord remembered. "He was obsessed."
Mazzone's obsession would become his profession.
Widely hailed as the game's top pitching coach, Mazzone has returned to the state where he grew up, having joined the Orioles' staff after cementing his reputation with the Atlanta Braves.
In Atlanta, he coached six Cy Young Award winners and nine 20-game winners during a 15 1/2 -year career in which the Braves won 14 division titles and one world championship.
But Mazzone has clung to his past in that blue-collar crossroads in Allegany County, returning often to embrace the place where his craft took root. He drives out to the ballfield on Maryland Avenue, stands on the mound and closes his eyes. If he concentrates, he can hear the ghosts of train whistles, feel the hot sun on his back and smell the acrid smoke from the paper mill that kept the town alive.
"It was a wonderful time to grow up," Mazzone said. "Nobody was spoiled. Nothing was handed out on a platter. Everyone followed a work ethic. Preparation. Dedication.
"Looking back, that's all part of where I'm at right now in my life and my career."
Big league dreams
Mazzone was just a tyke when he drew a line in the sandbox: a big league pitcher, he would be.
All of Westernport knew it. In the 1950s, you couldn't walk the streets of the gritty town of 3,500 without seeing Tony and Maxine's boy hefting a lump in his left hand -- a snowball, rock or chunk of coal -- and taking aim at something.
Coal was plentiful. It spilled from the cars of the Western Maryland Railroad that rattled through town. Sometimes Mazzone and his pals played games on the tracks, using sticks for bats and coal for balls and a lookout to watch for coming trains.
Hotter days drew them to the water, where they played on the banks of the Potomac.
"The river runs right through Westernport," said John Prado, who grew up with Mazzone. "We'd get wooden sticks and try to hit rocks across the Potomac to West Virginia, 60 yards away."
Never mind the blisters and splinters that tore up your hands, said Prado:
"If you hit that rock into West Virginia, it was a home run."
They were kids from working-class families, a mix of Italians, Hispanics and other ethnicities. Besides Prado, Mazzone's friends included guys best known by their nicknames -- "Pooch" (Ord), "Tubbo" (Jim Wilson) and "Mouse" (Morris Pamepinto). Mazzone, they called "Wee Wee," though no one remembers why.
Equipment was scarce. Many an old ball was wrapped in electrical tape; many a broken bat secured with nails. When the river ran low, the boys waded in beyond the Little League fence, scrounging for home run balls that they could dry and reuse.
"Life was simple and we made do," Mazzone said.
It was when he was alone that mischief found Wee Wee.
"Leo liked to walk around the neighborhood throwing rocks," his mother said. "He'd get right out here on Rock Street -- the name matched him very well -- and just start pitching rocks. He was 8 or so. He didn't care where the rocks went."
Windows took a beating. Too often, Tony Mazzone came home from his job at the mill in nearby Luke to find busted glass on a neighbor's lawn and his son's left arm to blame.
"We spent one whole summer replacing 10 or 12 windows," Maxine said.
Screen doors weren't safe either. When Mazzone came knocking to round up ballplayers, you didn't say no. Hey kid, wanna play catch? A boy named Louie Fatkin refused and had his front door bashed in.
"When Louie wouldn't come out and play, Leo tried to get into the house by tearing down his screen door," Pamepinto said.
Smashed windows, busted doors. Tony Mazzone surveyed the damage, rolled his eyes and paid the bills. It'll be worth it, he thought, when Leo reaches the big leagues.
"When Leo was 7, we set a goal to make it to the majors," his father recalled.
We? Darn right. Tony fueled his son's passion for the sport. A former catcher, he had set aside any personal baseball aspirations to work at the mill and support his brood. In 44 1/2 years, Tony never missed a day's work. Through Leo, he would chase his other dream.