ROSSI BRINGS PASSION TO FIELD

Forty seasons are not enough for Siena baseball coach

PETE IORIZZO STAFF WRITER
Section: Sports,  Page: C1

Date: Sunday, May 10, 2009

Tony Rossi wears his baseball cap to dinner, to weddings and, much to the chagrin of his wife, even to church. He attributes baldness to his green and gold Siena hat, as if his hair were a plant deprived of sunlight.


Rossi tells his wife -- only half-kidding -- that upon his death he wishes to be buried in his Siena baseball uniform, with his glove in the casket. He's not sure if Val, to whom he's been married 43 years, will agree to all this. "But I know this much: I'll have the hat on," Rossi says.


Val isn't yet planning for her 65-year-old husband's retirement, let alone his funeral. She jokes about buying him a green and gold walker, so Rossi can get around the dugout as easily next season and the season after and the season after that as he has for the past four decades.


When Rossi started coaching baseball at Siena, Nixon was in office, gas cost 36 cents a gallon and the Mets were Amazin'. Today, when the Saints play a road game against Iona, he will conclude his 40th season.


But longevity is only one sign of Rossi's passion for his team and the game. It's visible in the way his past and present players still call him Skip; the way he wears a hat and uniform around the office, regardless of the season; and the way he speaks of nothing short of death dragging him from the dugout. Simply, he's a baseball lifer.


"You ask him when he's going to retire, and he says, 'I dunno, 20 years,' or that kind of answer," Val says. "To be truthful, I don't know what he'd do without it."


Rossi doesn't either. His wife gives him grief each month when she reads the EZ Pass bill and sees that he pays the Thruway toll around 4 in the morning. He gets to work by sunrise.


"I don't have any hobbies," Rossi says. "Maybe that's not a good thing." He pauses, looks around his second-story office that overlooks the Siena baseball field and adds, "This is my hobby I guess."


But Siena baseball is much more to Rossi than an occasional indulgence, like fishing or golf. He's as synonymous with his program as Jim Boeheim is with Syracuse basketball or Joe Paterno with Penn State football.


In baseball, changes of address are as expected as the peanuts and crackerjacks. Getting hired and fired is all part of the game. Rossi has endured in a way few can. He's Division I baseball's second-longest tenured coach, behind only behind only Augie Garrido of Texas (41 years).


"I enjoy it, the kids still work hard and my wife hasn't shot me yet," Rossi says. "So why stop?"


This year the Saints are 12-34 and playing out the string. Rossi's had a few seasons like this and enjoyed some much better ones, too. He's won four Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference championships and six Coach of the Year Awards. Three of his players have reached the major leagues, including Washington Nationals starting pitcher John Lannan. Like any weathered baseball man, he's seen good times and bad.


"He knows everybody and he's seen everything," Siena second-baseman Anthony Giansanti says. "Something happens, and you see everybody in the dugout get crazy. And then there's Coach Rossi, sitting there like he's seen it four times this week."


If at any time Rossi dabbled in the unfamiliar, it was 1967, when Siena hired him as an assistant coach in lacrosse, a sport he never had played. He took the position hoping it would lead to something in baseball. Two years later, at age 25, he got his dream job.


Siena baseball at the time was a ragtag collection of 10 players, not the organized 30-man roster of today. Once when Siena's right-fielder broke his leg, Rossi ordered the player to come to every game in uniform anyway. If Siena had suffered another injury, Rossi would have needed the player to stand in the outfield, on crutches, to avoid a forfeit.


Rossi had been a baseball junkie long before those days, too. By age 7, he was attending Schenectady Blue Jays games with his father, sitting five rows behind home plate and keeping score. By age 10, he was playing daily sandlot games in downtown Schenectady.


He'd heard about Little League and been urged to attend a tryout. So one day he had hopped on his bike and peddled up Franklin Street past Franklin Elementary School with the intention of checking it out. But on the way he noticed a sandlot game being played on the school field. He couldn't resist a game, so he pulled off the road, joined the game and skipped the tryout.


"I was a baseball rat," he says.


As a player, Rossi was a strong-armed infielder and high-average hitter who had a few dalliances with pro ball. After his final high school game, he retreated to a picnic bench and sat with three scouts and his parents. The scouts showed him a contract -- an 11-by-17 single-page document -- and said, "We'd like you to play for the Los Angles Dodgers."


On the advice of his parents, Rossi declined. His mother, Dominica, who worked as a waitress and hostess at a Schenectady restaurant, and his father, Phillip, who worked for the General Services Administration in Scotia, never finished high school. They wanted their son to attend college.


After Rossi's junior year of college at Brockport, the pros came calling again. The Cincinnati Reds offered him a $12,000 contract. He turned them down, too, so he could graduate. He never got another chance at pro ball, something he made peace with after finding another love -- coaching and teaching.


"Do I feel I could have played pro ball? Yeah, probably," Rossi says. "But maybe I wouldn't have finished school and maybe I wouldn't be coaching."


The way a baseball game flows from inning to inning on a summer afternoon, Rossi's career rolled from year to year without much thought to the passage of time. He sent out a few resumes and once considered a job in scouting, but mostly he settled into his niche, content.


Siena baseball never will compete with the nation's best programs, most of which are based in the South and Midwest, where the weather is far more favorable. Nor will Rossi's program ever be heralded at the school like basketball, which sometimes plays on national television and sees its coaches sign multi-million dollar contracts.


But personally and professionally, Rossi fit. Late-afternoon and evening games allowed him to keep a longtime job as a math teacher at Guilderland High. Baseball took him away from home at times, but not so much that he couldn't see his now-grown son, Scott, play baseball and daughter, Kristen, cheerlead.


"I never looked at it like other people's budgets were bigger or salaries were bigger," says Rossi, who retired from teaching 12 years ago. "I like what I'm doing."


When Rossi taught at Guilderland, he often wore his uniform underneath his button-down shirt and slacks. This way, as he raced from the classroom to the field, he could tear off his clothes and be dressed by batting practice. His players called him "Superman."


Rossi exudes a certain toughness. He likes dirty uniforms and scraped knees. One time, former Siena star Gary Holle had suffered two broken ribs in a collision at first base. As Holle writhed on the infield grass, Rossi came from the dugout to check on his injury.


"I'm dying," Holle said.


"You're dying?" Rossi answered. "What do you mean? You've got two more at-bats."


To some among the estimated 1,200 players to pass through his program, Rossi has been as much father figure as coach. When Todd Donovan arrived at Siena in 1997, his parents had been divorced. His girlfriend also lived more than two hours away. So Donovan spent several nights a week in Rossi's office, talking baseball and playing cards -- Rossi's preferred game is hearts -- in an otherwise empty athletic complex.


"He kept me company," Donovan says.


Donovan, who still plays in the minor leagues, won two league titles with Siena in the days when the program was at its best. But this year, too many inflated ERAs on the pitching staff and too many injuries to position players took the Saints out of the race weeks ago.


By late this afternoon, Rossi's season will be over. But the hat won't go in the closet, and Rossi isn't walking off into retirement. He and Val will head to Florida for a few weeks and take some time off. Then he'll be back, back to the early mornings and back to the dugout. He won't need a walker to get there.


Pete Iorizzo can be reached at 454-5425 or by e-mail at piorizzo@timesunion.com.


BOX:


Through the years


Here's a look at Tony Rossi's career record, overall and in the MAAC:


Year Overall MAAC


1970 7-8


1971 7-12


1972 7-8


1973 2-16


1974 12-6


1975 12-8


1976 13-9-1


1977 12-11


1978 15-17


1979 15-14


1980 16-12


1981 17-18


1982 12-17


1983 15-10-1


1984 13-17


1985 22-13-1


1986 21-11


1987 13-16


1988 16-17


1989 19-14


1990 6-24-1 5-6


1991 12-25 11-6


1992 8-25 5-13


1993 11-24 7-11


1994 15-22 8-10


1995 31-17 14-4*


1996 28-20 14-4*


1997 21-34 10-8*


1998 17-32 11-15


1999 34-22 21-5*


2000 15-32 12-14


2001 29-29 19-8


2002 28-29 17-9


2003 17-35-1 15-11


2004 27-26 13-12


2005 29-23 19-5


2006 23-31-1 12-15


2007 12-33 10-13


2008 30-26 15-8


2009 14-35 8-15


Totals 673-798-6 247-192


*MAAC Champs


TIP:


Inside


C10 A look at Tony Rossi's career record, from 1970 to present.