Ron Maestri, a new-look ‘Silver Fox,’ returns to UNO

“I don’t need to prove myself. I’m going out here to make sure they have the best experience a kid can ever have, get their degree, play baseball at the University of New Orleans, play the right way. ” RON MAESTRI, UNO baseball coach

Sue Maestri made her husband, Ron, make one promise before she let him return to college baseball as the 73-year-old head coach at UNO.

Ron must leave the play-by-play, the minutiae of his new-but-old job outside of their residence.

“Not that I brought it home (before),” Ron said.

He then gazed forward, searching his mental timeline as the architect of Privateers baseball from 1972-85.

“But … I did.”

Sitting to his right, Sue erupted in laughter, her shoulders lifting in excitement as only a wife could playfully mock her man after nearly five decades of marriage.

“You actually did,” she said, still laughing.

Consider it one of Maestri’s new traits heading into Friday’s season opener at LSU, his first game back at UNO, the program he built from a field without walls behind what is now Ben Franklin High to national prominence, once morphing all others in the state, including the Tigers.

Perhaps it’s fitting the Privateers open the season with a two-game series against LSU. Friday’s first pitch at Alex Box Stadium is 7 p.m. On Saturday, the series moves to Zephyr Field in Metairie. LSU baseball coach Paul Mainieri played two seasons in the late 1970s as an infielder under Maestri.

Expect a calmer Maestri — yes, we’re talking about the guy made famous around town and in baseball circles for a handstand ejection.

Umpire: What in the hell are you doing?

Maestri: I’m trying to get a better look at those pitches you’re calling strikes!

Laughing, the umpire told Maestri he wasn’t going to toss him until his feet hit near the third base coaching box.

Another time, Maestri, coaching a collegiate summer league in Galesburg, Ill., was threatened with ejection and cast off to the team bus, parked behind right field.

So he instructed the driver to pull up behind the dugout where he continued to heckle.

“You can’t throw me out! I’m on the bus!”

So famous were his antics that Privateers fans used to bet what inning Maestri would be ejected, especially against Tulane. The answer was usually the second or third.

“Then they would turn around and look at me,” Sue said, displaying the puzzled face she often responded with. “I don’t know what they expected me to do.”

Jokingly, former players wonder how long mellow Maestri will last.

“It’s hard to believe because he was quite the contrary; he was pretty high-strung,” said Joe Bennett, a New Orleans native who played under Maestri from 1974-77. “As high strung as he was, he just wanted to win and was so excited about it.”

After a loss, Bennett said, before he reached the showers, Maestri transformed, separating himself from his own coaching craziness.

Patience. Maestri said he’s got it now. Finally.

It’s mellowness that developed after being near the game as UNO’s athletic director and, later, executive director/CEO of the Triple-A New Orleans Zephyrs, positions that placed him close but not in the dugout — not in a clubhouse where he now has an office in a baseball stadium named after him on UNO’s East campus.

He sees things he didn’t see before. Sees them differently.

Maestri, now a grandfather, realizes there are different ways to teach his players how to represent the school, represent themselves. Not that his old way was wrong.

Times were different.

And now, he is too.

Meanwhile, at home ...

Those moments and others made Maestri, affectionately known as “Mase” or “The Silver Fox,” a Crescent City icon, both for his work with the Privateers and his role in other local sports and government entities. He’s a marketer. A former interim Jefferson Parish city councilman and assessor. Part of a moment to attract multiple Super Bowls to town.

That’s why Sue couldn’t say no.

Not after hearing the excitement in Ron’s voice when he called her last summer with news.

He went from helping UNO Athletic Director Derek Morel collect names and résumés of potential candidates to being surprised when Morel and school President Peter J. Fos asked him to take the job.

She let him continue his baseball dream. You learn quick, she said, her husband sitting next to her, to be independent as a coach’s wife.

While Ron led the 1974 Privateers to a second-place finish nationally in Division II, made UNO the state’s first baseball program to reach the College World Series and sent six players to the majors, including two-time World Series champion Randy Bush, Sue raised the kids.

Jon, 43, is an assistant U.S. attorney. His sister, Krissy, 38, is a proud wife and mother.

“I felt good when I came home, that I knew our kids were taken care of,” Ron said.

Sue had to learn to separate family life from the wins and losses, which affected their family. Now she jokes about how they will handle baseball with the kids out the house.

“If I knew a lot about baseball and after a game I questioned him, that would not work,” Sue said, starting another round of laughs. “So it’s best that I know very little — to a point.”

Conversely, Sue handles their home improvement projects, from redesigning the kitchen to landscaping the exterior.

“Well, somebody has to,” Ron said, making fun of his lack of know-how around the house. “I won a saw once in a raffle. (I thought) ‘Wow, Sue’s really going to like this.’

“She’s the perfect complement because I can’t pound a nail.”

No more pressure

Second baseman Kenny Bonura, a Metairie native who led off for UNO in the 1984 College World Series, is dazzled by Maestri’s ability to react in a fiery persona while the Privateers went on a 15-game losing streak, as if they could never be satisfied then transforming into a lighter mood during a five-game losing streak, telling them to relax.

“The guy just pushed all the right buttons,” Bonura said.

In 14 seasons (1972-85), Maestri never had a losing year at UNO. He’s now in charge of a squad that won seven games last season under coach Bruce Peddie, who was 40-161 in four seasons.

Maestri was hired in July, which did not allow for time to recruit — one of the reasons the Privateers were picked to finish last in the Southland Conference in preseason polls. He doesn’t see this as added pressure because, at this stage in his career — and in his life — he’s not trying to use the post as a career stepping stone.

Not that he doesn’t want to win, plan to win.

“I have a different thought process,” he said, comparing himself now to his former greatness. “I’m not going anywhere. I don’t need to prove myself. I’m going out here to make sure they have the best experience a kid can ever have, get their degree, play baseball at the University of New Orleans, play the right way. And in 10 or 15 years, if I’m still here, have a reunion like we’re going to have, and they all want to come back.”

In the meantime, Sue may have to rescind her agreement. With the kids grown, she has become more involved in Ron’s career, become a confidant he can talk to about baseball, even add opinions.

“I can’t come home and say, ‘Wall?’ ” Ron joked. “I value her opinion.”

Hopefully he doesn’t get himself thrown out.