Former UNO coach Maestri transformed Louisiana baseball
LSU will dedicate “Skip Bertman Field” on Friday night at Alex Box Stadium against Ole Miss.
Tuesday night, another Louisiana college baseball legend will be watching the Tigers. Former Privateer coach Ron Maestri will be looking on as LSU hosts the University of New Orleans.
Bertman, of course, was the architect of the colossal program we now know as LSU baseball. But Maestri was the Johnny Appleseed of Louisiana college baseball.
It’s not uncommon now for Pelican State schools to make, compete in and even win what used to be a springtime afterthought, the College World Series. Now it has become a seasonal — and reasonable — goal for Louisiana programs. Tulane, Louisiana-Lafayette, UNO and LSU have all been there. Multiple state teams even have made it to Omaha, site of the national title tournament, at the same time.
It’s safe to say, with five CWS pennants under his command and the nation’s attendance leader for 17 straight seasons, Bertman would have found the road to Omaha in any circumstance. That kind of success doesn’t just happen.
Still, starting more than a decade before Bertman appeared on the scene, it was Maestri who showed the way, demonstrating that baseball could be successful on the field and off. His already successful UNO Privateers were the first of the state schools to get to Omaha, reaching the mecca in 1984. As a small-college program, they reached the Division II CWS in 1975.
It’s also safe to say Maestri was the catalyst to transforming Louisiana baseball from a casual springtime pastime to a high-profile, crowd-pulling, passionate endeavor across the state.
There’s no question that when Maestri arrived at the New Orleans lakefront school in 1972, things started percolating. Tulane generally had been a fair program, but was forced to ratchet things up a notch because of the sudden presence, and easy comparison, with a neighbor reaching heights never before seriously envisioned for Green Wave baseball.
LSU also had been an up-and-down — mostly down and mostly ignored — program. But when UNO and Tulane got better, the Tigers had to keep up. It’s notable that UNO beat LSU 22 times in 30 games under Maestri, including his milestone 500th victory. Maestri, who never had a losing season, turned down the chance to coach LSU in 1979, thinking to himself that despite the resources of the Tigers athletic department, “I’ve already built a better program than that.”
LSU rose to the challenge under Bertman, hired in 1982, and because of the Tigers’ extraordinary success, other state schools began putting resources into baseball, to the point that Louisiana now has a half-dozen quality programs.
“When you think of it like that,” Bertman said, “Maestri had a lot to do with it.”
Building the hard way
Knowing a challenge when he saw it, Maestri came to New Orleans when the baseball program at UNO, then a satellite campus in the Louisiana State University system, was two years old. At the time, he was an assistant at Bradley in Peoria, Ill. The Braves’ head-coaching job would have been his in a year when his coach, Joe Stowell, retired. A chance meeting at a basketball tournament at Gulf Coast Junior College with UNO’s first basketball coach and Athletics Director Ron Greene, who also attended Bradley briefly, set things in motion.
The job at first required Maestri to serve as an assistant basketball coach, although he went seven years before he had an assistant himself. Tom Schwaner, a former high school coach who eventually succeeded Maestri, was the first UNO baseball assistant and got the job because he worked for nothing.
Coaching and taking on the upkeep of the field wasn’t all Maestri did. He talked the administration into letting him manage the concessions at Privateers events to subsidize his meager budget.
It became a solid program built on Maestri’s back, though he is always quick to point out that Homer Hitt, the founding chancellor of the school, was always supportive and that he got immeasurable help from such people as Herman Farley, a florist who in his spare time helped Maestri build the original field.
It became a program that excelled on sheer determination and grit. Although working with six scholarships — less than half of the NCAA allotment of 13 — and a lean budget, Maestri’s teams went to three NCAA tournaments in his first eight seasons, including the Small College World Series.
The late Lenny Yochim, special assignment scout for the Pittsburgh Pirates, marveled at the time of the accomplishment.
“When you travel around the country and you look at the facilities and money other schools have, and you look at what he’s done ... it’s amazing,” Yochim said. “The guy’s a magician.”
In 1979, Hitt got Maestri some land on the east campus, near the current site of Lakefront Arena, and Maestri moved the Privateers into a new facility and gradually improved the park until it became a million-dollar showcase — again without any state money or help. The new field was a result of Maestri’s boundless energy. He designed it, conceived the advertising program to make it financially feasible, and meticulously oversaw its grooming. It’s now known as Ron Maestri Field.
“I did what was necessary,” he said.
Facing the big boys
UNO started beating people across the region, and making a name for itself against the so-called big boys, including a giant in the sport.
Bertman, a University of Miami assistant in 1977 when the Privateers played the Hurricanes, remembers thinking, “This was clearly an up-and-coming program. They were well-coached.”
Enough that 14 years after he took over the underfunded program, he had his team on the sport’s biggest stage with Michigan, Texas and Oklahoma State — giants of the game.
The Privateers didn’t win. That would be too much of a fairy-tale story.
Their high point was just making it there by winning the South II Regional at Mississippi State. The springboard was beating powerful Mississippi State 6-3 with New Orleanian Will Clark and Rafael Palmeiro in the Bulldogs’ lineup.
Maestri still relishes the memory of beating Mississippi State to get to Omaha.
“Years before,” Maestri said, “when we were first getting the program off the ground, we had just gotten our old field in somewhat playable condition, though the infield wasn’t settled yet when we played Mississippi State. They were really the model program in the South at the time, the one everyone tried to emulate. We were just trying to reach respectability.”
When Mississippi State arrived, Maestri asked if the Bulldogs could do the traditional pregame hitting practice off the infield, as UNO was doing, in order to save wear on the tender area for the game.
“Coach Paul Gregory was a real gentleman and had no problem with it,” Maestri said. “But one of the assistants lit into me. He was yelling about what a great program they had and here they were, reduced to playing this rinky-dink outfit.”
Later, after Mississippi State thumped UNO, a despondent Maestri retreated to a shed, located on the uneven and spongy ground where hard-hit balls sometimes died without so much as a bounce, and reflected on the affront. Realizing how far his program had to go, he almost cried.
“It’s not something I dwelled on,” Maestri said. “But when we beat Mississippi State to reach the College World Series, I did think about it.”