Ron Maestri’s friends, players turn out to wish him well

In the 14 seasons that Ron Maestri coached for UNO, not only were there some fantastic baseball teams, but also some big-time baseball minds to come out of the program. Go down the line, and just about every one of them rave about how Maestri not only was someone they looked up to and learned from, but someone they still rely on today.

LSU coach Paul Mainieri, Chicago Cubs assistant general manager Randy Bush, former Cubs manager Mike Quade credit Maestri as a major influence on their lives and shower him with praise. And there are many more.

In all, more than 100 people were in attendance at Tuesday’s news conference at the Lakefront Arena, many of whom were pointed out and personally thanked by Maestri.

“Playing for Ron Maestri was the greatest experience that a young player ever could have had,” said Mainieri, who was a middle infielder for the Privateers in 1978-79. “He and (former Dodgers manager) Tommy Lasorda are probably 2A and 2B. My dad obviously meant everything to me and taught me everything I know about the game, but I always prayed to God that I would get exposed to another coach during my playing days whom I could also look up to and learn from. It was such a Godsend to me to play for Ron Maestri at UNO, because for two years it was like going to school preparing to be part of the coaching profession.”

Bush echoed many of his former teammate’s sentiments, saying “for me, it’s Ron Maestri and (former Twins manager) Tom Kelly” who have had the most influence. Since his playing days for the Privateers in the late 1970s through his 12-year career with the Minnesota Twins, his time as UNO coach in the early 2000s and as an executive in the Cubs organization, Maestri has been there.

“I liked him the first time I ever met him, and I can honestly said he is one of my best friends to this day,” said Bush, who flew in from Chicago on Tuesday morning to attend the news conference. “There has never been a time in my life when I haven’t relied on him for advice and counsel.”

Now old school meets new school, as the 72-year-old will try to impart his lifetime of experience upon 19- and 20-somethings. On the surface it might seem like a tough sell, and Maestri readily admits in this day of technology, he’ll leave “stuff like wi-fi” to his players.

However, they’re just looking for a fresh start, heading back to Division I, where they will play in the Southland Conference next year.

At a place where baseball once was king, the program has fallen upon hard times amidst a time of uncertainty. Next year’s seniors are coming off three seasons in which the Privateers are a combined 28-121, and they are ready to move on.

“They went to the College World Series back in the day (1984), and I put all my trust in Ron Maestri,” said Reese Kanter, who will be a senior outfielder next season. “If all of these guys are here to honor coach Maestri, then it means a lot; the respect I have for him goes that much higher. I can’t believe all the people who are here. He coached them all, and this is a big deal.”

Maestri joked about his age, saying, “Basketball coaches get shoe contracts, baseball coaches get bat contracts, and I just got a five-year deal from AARP.”

Those who know him best, however, have faith that he’ll be able to restore the program back to respectability.

“Who the heck does he think he is? Bobby Bowden? I kind of figured, knowing Maes, that he might want to coach until he is 81 or 82 like Bowden,” said Quade on Tuesday from Milwaukee. “Somewhere in the sick recesses of my mind I wondered if he’d consider the job, and son of a gun, he did. I talk to him regularly, as do a lot of other guys, and a lot of the same things he coached when he was in his 50s (will work) today. As long as he’s got the fire, he should be able to get that thing turned around.”

Assuming he has the fire, he’s jumping right into it, as well. The Privateers’ opening opponent is not only the farthest thing from a cupcake, but it’s a familiar foe. LSU will host UNO on Feb. 14 and will open Maestri Field the following day.

“Said Mainieri, “I asked (Maestri), ‘You’re not going to back out now. No? Well, you’re going to have to figure out how to beat Aaron Nola on that first Friday night.’ He laughed and said, ‘Bring it on.’ ”