Rabalais: ‘Mase’ returns to program he built from ground up

Fella, you don’t start playing ball at your age. You retire.

— “The Natural”

Ron Maestri doesn’t mind the hard way.

When he first became baseball coach at the University of New Orleans, Maestri’s teams played in an off-campus ballpark without a permanent outfield fence and rickety dugouts that Privateers players called “lean-tos.”

It didn’t matter. By his third season, UNO was the runner-up in the 1974 NCAA Division II College World Series.

Tuesday, the man they call “Mase” returned again, 41 years removed from the first time he became UNO’s baseball coach and 28 years after he gave up coaching duties to become the school’s athletic director full time.

The jet black hair beneath the blue UNO cap has been replaced by a well-coiffed silver mane befitting an accomplished man of 72 years. Over his sharp summer suit he draped a gray pinstripe UNO jersey, his old No. 21, like the man, coming out of retirement.

It all seemed a bit surreal, his news conference in a meeting room at Lakefront Arena packed with reporters and cameras, former players and a lifetime of friends. You don’t start coaching again at your age, Mase, you retire. No one said that, of course. Instead, he was surrounded by the dew-eyed adoration of decades of familiar faces.

But even Maestri knows his return at his age is a bit crazy, taking time to punch up the proceedings with a joke at his own expense.

“Basketball coaches get shoe contracts. Baseball coaches get bat and glove contracts. I got a call from AARP last night and they signed me to a five-year deal,” Maestri cracked.

But he had to come back. The baseball program he built and the school he loves has languished without Maestri in the post-Katrina world, an abortive downshift back to Division II in 2011 threatening to wash away the parts of the UNO athletic program that Katrina didn’t.

If he is UNO’s white knight, even its white-haired knight, then so be it. The school brass asked him to help them find a new baseball coach, but in the end when they asked him to return instead he couldn’t say no.

“He’s got his blood in the bricks here,” LSU coach Paul Mainieri said. He played at UNO in 1978-79 and will coach the Tigers’ against the Privateers in Maestri’s first two games back next Feburary.

The first game will be on Feb. 14, Valentine’s Day (how fitting for Maestri and his rekindled love affair with the school). The second game will be a day later in the reopening of rebuilt Privateer Park.

Like the UNO stadium now stripped to the pilings — arranged around the ball field that bears his name — Maestri has a huge rebuilding job to do.

UNO was 7-44 last season, the third-worst record out of 296 Division I baseball teams in America. More than once, Maestri implored those around him to help him rebuild the program, help him “get that Privateer Pride back.”

Maestri will need more than good wishes. He’ll need an energetic young coaching staff to go out and recruit better players that UNO will need to have a hope of competing in the Southland Conference, always a stout baseball league among the mid-majors.

The world has changed a hundred different ways since Maestri last coached. Told by UNO athletic director Derek Morel the team bus would be equipped with Wi-Fi, Maestri shrugged and said it meant nothing to him.

But some things haven’t changed, as evidenced by Tuesday’s gathering. It’s Maestri’s ability to bring people together, to inspire, to give them hope that a relatively small school with relatively modest resources can be relevant in this sport again.

“It was like I was in a time warp back in 1979,” Mainieri said after the news conference. “I was ready to run through a wall for him.”

Isn’t that funny. That’s just what Maestri is ready to do for UNO. All over again.