WOODBURY – It was the bottom of the sixth inning of the Woodbury Baseball & Softball Major League championship game. The undefeated Rays had Andrew Greene on third and no outs, when the least-expected player to deliver a game-winning RBI stepped up to the plate.
Leo Fiore, who hadn’t had a base hit all season, stepped up to the plate and singled to bring in Greene, and gave the Rays the championship.
But could Fiore’s heroic swing have happened without the help of Rays assistant coach Mike “Doc” Rosen? And who knew that Rosen’s tutelage of Fiore would give Doc his first undefeated team in 38 seasons as a coach with Woodbury Baseball & Softball?
That’s right – 38 seasons. Rosen began coaching in town when his son, David, began playing baseball in 1980. Though David was MVP of the Majors three years later, Rosen decided he would continue coaching at that age level.
“Coaching has certainly been up there as my passion,” Rosen said. “I love the 11-12 age group. The kids make me smile, most of the time. Winning is fun, but I still enjoy the experience of seeing these kids evolve over a period of time. And I love hearing where these kids end up in life.”
Making Leo the Legend
Peter Bartoli, who is the Rays manager as well as the President of Woodbury Baseball & Softball, is still smiling about the moment that Fiore became Leo the Legend.
“It was a great story, Doc worked with Leo all season and then we have the storybook ending,” Bartoli said.
Bartoli said Rosen fought with Fiore from the first practice of the season to go with lighter and smaller bat.
“Leo had bought his bat and was attached to it, but we were explaining it to him that the bat was just too big for him,” Bartoli said. “Doc forced him to go lighter. He went with a bat that was two inches shorter and started making more contact.”
While Bartoli said Rosen “forced” Fiori to change bats, Rosen says he just reasoned with and communicated with Fiori.
“You have to be able to communicate with the kids at their level,” Rosen said. “Kids get attached to their own equipment. Leo had a great swing to begin with. I explained to him that his swing could be even better and had him borrow a teammate’s smaller version of the same bat.”
If there is one thing Rosen is well known for, it’s working with the players who could use the extra help.
“Doc has always been more interested in the kids with room for improvement, the kids who loved the game the most but hadn’t reached their full potential,” said Mark Tomkalski, who was an assistant coach with Rosen two years ago and the league’s MVP in 1987. “He was always looking to work with those kids.”
Tomkalski added that it’s fitting that Woodbury Baseball & Softball began giving out a Most Improved Player award in 2016, and that the award is named in Rosen’s honor.
“Doc takes an interest in the kids who need the extra help, and he makes them feel like an important part of the team by end of the season,” Bartoli said.
The Voice of Reason
Rosen said his father took him to see his first professional baseball game when he was 6 years old. It was at Yankee Stadium, on September 27, 1949. The Yankees defeated Connie Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics that day 3-1.
So, to say there is a generation gap between Rosen and today’s players is a given. But as a father of two and a grandfather of three – including grandsons who play on the under-11 and under-9 baseball teams in Newtown – Rosen knows how to connect with pre-teens.
There’s even a generation gap between Rosen and his fellow coaches. For example, he’s coached or coached with three generations of Drakeleys, and there’s a chance he will coach or coach with three generations of Cosgriffs and Tomkalskis.
But that generation gap also makes him a voice of reason both as a coach and as a member of the Woodbury Baseball & Softball Board of Directors.
“He does a real good job of keeping everyone’s focus on best interest of the kids and the league,” Bartoli said. “Without a kid of his own in league better, Doc has a better frame of mind and not a personal vested interest in what’s best for his kid. His input is completely invaluable and necessary for keeping us focused on the kids.”
Rosen has been the league’s safety director for years. Bartoli said Rosen has been instrumental with coaches keeping on top of pitch counts, and understanding the signs of concussions.
“Not only does Doc have tremendous insight into game from the fine points of base running to the mechanics of hitting, he recognizes when pitchers are getting tired,” Bartoli said. “He understands pitching mechanics really well. I’ve relied on him for when to take pitchers out, and keep them in.”
Tomkalski noticed the same thing about Rosen’s great concern for player safety.
“When I was coaching with him, he would always talk to our coach about when to pull a pitcher,” Tomkalski said. “But I’d notice when a kid was at 80 or 90 pitches, Doc would get upset with the other coach and recommend taking him out. He is just as cautious with the other team’s players as he is his own.”
Tomkalski pointed out an incident at a league game, when a coach from an opposing team asked Doc something to the effect of why he even cared because he didn’t have a kid on the team. Tomkalski said Doc’s responded by saying all 12 kids on his team are just as important as his own kids.
“When you are a father of a player on the team, you are emotionally engaged,” Tomkalski said. “Doc puts it into perspective.”
Doc Rosen’s Personal Touch
Tim Drakeley had a very successful 23-year career as the head coach of the Nonnewaug High School boys basketball team. But Drakeley, who played for Rosen in the 1980s, changed his approach to coaching after coaching with Rosen in the 2000s.
“I remember Doc when he started because he coached with my Dad,” Drakeley said. “He was always calm but competitive, always even keel.”
But the biggest impact Rosen had on Drakeley is the personal touch Rosen had with every player on the roster.
“At the end of the season, Doc would hold an awards ceremony and have a special gift for each kid on the team,” Drakeley said. “It showed he took the time to know everyone on the team. As I coached, I tried to incorporate that into what I did, instead of everyone being an MVP or MIP.”
An aside with the season… before the end of the season, he said he wanted to do an award ceremony for the kids… after first playoff game… kind of silly, but one for each kid.
How personal are these awards? Bartoli said Doc gave out an award to each kid on the Rays this season, and based it on who they were.
“He gave my son, Will, who just loves baseball, what he called the ‘2:30 a.m. award.’” Bartoli said. “It was a wood plaque that he gave to the player who if he called at 2:30 a.m. and told him there was a game going on right then Hollow Park, he’d go down and play.”
But that wasn’t all – Rosen gave Bartoli’s older son, Nate, a photo of Mets outfielder Michael Conforto because he felt Nate’s swing was just like his. And there was the boomerang he gave to the leadoff hitter because “he’s getting on base and coming right back home,” and the travel kit he gave to the player who lives the furthest away from Hollow Park.”
Times Have Changed, Kids Haven’t
Every generation seems to say the generation after theirs is not the same (or as good) as theirs. But Rosen says he has not seen any evidence of that, at least on the diamond.
The equipment has changed – rudimentary aluminum bats were being introduced in 1980, and today’s aluminum bats can cost up to $500 – and the fields at Hollow Park are in much better shape. In fact, Rosen says the field crew has done a wonderful job, and that the fields are in the best shape they’ve been in his 38 years of Woodbury baseball.
But Rosen said the kids who play baseball in Woodbury today are just as enthusiastic about the game as they were when he began coaching. But if he had his way, Rosen would get rid of the “colored drinks” (Gatorade) in the dugouts and have the players drink nothing but water.
Hydration is key though, and Rosen said the league is much more cognizant of hydration since the day a center fielder fainted in the outfield.
And other than one broken leg, Rosen says there haven’t been any major injuries to players during his time as a coach at the Major League level. Not even a concussion.
But there have been some strange incidents over the years, involving two different thespians.
There was the voice mail resignation Rosen received from a player who decided to focus on his acting career.
And there was the balancing act of having a third baseman miss games to appear on Saturday Night Live.
“A player on my 1989 and 1990 team, Jeff Renaudo would get called to go play a young [then Vice President] Dan Quayle or Quayle’s son on the morning of a game,” Rosen said. “He did a few commercials after that, and now he’s a vascular surgeon.”
One of Rosen’s favorite things to do is follow his former players after their Major League careers are over. He makes sure they are on the honor roll, and he loves finding out what they’ve done with their lives after they leave Woodbury.
“I don’t remember every kid I coached, but I’m eternally interested in the kids I’ve touched over the years,” Rosen said. “I enjoy hearing their success stories. They all hold a special place in my heart.”