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Siena's Rossi enjoying Golden Anniversary

Siena's Rossi enjoying Golden Anniversary

Saints baseball coach is the longest tenured active head coach at the same institution in any NCAA Division I sport.
Siena's Rossi enjoying Golden Anniversary
Siena baseball coach Tony Rossi in his office as he prepares for his 50th season at the school.
Photographer: MIKE MACADAM/GAZETTE SPORTSWRITER

LOUDONVILLE -- The wrecking ball came sizzling through the air, ready to take everything out, to topple the institution that had stood there for so long.

The structure, miraculously, dodged the wrecking ball, an imperceptible shimmy making the tool of destruction miss.

Then the kids started laughing their butts off.

"Because you would never get the ball hit 90 miles an hour at you and just go like this, and it gets by you," Tony Rossi said with a gleam in his eye and a big smile, tucking his shoulder in an inch or two to demonstrate how disaster had been averted last week.

The Siena baseball scrimmaged on the turf field, under low light in the late still-winter afternoon, and somebody hit a rocket toward the third base coach's box, where Rossi stood. Where the head coach has always stood, for coming up on 50 seasons now.

At 75, he's not nearly as nimble as he was when he was a kid growing up on Front Street in Schenectady's Stockade neighborhood, on the eastern side of the railroad tracks and within softball home run distance of an increasingly broken bank of windows at the ALCO plant.

But there he still stands, as some buildings in his old neighborhood have deteriorated or been remodeled or torn down, while the Siena campus buildings surrounding his baseball field outside his office window at the Marcelle Athletic Complex remain solidly in place.

When Siena plays at Central Florida next Friday, Rossi will begin his Golden Anniversary season, with no indication that he's ready for the wrecking ball of retirement any time soon.

That's because he still loves the only "hobby" he's ever had, and he still does it well. As recently as 2014, the Saints got the first NCAA Tournament game victory in their Division I history, and Siena finished fourth in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference last year with a 14-10 record to push Rossi's career record in the conference to 368-284 (.564) in 29 seasons.

He began his first season at Siena in 1970 with 15 kids and finished it with just 10, one of whom was on crutches with a broken leg. Since then, Siena has moved from Division II to I in 1977, has won almost 900 games, has made the most MAAC Championship Series appearances (10) and has sent three players to the majors while getting a total of 33 signed to contracts with MLB organizations.

Rossi was standing behind all of that. The 1985 Siena Athletic Hall of Fame inductee is the longest tenured active Division I baseball head coach in the country and the longest tenured active head coach at the same school in any Division I sport.

"It's been fun here," Rossi said on Friday morning in his office, neatly organized charts taped to the cupboard doors above his desk, which is sprinkled with Siena gold Post-It notes.

"The kids are what makes or breaks it. If the kids don't buy in, then you've got a problem. But the kids always bought in because I think they see our passion, that we're very passionate about what we do. I've always said if the coach has more passion than you do, then you better get out.

"I always tell these kids I wish I could still swing. I'd go out and swing right now if my shoulder would let me."

Rossi stopped pitching batting practice 15, 20 years ago, but his knees are still good, thanks in part to the fact that he avoided activities like skiing and basketball. He doesn't golf.

It was always -- and only -- baseball.

His family moved to Colonie when he was in seventh grade, after which he graduated from Colonie High School and Brockport State, then got his first post-grad job in the Guilderland school district as a teacher, also the profession of Val Rossi, his wife of 53 years.

Tony Rossi was hired as the Siena baseball coach in 1970, and it took five seasons to lay down the foundation, to gain footing in a mutually beneficial relationship with the Admissions office. Rossi's first winning season at Siena came in 1974.

"It was different [the first season], kind of a loose atmosphere, and of course I'm not going to be loose with my sport," he said. "We lost some guys, and my last game of the season, I had 10 guys, and the tenth guy, I made him dress up in a jersey top. He had a broken leg, he's coming with crutches, and I told him, 'If somebody's thrown out of the game, I'll put you in right field. Just stand there.' So we don't forfeit.

"Our talent wasn't really good. I think the kids I ended up with were good kids, they just weren't super-talented. I had a little trouble getting started because, over here, Admissions, was sort of tough. So it took me probably three, four, five years before I could really sink in with the Admissions part. Then I lived over there."

Among Rossi's three major leaguers, Gary Holle, Tim Christman and John Lannan, Holle came along when Siena was still Division II.

"He just dominated," Rossi said. "He was just like a man among boys. When he hit, the third baseman used to play in the outfield."

It was the start of a steady stream of talent that Rossi was able to secure, then mold into a team strong enough to hold its own in whichever conference was home at the time.

Since joining the MAAC, Siena has won five tournament championships.

Rossi's teams have faced future major leaguers like Mo Vaughn, John Valentin, Mike Flanagan and two Houston Astros who made it to Cooperstown, Craig Bigio (Seton Hall) and Jeff Bagwell (Hartford).

"I kept every scorebook," Rossi said. "I've got all that stuff. He [Bigio] could run like a deer. He had three singles and three stolen bases against us."

It seems funny to hear someone who shows up for work "anywhere from 3:45 to 4:30 in the morning" complain about extra paperwork, but that's the one aspect of the job these days that Rossi identifies as different from when he started in 1970, and one that he's not in love with.

But he loves his job.

And the schedule is set for next season, and pretty much 2021, too, so everything is tidy and in its place, including Rossi's capacity to keep doing what he's been doing.

"It's this, knowing the game," he said, tapping his temple. "Once this goes, you're in trouble. To have the energy to love the game, I like to see our guys play. I like to see our guys play hard, play well, win or lose. To try to get them to play the game the way it's supposed to be played.

"I still coach third base. I'm still watching the game. If I see somebody launch one, I'm like 'Ooh.' Or if I see a fastball and hear it go 'Ssssst,' I hear it humming, I go, 'Whoa. That guy's got some pretty good juice.'"

Rossi grew up a few houses down Front Street from where the ALCO plant has been replaced by the glittering Rivers Casino & Resort.

He remembers grown-ups setting up a full boxing ring right on the street and paying 6-year-old kids like him a big fat nickel to get in there and throw down.

Rossi bemoans the fact that he never got to Detroit to experience the old Tiger Stadium, and that the Nicholaus Building at Erie Boulevard and State Street -- his mom worked around the corner -- has been demolished for sleek apartments. He's worried about Saratoga Race Course losing its classic look and feel.

"Like in the Stockade, I like older things," he said. "I don't want anything moved. The old houses, the buildings from 200, 300 years ago ... don't touch 'em. Like the track, I just see all these new things. It's like the old ballparks, Fenway, Wrigley. I won't go to [the new] Yankee Stadium. It was a cathedral."

In the meantime, 50 years into a tremendous, rewarding run at Siena, nobody's knocking him over anytime soon.

"You're very careful as you get older," he said with a laugh. "You don't want to trip or something like that and do a header. Which I've done out there. Had 'em rolling. Balls come at me, and these guys laugh. I've got good eyesight and my reflexes. I know what I can do when the ball's hit right at me.

Describing the liner that came screaming at him last week, Rossi said, "It was a shot. And the kids went hysterical.

"And I went like this," he said, shifting his shoulder away from the wrecking ball that came and went, a crafty, tough and still inspired coach shrugging off the passage of time.

Reach Gazette Sportswriter Mike MacAdam at 518-395-3146 or [email protected]. Follow on Twitter @Mike_MacAdam.

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