Andy Cannizaro once hit a home run, and the first person to offer him a high five was Derek Jeter.
Cannizaro tells stories of watching Bruce Springsteen, Kevin James, Spike Lee and Adam Sandler walk into the New York Yankees clubhouse and shake with nerves at the thought of meeting his teammates.
One time, the Yankees, with Cannizaro in tow, arrived at a hotel lobby to hundreds of roaring fans. The only pathway to the elevators was a line of velvet ropes and a narrow strip of carpet that cut through the boisterous throng.
It was 2 a.m. in Baltimore.
“It was amazing, dude,” Cannizaro says from his new office in Alex Box Stadium. “It was amazing.”
Cannizaro’s one-month major league stint with the Yankees isn’t why coach Paul Mainieri hired him as LSU’s recruiting coordinator and hitting coach. But it didn’t hurt.
After all, what recruit wouldn’t love to receive a phone call from a guy who shared a locker room with Alex Rodriguez, Randy Johnson, Mariano Rivera and Bernie Williams?
Cannizaro, a personable 35-year-old from Mandeville, recently completed his second month on the job in Baton Rouge.
On a Friday afternoon, he sits behind his wooden desk in an office that’s taller than it is wide. His cell phone continuously buzzes, and his fingers regularly fidget.
He’s always on the go. He’s a high-energy, hyperactive, talkative sort who still has the burly physique of his playing days.
“I try to look the part,” Cannizaro says, laughing. “Maybe they’ll think I can play.”
The joking stops, and he reveals why he’s not playing anymore: disk issues in his lower back.
“If I went out there and played,” he gestures from his office toward Skip Bertman Field, “I wouldn’t be able to walk for a week.”
In a wide-ranging interview, Cannizaro touched on his nine-year pro career, his approach to handling one of the most criticized coaching positions in college baseball and his baseball-centric upbringing.
He’s a baseball guy finally fulfilling a lifelong dream: being a baseball coach.
“I loved my job, loved working for the Yankees. I couldn’t have been in a better situation,” says Cannizaro, who spent five years as a scout in the organization after his playing days. “Kind of always in the back of my mind knew this is what I always wanted to do: get back on the field in a teaching capacity, be around young players.”
Stolen base king
The base sits on the floor of Cannizaro’s office. It’s painted green and reads, “#2 Andy Cannizaro, 1998-2001.”
Just beneath that, in all capital letters, are three words: “Stolen Base King.”
Cannizaro stole more bases than anyone in Tulane baseball history: 128. That number factored into Mainieri’s hiring process.
“I felt like we really did not utilize our extraordinary team speed to its maximum the last couple of years with (Mark) Laird, (Andrew) Stevenson, (Jake) Fraley, (Alex) Bregman,” Mainieri says. “Maybe we can steal more bases.”
Cannizaro holds a host of other Tulane records: games (248), at-bats (1,030), hits (350) and doubles (85). He lived out a childhood fantasy by playing at Tulane.
It was his school.
“I always had Tulane hats and that kind of thing when everybody else in the state of Louisiana had LSU stuff on,” Cannizaro says.
He met his wife, Allison, in a Tulane science class. The two are married with 4-year-old Gabrielle and 1-year-old Pierce.
His father, Gary, coached at Tulane as an assistant for years. He spent many of the summers at Tulane baseball camps and traveled with the team some.
The team played in California one season, and the Cannizaros all went — Gary, mother Susan, 7-year-old Andy and his younger brother, 5-year-old Lee. Susan took the kids to Disneyland each day instead of the ballpark.
“I ended up being dragged to Disneyland against my will,” Cannizaro says.
Says Gary: “Only thing he had an interest in was baseball. Baseball kid. Baseball junkie.”
During those days, Cannizaro developed a deep friendship with Wally Pontiff Jr., the former LSU baseball player who died of a heart abnormality at 21. Their fathers were on the same staff. They were mischievous dugout buddies — two kids raised in baseball families.
“A lot of my Tulane memories are Wally and I getting in trouble running around in the dugout,” Cannizaro says.
Gary coached baseball at three New Orleans-area high schools before making the jump to Tulane and then retiring from the profession in 1987.
He started his son as a shortstop. That never changed.
“Shortstop at 5. Shortstop at 30,” Cannizaro says.
Cannizaro’s brothers, Lee and Garrett, both played college baseball.
“It just runs in the family,” Lee says.
The process normally begins with a text message.
“It’s usually a such-and-such from such-and-such high school is throwing 88 to 91 (mph),” Cannizaro says. “Here’s his name. Here’s his cell phone number.”
Cannizaro gets these messages often from major league scouts who canvass the nation for young, draftable talent. Those who aren’t draftable are passed along to college coaches, like Cannizaro.
After five years in the business, scouts know Cannizaro, and he knows them. It’s a beneficial relationship.
Mainieri hired Cannizaro for many reasons: experience as a player at the highest level, his reputation in the baseball community and his charismatic personality — but one thing may top that list: his networking and evaluation of talent.
In college terms, recruiting.
“Already his connections from scouting are paying dividends,” Mainieri says. “Every day he tells me about two or three phone calls he gets from friends of his in the scouting business.”
Mainieri wasn’t the first college coach to make overtures to Cannizaro. He was the first college coach to have them fulfilled.
“He’s had the opportunity in the past to take similar jobs at a different school,” says Lee, who attended LSU after a year of playing ball at Southern Miss. “He understands that this is elite. If he wants to get into coaching, this is the Mecca, this is the king.”
Lee speaks with his brother often. The new gig has taken an adjustment.
For the first time in his life, Cannizaro has had to work from an office that’s not his home, predict future depth charts and recruit 15- and 16-year-olds.
For example, LSU’s 2015 recruiting class is just a commitment or two shy of being complete. It’s the 2016 and 2017 classes that get much of the attention.
“He’s having to recruit years down the road,” Lee says.
Monday, Sept. 25, 2006.
That date in Louisiana holds distinction. It’s normally referred to as “the night the Superdome reopened,” and it’s marked by Steve Gleason’s blocked punt less than two minutes into the Saints’ 23-3 win over the Atlanta Falcons.
For Cannizaro, it means something even more. That’s the night he hit his first (and only) major league home run. To this day, Cannizaro claims it’s the best ball he’s ever hit.
“I’d go play the minor league season, 500 at-bats, and hit three, four, five home runs,” Cannizaro says. “Most of the time I’d sprint out of the box thinking it was a double. This was the first ball of my life, as soon as I hit it … gone. Had a complete 360 feet to jog and walked across home plate.”
Jeter was the first Yankee to slap his hand.
Cannizaro played the final month of the 2006 season with the Yankees. He played in 13 games, had eight at-bats and two hits. One was that home run on a 3-2 count during a game at Tampa Bay.
Cannizaro injured his back during spring training months later, became a free agent and joined the Rays. He returned to the majors for a short stint with Tampa Bay in 2008.
On his office wall, Cannizaro has three picture frames hanging, each the same size and each of him in the pinstripes.
In all, he played 18 innings in the major leagues.
They were the greatest 18 innings of his life.
“Getting to the big leagues for just one day makes every ounce of sweat, brush burn, hit by pitch worth it,” he says. “It’s the greatest place in the world to play the game. It’s worth every ounce of sweat and tears.”
Follow Ross Dellenger on Twitter: @DellengerAdv.