Ron Maestri knew the day he took off his baseball uniform for the last time had to arrive eventually.
Heck, he thought it had happened 30 years ago.
“It’s hard — really hard,” said Maestri, whose second tenure as UNO’s coach ended Saturday with a doubleheader loss to Southeastern Louisiana.
Hey, at least they were playing two.
But it was something that happened earlier in the day that softened the blow.
Hall of Fame manager Joe Torre, an old friend, was in New Orleans, helping his daughter, Andrea, check out Tulane.
“Joe wanted to eat breakfast, and afterwards we were driving around and I told him he was probably the first person to know what I was going to do,” said Maestri, who officially stepped down Monday. “He said he knew how much I’d miss it, but then he told me how much he enjoyed managing the Yankees and the Dodgers, but that everybody has to move on eventually. It helped me handle it a little easier.”
Maestri’s second stint as coach of the Privateers didn’t go as well as his first — at least on the field — which ended after the 1984 season when UNO just missed a second straight College World Series appearance so that Maestri could concentrate on being athletic director, a dual post he had held since 1979.
UNO got Lakefront Arena built during Maestri’s tenure as AD and was more successful in men’s and women’s basketball than it has been before or since.
Throw in five years with the Greater New Orleans Sports Foundation and eight as COO of the Zephyrs, and you have a lifetime spent in the local sports spotlight, most of it successful.
Small wonder that in 1995 Maestri was elected to the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame, one of many honors he has received over the years.
But it was for those early days at UNO that he’ll be most remembered.
Between 1972, when he founded the program, and 1984, the Privateers were 518-247-1 with nine NCAA tournament appearances. Plus, in those days, when college baseball in Louisiana was a minor entity, Maestri’s teams drew big crowds to what is now, fittingly enough, Ron Maestri Stadium, with a combination of winning and clever promotions.
The Privateers were even joining with Tulane and LSU in hosting early-season “invitationals” in the Superdome against out-of-state teams.
“Maes influenced everyone in the state to get better,” said former LSU coach and Athletic Director Skip Bertman, whose first year with the Tigers overlapped with Maestri’s last in his first stint at UNO. “He had it going on in every way.”
This time around, Maestri was asked to help restore a program that, with the rest of the sports at UNO, had fallen on financial hard times due to the school’s decreasing level of support, an ill-conceived meandering from Division I to Division III to Division II and back to D-I again with a corresponding fan base that had all but evaporated.
That the Privateers were only 25-78 in Maestri’s two years in the dugout looks bad, but not so much considering UNO was 7-44 in 2012.
But while the record wasn’t much, Maestri was able to restore interest in the program, at least initially, while working tirelessly in fundraising and improving a shaky APR status so much that the team had a collective 3.3 GPA this year,
That certainly doesn’t guarantee success for the next coach. But whoever it is, he won’t be starting at the bottom like Maestri was two years ago.
But that doesn’t mean he thought his work was done.
In fact, he probably would have come back for another season. But his 74-year-old body wasn’t handling 10-hour bus rides that well anymore.
“At this point in his life, I know it’s a hard job,” said LSU coach Paul Mainieri, one of Maestri’s players from back in the day. “I wanted him to enjoy life, but he wanted to do it because he loves UNO and wanted to impact people’s lives. So he did it for two years. But it’s a different job than it was from back in the ’70s.”
And whether UNO is able to turn the corner again because of what Maestri has done in the past two years, it will do nothing to tarnish his legacy.
And, modesty aside, it’s something that he takes tremendous pride in.
“I love to work, but this never seemed like a job to me,” he said. “I think back to the players who helped us get things started back then and see how successful their lives have been. Whatever I’ve been able to do, it’s a tribute to all those who have come through here.”
And as for that uniform — well, Maestri was reminded that baseball is the only sport where the coach also gets to wear a uniform.
Chances are, that one he wore Saturday is tucked away somewhere for safekeeping. Or maybe just in case he ever gets the call again.