October 25, 2016 09:44PM
By Jim Bransfield Special to The Citizen
He’s one of the state’s iconic American Legion Baseball coaches and he has decided it’s time to go.
He’s Rob Manzo, and over the last 19 years has guided the Berlin Legion team to six Zone 3 championships, two state championships and a Northeast Regional title that earned his team a berth in the American Legion World Series in Fargo, N.D., in 2009.
“I started coaching 13-year-olds, and after a couple of years, Berlin Legion general manager Dante Caliandri asked me to coach Berlin. I was 25,” said Manzo. “It’s been a great ride, but It’s just that it’s time. I have two boys at home, ages 6 and 3, and it’s time for T- ball. I want to get back to my family and I want to coach my kids. The job of being coach and general manager at the Legion level is a bit overwhelming now.”
Aside from the accomplishments on the field, Manzo, 44, said that the things he will most remember are the kids and the friendships made.
“Having Cory Carlson as an assistant coach for 14 years has led to a really wonderful friendship,” he said. “Same with the other assistants I’ve had through the years. A lot of it is off the field.
“The relationship I had with players, seeing them grow up into men, have families of their own and see some of them coaching today has been very rewarding. I especially remember when we went to the World Series, my wife, Sarah, came along. That helped to make it a wonderful experience.”
Manzo said he has been privileged to coach two major leaguers, Jesse Carlson and Matt Carasiti, who moved up to the Colorado Rockies this year from the Hartford Yard Goats.
“On the field, the first state championship in 2002 was special,” he said. “We beat Windsor in the final game in Torrington. We had great players such as Matt Untiet, Jason Pekrul, Steve Malinowski and Ryan DiPietro. I will never forget that team.”
But the granddaddy of all thrills was winning the Northeast Regional title in 2009 at Gill Stadium in Manchester, N.H .
“We were facing undefeated Nova Seafood of Portland, Maine, on the final day,” he said. “We had to beat them twice on a 95 degree day and we did. That was an amazing double-header. The kids were unbelievable that day.
“I had kids like Carasiti (St. John’s/Colorado Rockies), Anthony Marzi (UConn), Jake Matuszak (CCSU), Mark Bordonaro (Fairfield) and so many other good players. That is the day that sticks out in my 19 years.”
Manzo also coached at the collegiate level, spending seven years under Mark Woodward at Wesleyan and three years at Quinnipiac. He also did a two-year stint as head coach at St. Paul Catholic.
“I loved coaching with Rob at Wesleyan,” said Tim D’Aquila, the current Middletown Legion coach who coached the Cardinals for two years as an assistant with Manzo. “He has such a passion for the game and such knowledge of the game, and he worked very hard to help get his kids in college.”
“I loved coaching against him, loved matching wits,” D’Aquila said. “We knew each other very well, so I would try to figure out some different little things. I guess it worked because for a long time, we would beat him every year.
“Heck, the year he went to the World Series, we beat him two out of three.”
Manzo laughed about that. One day at Palmer Field a few years back, after a dispiriting loss on the Fourth of July to Middletown, Manzo said to no one in particular: “Why can’t I ever beat this team?”
But he went on to say that, “Middletown always treated us great and the same for Meriden, Cheshire and the rest.”
Maybe Middletown beat his club now and then, but not too many teams did.
“We usually had winning records, but there was a 10-14 year and that was tough,” said Manzo. “But we were notorious for putting in a lot of hours. We’d have fielding drills at 4 p.m., then batting practice at 5 p.m. for a 7 o’clock game. We always took pride in working harder than other teams.
“Thing is, we only had Berlin High to draw from, whereas other teams could draw from multiple high schools. So we had to work harder.”
Manzo said that Legion ball remains very competitive, but that with so many other baseball options available for kids, it’s becoming more difficult to recruit players.
“I’m not sure kids are willing to pay their dues,” said Manzo. “We always emphasized development, which often meant kids had to sit on the bench and wait a turn to play. I’m not sure as many kids are willing to do that today when there are other options available in which they will play.
“We have to do things year-round to keep kids involved and I’m not sure a lot of people realize how much work that is. I see a lot of teams with 13, maybe 14 players [a full Legion roster is 18] and I think that’s part of it.”
Manzo thought that maybe the state Legion should take a look the competitive balance.
“If you look at the last few years, the program has become a little top-heavy with the final five teams pretty much the same every year,” he said. “Maybe the future would be to combine some of the small market teams, say like Berlin and Plainville, into one team. Might make for a better level of competition.”
Manzo said he’s not done with coaching.
“As I said, I want to coach my kids” he said. “But no matter where I go, coaching the Berlin Legion has been a wonderful experience. I will always hold it dear to my heart.”