Leo Veleas says he coaches baseball for a simple reason. He just loves the game.
Veleas has coached hundreds of players during his nearly four decades at the helm of the Berlin High School baseball program, and while his lineup is ever-changing, the sport he loves has stayed very much the same. "The game is the game," said Veleas, 74. "You have to master the fundamentals and do the job. If you get told to bunt, you get the bunt down. You have to know the signs. The game is the game. You pitch, you catch, you hit, you throw. I go to coaching clinics and hear big-time coaches and they all say if you can’t practice and perfect the fundamentals, the rest doesn’t matter."
It's tough to second-guess Veleas' approach to coaching. During his 36 years as the head man for the Redcoats, he has accumulated a record of 606-197 while claiming five state championships.
Veleas is fourth all-time in wins among Connecticut high school coaches. When he recorded win number 601 this past spring, he passed his friend Jim Penders of East Catholic, who retired with 600 on the nose.
While the wins are nice, Veleas spends more time thinking about the L's.
“I take all 197 of those losses personally,” he said. “After every one, whether we lose by a run or get blown out I wonder if there was something I could have done differently to get us that win. It can drive you nuts. My wife Bert says, ‘Well, you can’t win ’em all.' And I say, ‘why not.’”
Veleas played high school baseball in Newington and continued his career under the tutelage of legendary coach Frank Viera at the University of New Haven. Later, Veleas was drafted by the Boston Red Sox.
“I wanted to be a baseball player from the time I can remember thinking about sports," Veleas said. "I would go and play whenever I had the chance, and played three sports in high School at Newington and was pretty successful. When I was 16-years-old I was playing in the Hartford Twilight League with grizzled veterans like Pete Sala and Gene Johnson, who were tough. But I thought they taught the game, in my opinion, the right way."
Veleas started out as the junior varsity coach at Berlin High, serving as an assistant to Paul Baretta for two years. In 1987, when Baretta became a scout for the New York Mets, Veleas took over as head coach.
During his first seven seasons, the Redcoats lost a total of just 12 games. Back then, Veleas was known as “Crazy Leo,” a nickname given to him by a junior varsity player named Mike Sagan.
“We had a game at Percival, now Baretta Field, and the batting helmets were flying. After the game all the equipment was put away, so I met with the team and took all the helmets out and chucked them all over the field and said, ‘That’s how you throw a helmet. Now go pick them up,’” Veleas said with a laugh.
Yes, "Crazy Leo" was not one to be trifled with.
“We always got on the bus with our uniforms on, and were getting ready to leave, and our captain is outside the bus with his hat backwards, shorts and a tank top,” Veleas said. “I asked him if he was coming, and he said he was, and I told him, ‘Not like that.’ He changed his mind and changed.”
The stories are endless.
“I remember we always had senior trip during the state tournament. They always had a bus come back early for all the athletes,” Veleas said. “One year two of the kids didn’t take the early bus and got back an hour late. My rule is if they were late a minute by my watch they owed me a lap. These guys should have owed me 60 laps. They thought that was unfair so we had, let’s say, a discussion, about how unfair it was to all their teammates who did the right thing. So they did some things to make sure they could play.”
One of Veleas’ former players tells of a game where the umpire had to flip a coin to determine who would be the home team.
The ump – a large fellow – said he didn’t like to carry change because he didn’t want it to jingle in his pocket. Veleas, without hesitation, said, “Don’t worry, you don’t move nearly fast enough."
Veleas said he uses cliches and phrases from coaches he has worked with over the years, including Berlin High’s Al Pelligrinelli and Jim Day, "because they demanded excellence.”
Veleas recalled, “Coach P used to carry his clipboard and knock on it and ask the kids, ‘You know what that is? That’s opportunity. Be ready when you get your opportunity.’"
Veleas is friends with former Central Connecticut State University men's basketball coach Howie Dickenman, who was a longtime assistant to Jim Calhoun at UConn.
"We talk quite a bit,” Veleas said of Dickenman. “He is a compassionate man, but ultra-competitive, and it means a lot when he comes to our games. When he was at UConn, he was living in Manchester, and he had a party every summer. So, I got to meet Geno (Auriemma) when he was just starting. I remember sitting and talking to him about coaching. Yeah, it’s two different sports, but it’s coaching theory, and we were on the same page about fundamentals and the fancy stuff isn’t needed if you can handle the basics."
Veleas also was able to pick the brain of CCSU coaching legend Bill Detrick.
“We were talking about coaching, and I said, ‘Well, it helps to have good players, too.’ And he said, ‘That’s true, but it’s even worse when you lose with good players though.’”
Veleas' teams at BHS have never not made the state tournament, and have played for the state title 12 times.
During his long tenure, Veleas has coached a few father-son duos, as well as his own son and grandson. Two guys he coached, Jesse Carlson and Matt Carasiti, played in the majors, and many others were drafted, including Sean Johnson, Marc Carosielli, Scott Gentile, David Swanson, Jason Maule, Ryan DiPietro and Anthony Marzi.
“He has had so many successes on the field," BHS director of athletics Dave Francalangia said of Veleas, "but the successes in life, kids coming back, reaching out to him, that’s what is most meaningful to Coach.”
While he has not said how long he plans to coach, for now, Veleas still enjoys heading to the field. “Our team this year did a great job, they were a little inexperienced, but they never quit and gave everything they had,” he said. “They drove me nuts at times, but they improved so much as the year went on and I really enjoyed coaching them."