NEW BRITAIN - Mauro â€śGooseâ€ť Gozzo remembers exactly where he was as a 23-year-old on Aug. 7, 1989. Seated in a hotel room in Syracuse, mentally preparing to take the mound for the Triple-A Syracuse Chiefs later that afternoon, Gozzoâ€™s phone rang.
â€śWeâ€™re not starting you today.â€ť Chiefs manager Bob Bailor said.
Gozzo was confused, even a little angry.
â€śI was feeling good to go,â€ť Gozzo remembered. â€śI just asked [Bailor] why.â€ť
Gozzo got his reason, and was more than satisfied with the response.
â€śBecause youâ€™re starting tomorrow in Toronto,â€ť Bailor said, acting as the messenger of Gozzoâ€™s dreams materializing into reality.
Moments later, Gozzo was on a plane, heading north of the border to pitch for the Blue Jays in what would be his first major league start.
As he took the mound in front of 48,639 fans (according to Baseball Reference), Gozzo tried to maintain focus and drown out the noise of the screaming fans still embracing the first season of Torontoâ€™s brand new Skydome. Here was Gozzo, thrust into a playoff chase in the heat of August, looking to shut down a Texas Rangers team that would finish the season in the top 10 in baseball in runs scored.
â€śI had friends and family to come and see me, but I told myself I wouldn't look past the third row,â€ť Gozzo said. â€śThere were 55,000 people there every night in Toronto, but I was super focused. I made quality pitches and had an unbelievable defense behind me.â€ť
An unnerved Gozzo went on to toss eight shutout innings in an 8-0 Blue Jays victory, turning in one of the greatest major league pitching debuts in baseball history, one that Gozzo remembers every second of. The first hit he allowed came off the bat of new Hall of Famer Harold Baines. Hall of Fame candidate Fred McGriff paced the Toronto offense with a home run and two runs scored to secure Gozzoâ€™s first career win.
â€śI can go through that game pretty much inning by inning,â€ť Gozzo said. â€śIt's not something that goes away. I cherish it.â€ť
Fast forward to present day, and Gozzo finds himself preparing for another baseball debut, as the New Britain Bees announced on Tuesday Gozzo would be the teamâ€™s new manager when the 2019 season begins.
For Gozzo, the teamâ€™s pitching coach in 2018, it was a position he coveted since former manager Wally Backman signed on to manage Long Island Ducks at the end of the 2018 season. The Bees and general manager Brad Smith interviewed Gozzo back in December as one of almost 25 candidates, but Gozzoâ€™s resume stuck out the most. After all, Gozzo had a whole organization in his corner.
â€śWhen the announcement officially came out that Wally was going to the Ducks, we had quite a few players, even our trainer, saying Goose was the guy for the job,â€ť Smith said. â€śWe felt like his interview process was a year long, just dealing with him on a daily basis as our pitching coach. After dealing with Goose for a year, we knew he was our guy.â€ť
Gozzo made sense for the Bees thanks to his experience in baseball and with the team, but his roots stretch beyond the game. His roots are entrenched in the grounds right beneath New Britain Stadium. Born in New Britain and a graduate of Berlin High School, Gozzo will begin his managing career as a local legend trying to bring a winner to the city that helped mold him into a winner himself.
â€śI've been trying to get into managing in the pro game for a while,â€ť Gozzo said. â€śWhat better place than my own backyard?â€ť
Smith is excited for the potential benefits of Gozzoâ€™s local ties, and the marketing opportunities for the club that can arise. More importantly, Gozzoâ€™s baseball ties spread even further, having played for legendary names like Mel Stottlemyre, Bobby Valentine and Clint Hurdle, helping him build a baseball network that can bring new talent to an organization hungry for an Atlantic League Championship. In fact, his baseball ties already reach the Atlantic League, as Gozzoâ€™s second career strikeout victim was none other than former MLB outfielder Pete Incaviglia, now the manager of the reigning Atlantic League Champion Sugar Land Skeeters.
â€śGoose, being a big leaguer with all his contacts, that'll be a great asset for us,â€ť Smith said. â€śIf we're going to win here, we have to get some talent, and Goose will be a big part of our recruitment process.â€ť
Gozzo will not only focus on bringing new talent to the Bees, but also work to restore the baseball buzz around his hometown. He knows itâ€™s possible. Before he took the mound at the Skydome as a major leaguer, he sat in the stands of Beehive Stadium as a teenager, watching young arms like Roger Clemens throw for the New Britain Red Sox, much to the delight of thousands of fans who regularly filled the stadium in its heyday.
â€śI remember that place being packed,â€ť Gozzo said. â€śI was on the road playing years later when they built the New Britain stadium [next door] and hearing from friends and family that it was a great atmosphere. So it's there. It's a matter of getting people back interested and staying a little bit more local. There's a lot of fanfare that can be done.â€ť
Of course, for fans to come, the team needs to succeed. Gozzo knows it, and is excited for the challenge. Spring will begin his first stint as a manager in professional baseball, but Gozzo is packed with baseball experience, including four games last season when he filled in for Backman as manager. The team went 3-1 in those games.
â€śThere were plenty of times that Wally had to take time off so Goose took over, and everyone worked well underneath him,â€ť Bees starting pitcher Kyle Simon said. â€śHe's ready for the job. He makes the game of baseball a lot easier. He's got a lot of insight and experience.â€ť
To change the tide for the Bees in 2019, Gozzo hopes to maintain the success he had in a short stint as acting manager last season. And for Gozzo, itâ€™s all about starting off on the right foot as the marathon of a 144-game season unfolds.
â€śI just want to get off to a better start than we did last year,â€ť Gozzo said. â€śNew Britain started 0-6 last year. My goal is certainly to win every game, but I definitely want to get the team off to a good start.â€ť
If the Beesâ€™ start to the 2019 season is anything like Gozzoâ€™s first start in the major leagues, consider the team, the front office and the city of New Britain fully on board.
Ryan Chichester can be reached at (860) 801-5094 or firstname.lastname@example.org