Early Friday night, barely five hours since he had been introduced as Mississippi State’s 17th athletic director, John Cohen stood in front of the baseball team that he spent so many years putting together and took a turn making an introduction of his own. This is the best man to lead this program, Cohen said as he stepped aside to make room for Andy Cannizaro, the newest head coach of Mississippi State baseball.
Cannizaro has spent a lifetime around baseball, working as the hitting coach and recruiting coordinator at LSU the last two seasons after working for five years as a scout for the New York Yankees, where he was responsible for drafting and signing former Bulldogs Jacob Lindgren and Jonathan Holder. In fact, Cannizaro played for the Yankees himself after a stellar career at Tulane where he was an All-American who still holds the Conference USA records for hits and stolen bases.
At 37 years old, he’s done more in the world of baseball than most do in twice the amount of time. And on Friday, he added head coach to his list of achievements as he was welcomed with enthusiastic applause inside MSU’s locker room.
Cannizaro stepped to the front of the group and told MSU’s players about himself, a high-energy guy (a descriptor he used more than a handful of times) with a wonderful wife and two little kids who will consider the young men on the team to be their heroes.
“They’re going to be around all the time,” Cannizaro said. “They’re going to love you and they’re going to want to run out on the field and play with you.”
The new head coach also told his team about his approach, saying he wants to highlight and emphasize the strengths of each individual, playing aggressively on offense and safely on defense. If you can hit the ball hard, he said, then he’s going to let you rake. If you can throw heat, he added, then he’s going to let you throw away. And very importantly, if you can run, he told them, then he’s going to let you make the basepath your personal race track.
By the end of his talk, Cannizaro had the entire team clapping and cheering. They seemed ready to take the field immediately, and perhaps they would have had practice for the day not ended just moments before Cannizaro met his new team. That, perhaps, was as good an indication as any why Cohen selected Cannizaro as his own replacement.
“This is the man who is going to lead you to a National Championship,” Cohen told the team as he finished his introduction, “and I’m going to be standing right here watching.”
On Friday night, Cannizaro nicely took a few minutes out of his whirlwind schedule for a quick question-and-answer session. The following is a transcript of that conversation.
Question: You seem to have risen through the ranks of coaching quickly. What do you attribute that to?
Answer: I just think it’s been a lifelong process of playing the game for a really long time and being fortunate enough to be in the big leagues and play for guys like Joe Maddon and be around guys like Joe Torre and playing around so many great guys. I’ve taken parts and pieces from so many different great players and front office people and managers over the years. I’ve combined that with all the things I’ve learned collegiately from head coaches like Rick Jones and Jim Schlossnagle and then, obviously, the last two-and-a-half years working every day under Paul Mainieri and working for him. I owe so much of the last couple years to him, watching him run a program every day and seeing how he handles his team every single day. Every day, I went to work with my eyes and ears open and just tried to soak in as much as I could. He was the greatest person I could’ve worked for the last two-and-a-half years.
Q: Going from scouting to recruiting seems like a natural transition. What are some of the similarities there and how does the crossover work for you?
A: So much of the recruiting part of it starts with player and talent evaluation. There were so many guys in the five years I spent with the New York Yankees in their scouting department and it started at the very top. Probably my biggest mentor in terms of recruiting and learning how to talent evaluate and scout was Damon Oppenheimer, who is one of the Vice Presidents of the Yankees and the scouting director. I tried to be around him as much as possible and he was such a great leader of that staff and one of the best talent evaluators in baseball. I tried to learn as much as I could from him every day for five years. I took so many of those principles that I learned from him and applied them to the recruiting part of it.
You’ve got to be able to get the evaluation part of it right. When you’ve got 10-12,000 people that show up on a Friday, Saturday, Sunday in the SEC, they want to see a good product out on the field, and that evaluation – a good team on the field starts five or six or seven years before your fans ever see those kids play. You need to be able to identify the talent, you need to be able to identify the tools, you need to be able to profile in terms of the position and the requirements for that spot and really follow the tools, make sure you identify kids that can play the game. But you want kids that are great students. You want kids that have a great work ethic and that are going to try to maximize their talents.
Q: You’ve been around all of these great baseball people and taken bits and pieces from each. What is your philosophy, approach and style as a coach?
A: I try to coach every single day like I played. I wasn’t the biggest and strongest and fastest guy, but I tried to play as hard as I could every single day. I tried to play fast. I tried to take care of the baseball defensively, always playing what I call ‘Good Catch’ – being an accurate thrower of the baseball. Make the routine play. I want to be aggressive on offense. I want to be conservative on defense. I want to make the routine play. Get athletes on the field at the premium positions – shortstop, second base, centerfield. I just want to be able to build our team right in order to have the parts and pieces to compete for a National Championship every year.