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Father’s passion spurs son’s tribute mission

John J. Pizzio was Seminole Presbyterian baseball’s driving force. After his death, son J.J. took up the cause.

[Pizzio family]
Baseball was the thing that brought John J. Pizzio, left, and son J.J., then 17, close.

By MIKE READLING

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 14, 2001


TAMPA -- There is a baseball field in the middle of Tampa's inner-city gridlock, sandwiched between a cemetery and a power substation off North Boulevard, hidden under a large stand of oak trees.

photo
[Times photo: Thomas M. Goethe]
Seminole Presbyterian coach J.J. Pizzio hugs pitcher Chris Phethean after beating Fort Myers Evangelical in the region final.
It is the type of place John J. Pizzio would have barreled into on a Saturday morning, set up a table and charged $5 for youngsters who might not otherwise have had the chance to play Little League baseball.

But it wasn't a pretty place, probably not one on which he would have put his name.

Funny how a dream can bring things full circle.

That diamond was once called Doc Nance Field. But after Seminole Presbyterian renovated it with $25,000 and tons of elbow grease (over the past year, the city had no problem changing its name to John J. Pizzio Jr. Memorial Field). The agreement is that Pizzio's name will hang prominently on a 4-foot sign behind home plate as long as Seminole Presbyterian plays its home games there.

After all Pizzio did for youth baseball and Seminole Presbyterian, how could John's son, Lancers coach J.J. Pizzio, name the field anything but after his father, called the first "real" Lancers coach, who died of a heart attack on June 29, 1997, at age 49.

"It makes me cry," said Ann Pizzio, J.J.'s mother. "His dad would be very proud of everything J.J. has done."

No doubt Dad's buttons would be busting tonight when J.J. leads the Lancers into a Class A state semifinal against Jacksonville Arlington Country Day at Legends Field, a few miles from where John J. Pizzio planted the seeds for Seminole Presbyterian's dream.

* * *

When Seminole Presbyterian added grades 9-12 in 1989, the administration started a varsity baseball program.

John J. Pizzio, a lifelong baseball fanatic, became the coach and a huge asset when it came to supplying equipment, athletic director Frank Mabry said.

That's because Pizzio had a long history of developing connections with the New York Yankees while keeping statistics for their Gulf Coast League and Florida State League affiliates.

Pizzio stayed one year as coach but remained heavily involved as one of the school's biggest boosters and consultants.

Meanwhile, at the Yankees' minor-league complex on Himes and Columbus in Tampa, J.J. and his father became close. Together they watched game after game and talked to the Yankees legends that strolled through. On days his father couldn't be there to keep the score book, J.J. filled in.

J.J. also took classes at Hillsborough Community College and landed a job at Seminole Presbyterian working in the extended day-care program. Lancers baseball, however, was the furthest thing from his mind. "I didn't come here to do anything with baseball," he said. "Baseball was out of my life at that point."

Then the first of two life-altering events occurred.

In early 1997, one of J.J.'s best friends, Wayne Hughes, was killed in a crash caused by a drunken driver. Hughes had led J.J. to his job at Seminole Presbyterian.

In June, J.J.'s father died.

"First my best friend, then my dad," J.J. said. "It was the turning point of my entire life. I prayed a lot and asked God to give me something to grab on to. I needed something to nurture."

That's when J.J. went to then-baseball coach Kevin Hickinbotham and was blunt about his feelings.

"I told (Hickinbotham) that if he wanted to bring in someone to turn the program around, he needed to bring me in (as an assistant)," J.J. said. "I was pretty bold about it. Kevin was humble enough and gracious enough to allow me to come in."

Seminole Presbyterian wasn't awful -- "mediocre" is the word J.J. likes to use -- but it was bad enough that he couldn't stand to see something with his father's name attached to it struggle so mightily.

"When I took over as athletic director (seven years ago), our baseball program was horrid," Mabry said. "It was scary, nothing I wanted my name attached to."

J.J., who became head coach in 1999, was on a mission to change that. He created guidelines and rules that dealt more with life than baseball. His coaching philosophy is to instill a strong sense of faith, build a base of education and work to keep family life in order. If a player does all three, J.J. said, playing baseball "won't be a problem."

While teaching his players those things, J.J. realized they were the philosophies his father taught as a coach. The elder Pizzio just did it more subtly.

J.J. has practice balls with scripture and motivational statements he scribbles on each. Every day the players play catch with the "Work Ethic" or the "Respect" ball.

It is a small reminder to J.J. that everything he does, his father is close by.

"I don't accept the fact that he's gone," J.J. said. "I just don't see him that much anymore."

* * *

It's still all in the family.

J.J.'s brother, Bobby, coaches first base for Seminole Presbyterian, and he is as adamant as his brother about using his father's beliefs. Bobby also gets just as emotional.

After the region final, in which Seminole Presbyterian beat Fort Myers Evangelical 16-13 to earn the trip to the state tournament, the brothers hugged on the pitcher's mound while players danced behind them.

"Growing up, my dad did so much for the kids around town," Bobby said. "This is our way of giving back in his name. That's what the big hug was on the mound. It was for our dad."

And, in turn, for everybody at Seminole Presbyterian.

"I promised my kids from the first day that if they worked hard and did everything I asked of them to prepare, I would get them to the state tournament," J.J. said. "I wasn't in a position to guarantee a win, but I told them I would give them the opportunity.

"Some stayed. Some jumped ship to other schools. But I'd be willing to bet you that they'll be at that game (tonight). They'll be there because they still feel like they're part of the Lancer program. And they are. Once you're a member of the Lancer family, you're always a member of the Lancer family."

- Staff writer Scott Purks contributed to this report.

State baseball semifinals today at Legends Field

CLASS A: Winter Haven All Saints' (24-6) vs. Miami Archbishop Carroll (23-11), 1 p.m.

Seminole Presbyterian (21-8) vs. Jacksonville Arlington Country Day (21-8), 8 p.m.

CLASS 2A: Tallahassee North Florida Christian (24-8) vs. West Palm Beach King's Academy (28-4), 10 a.m.

Gainesville P.K. Yonge (26-5) vs. Miami Florida Christian (21-12), 5 p.m.

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