Mike Mazzara was one of those late bloomers in high school. He didn’t make the varsity as a sophomore at Canisius, where he starred in soccer, and wasn’t a regular starter until his senior year. Most Division I coaches didn’t bother recruiting him.
He figured he was done with baseball when he decided on Canisius for college. Mazzara was a home boy. He didn’t want to go away for school. Academics were important, and Canisius seemed like the best fit.
But he was fooling himself. He loved baseball, and the game was still in his blood. One day shortly before the start of the fall semester, Mazzara texted his father, Michael Sr.: “Dad, I can’t handle this,” he wrote. “I’ve got to play baseball.”
His dad told him to contact the new head coach, Matt Mazurek. He had nothing to lose, right?
As it turned out, Mazurek knew who Mazzara was. He had watched him playing shortstop in high school, late in the recruiting process, and made a mental note. When one of his players told him Mazzara had enrolled at Canisius, he assumed it was only a matter of time before he heard from the kid.
Sure enough, about a week into the 2017-18 school year, Mazurek heard a knock on his office door. It was Mike Mazzara.
“Coach, all my friends are playing baseball and I miss it,” Mazzara said. “Can I have an opportunity on your team?”
“At that point, we were about 42 guys deep,” Mazurek recalled on Monday. “I said, ‘Look, I can’t promise you anything, but I’ll let you come on and be around it and see what happens.”
There was an intrasquad scrimmage the following weekend. Mazzara, then a middle infielder, showed up and made a good impression. He redshirted that first season, when the Griffs won the MAAC tourney and an NCAA berth in Mazurek’s inaugural season.
Blake Urquhart, a volunteer assistant for Canisius at the time, thought Mazzara was still in high school when he met him. Mazzara became his favorite player, one of those baseball lovers who works at the game and rises above his perceived limitations.
Mazzara played sparingly as a walk-on freshman. In 2020, he was still buried on the bench when one of the Griffs’ catchers went down. Mazurek asked if Mazzara wanted to strap on the catcher’s gear.
He didn’t need to ask him twice. “He took it and ran with it,” Mazurek said.
Before long, Mazzara was the starting catcher. In 2020, he was having a solid year, batting .292 with a .485 on-base percentage, when the COVID-19 pandemic put a halt to the season, just as Canisius was set to begin defense of its regular-season MAAC title.
The players were crushed, no one more than the baseball lover from Buffalo who had worked so diligently to learn the catcher’s position.
“It’s a very unique challenge, for sure,” said Mazzara, an accounting major and three-time MAAC all-academic choice. “Coach somehow saw something in me, and I’m glad he did.”
Mazurek was never happier than last Friday afternoon at the Demske Sports Complex, when Mazzara had the game of his college life just when the Griffs needed it the most.
Canisius had split the first two games of its best-of-three, first-round MAAC tourney series with Marist, a tough squad that lost most of its regular season to COVID. The Friday winner would move on to the four-team conference final.
In the third inning, with the Griffs down, 3-0, Mazzara hit a grand slam to give them the lead. It was the first home run of his college career. Later, with the game tied at 6-6, he singled in the go-ahead run and later scored. Canisius won, 10-7, and will play at Fairfield on Wednesday in the first game of the MAAC’s four-team, double-elimination round.
Mazzara went 4-for-4 with five RBIs and three runs scored. He had never had more than two hits or two RBIs in a college game. Pretty clutch, you might say.
“It was awesome,” Mazzara said before practice Monday. “It’s something you dream about growing up: bases loaded, two outs, big game, playoff game, win or go home. I spent so many times dreaming about that.
“I kind of blacked out for a second after I hit it, running the bases,” he said. “You don’t remember much. I got back to the dugout and all I could tell the guys was that was the greatest feeling in the world.”
The third out was recorded soon after his big hit. Mazzara was still in a daze. “I couldn’t find any of my gear. I was flying mentally all over the place. They had to have one of the other catchers run out there and warm up the pitcher until I could find my stuff.”
It was a surreal moment, and a powerfully emotional one. A week earlier, his paternal grandmother, Carolyn Mazzara, had passed away from heart and pulmonary illness. Carolyn had been laid to rest on Monday. Mike said he was “in a good place” when he came to bat in the third. And he felt her presence.
“How could you not?” he said. “We just had all the family in town, which was nice. It was definitely a very special moment. My uncle said, ‘That ball had some wings on it.’”
“I don’t know who’s spiritual and who’s not,” said Mike Sr. “But my mother followed every game. I’d put them on live stream and she would watch them from her hospice bed at home.”
“Normally, the first thing I would do after one of his at-bats was text her what he did. So it was a little weird not being able to text her that.”
Mike Mazzara Sr. has been attending his three children’s games since Mike was a little boy. Mike is the eldest. Ella played soccer at Sacred Heart. Victor, the youngest, plays baseball for Canisius High and on the Full Circuit Power travel team.
Mazzara Sr., who owns his own insurance agency, saves every home run ball, going back to Mike’s first one in Little League. When the ball left Mike’s bat on the grand slam, he knew it was gone. He was standing down the left-field line, near the foul pole, and began sprinting toward the street behind the left-center field fence.
“I was so embarrassed,” he said. “I freaked out. I didn’t even watch him run the bases until I saw it on Twitter. I jumped up and I started running to find the ball, like he was 11 years old again.
“I ran across Delavan Avenue without even looking. My mother-in-law was yelling ‘Watch out’ because there were cars coming. Then I got the ball across the street at the bank area.”
Hey, the boy is his hero.
“He’s the best person I know,” Mike Sr. said. “If you look at Twitter and see some of the comments people made on that home run, retweets, everyone says the same thing about him. He’s the nicest, most genuine, polite, caring person. I would say the same thing about each of my three kids.”
Mazzara never misses any of his kids’ games — unless they conflict. He’s put more than 100,000 miles on his car driving around to games. He drove to New Jersey after his mother died, watched Mike play a doubleheader on a Saturday, then drove him home for the wake and funeral.
They had to miss the Sunday doubleheader at Monmouth. But ever since the 2020 season was canceled, the Griffs had been looking ahead to the MAAC Tournament, which they won when Mazzara was a redshirt freshman and Mazurek a first-time head coach.
Thanks to Mazzara, they’ll get at least one more shot at Fairfield, which swept Canisius in the opening series in March and is 35-1 on the season.
“They don’t scare us,” Mazurek said. “They are good, but we’re a different team from the last time we saw them.”
Mazzara said the Griffs are heading to Connecticut with a good feeling “after going through the very extreme roller coaster of emotions over those three games.”
He said their best baseball is still ahead of them. If he another game or two in him like last Friday’s, they might wind up in the NCAAs.
Jerry Sullivan is an award-winning journalist who joined the News 4 team in 2020 after three decades as a sports columnist at The Buffalo News. See more of his work here.