It is the dream of most every Little Leaguer to one day suit up in a Major League uniform. For Rutherford's Vin Mazzaro, June 2 was the day that became a reality.
With his mother, Mary, father, Steve, and about 20 other relatives in attendance, the 22-year-old made his debut for the Oakland Athletics at Chicago's U.S. Cellular Field. All he did was toss 6 1/3 innings of shutout, three-hit ball to beat the White Sox, 5-0. It was the culmination of a quick jump to the Majors for the 6'1" right-hander, and of course an exciting day for Mazzaro, his family, and seemingly the entire borough of Rutherford.
"It was kind of nerve-wracking – there was a lot of emotion going through my head and a lot of butterflies, but it was a really special night for me," Mazzaro said of the first start. "It took me a few innings to settle down, but I felt great and everything was working out well for me."By his next start, Mazzaro was making Oakland history.
Five days after his win in Chicago, Mazzaro bested that start with 7 1/3 shutout frames in his first home start, against Baltimore. The scoreless streak continued into his third start, another fine outing against San Francisco in which he finally surrendered a run, ending the string of zeros at 17 2/3 innings.
Big-name pitchers like Rollie Fingers, Vida Blue and Barry Zito are among the dozens to make their first Major League appearances with Oakland since the franchise moved there from Kansas City in 1968. But it is Mazzaro who now holds the team record for most scoreless innings at the start of his career.
As a third-round pick of Oakland in the 2005 June Draft, Mazzaro was a highly regarded prospect from the start. The transition to the professional level, however, took some time. Mazzaro was 18-21 in his first two years in the minors, at the Athletics' Class A affiliates in Kane County (2006) and Stockton (2007), with an ERA over 5 in both seasons.
But the Athletics liked his makeup and his live arm and promoted him to AA Midland last year, and he blossomed on that level, posting a 12-3 record and 1.90 ERA and earning another move, this time to AAA Sacramento for a few late-season starts. He began this year as the ace of the Sacramento staff before getting the call for the start in Chicago.
It was Mary who picked up when Vin called home with the news.
"I heard her yelling and when she handed me the phone, I just told him how proud I was and how his hard work had paid off," said Steve.
"The first two years were an up-and-down learning experience," explained Mazzaro. "I was a little surprised to get the chance to go to AA last year, but I came into camp strong, and I feel like the promotion was a reward for all the hard work that did during the off season."
That level of work has been with Mazzaro for years, instilled by Steve, who served as his coach in the Rutherford Little League, where young Vin's talent for the game first came to light, even as nine-year-old playing against kids up to three years older. He dominated at that level, tossing several no-hitters and later helping the Rutherford High Bulldogs to back-to-back State titles.
"From the age of three, playing Wiffle ball, we knew he loved the game," said Steve. "But Vin has always taken one thing at a time, he never looked so far ahead to say 'I'm going to play in the majors' - he just kept working harder and good things have happened."
"Probably winning the second state title is my best memory from that time," said Mazzaro. "It's pretty rare to do that and it was a special day for the high school and the whole town of Rutherford since it was such an amazing accomplishment."
Mazzaro sees his calm demeanor, even when things aren't going as well on the mound, as his biggest strength as a pitcher, another thing with which Steve is in total agreement. He gives a lot of credit to his family in helping form that character.
"Playing the game, working outside with my dad, that really brought us together," he remembered. "Playing catch, we worked hard and it was a grind, but we had a really good bond, it brought us really close. My mom always supports me, and I really love her cooking – her spaghetti and meatballs are the best. And my brother and sister are always there for me, my biggest fans."
Mazzaro relied on their support when deciding between signing with Oakland or accepting a scholarship offer to St. John's University after his senior year at RHS.
"It was a tough decision, but I thought I was ready for the jump," he noted. "The biggest adjustment was all the things I had to do on my own, living on my own for the first time, taking care of small stuff that never had to, like finding housing. All of that little stuff adds to the pressure on a young guy, but I'm happy with the decision. I'm here now and feeling awesome."
With good reason. After six starts in June, Mazzaro has earned a regular spot in an exceedingly young Oakland rotation that features other top prospects in Dallas Braden, 26, Brett Anderson, 21, Trevor Cahill, 21, and Gio González, 23, a group which some have likened to the A's staffs earlier this decade. Zito, Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder, Danny Haren and Rich Harden were 20-something parts of rotations that helped the team to several 90-win seasons.
Athletics pitching Coach Curt Young believes the A's have something special in Mazzaro.
"Vin dominated in the minor leagues, so we're really not surprised what he's done up here," said Young. "He's got great stuff and that should take him a long way in his career."
"[Being selected by] Oakland was the best thing that could have happened for Vin," said Steve. "When we first heard it, from the family standpoint, it was like, 'Wow, it couldn't be farther away,' but for him it was the best. Oakland has the reputation of working with young players, especially pitchers, and when they met with him after Instructional League [in 2005], they laid out a plan and they have stuck to it every step of the way."
As the schedule brings the team East this month for four games at Yankee Stadium (July 23-26) and Fenway Park in Boston (July 27-30), Mazzaro, who grew up as a Yankees fan, is looking forward to the opportunity to be closer to home.
"If I get the chance, it would be an awesome feeling," said Mazzaro of a possible start in the Bronx. "Growing up, going to see games, there, yeah, it will be the new one but it's still Yankee Stadium. I don't know if I'll be pitching in Fenway, but it will be good to get back to the East Coast."
And maybe to a plate of mom's home-cooked spaghetti and meatballs.