MLB.com Columnist

Mark Feinsand

Legendary prep coach dear to locals, big leaguers

Cecere impacted community, players on and off field

Legendary prep coach dear to locals, big leaguers

Even in Dom Cecere's final days, it was never about him.

Simply known as "Coach" to those who knew him, Cecere guided the Eastchester High School baseball team for 52 seasons, winning more games than anyone in New York State history.

But it was never about wins and losses for Cecere, who died Saturday at the age of 75. It was about the kids.

"Coach Cecere wasn't just a baseball coach," said Jay Karol, Eastchester's athletic director. "He used baseball as his classroom to teach about life."

Those lessons would serve Cecere's students well both on and off the field. Always look a person in the eye. Give them a firm handshake. Be honest, no matter how difficult that truth might be.

"His integrity and honesty stood out," said Bob Fletcher, head coach at rival Kennedy Catholic High School in Somers, N.Y., like Eastchester located in the northern suburbs of New York City. "He was a man of principles. He was an inspiration to coaches, a tremendous role model for the kids -- not only as baseball players, but in life."

"He was a throwback; he was from a different era," said Andrew LeRay, who played for Cecere before later becoming his assistant coach, and now works for MLB.com. "None of us ever encountered someone like him in our everyday lives. He was very honest, very upfront. That honesty could be brutal, but he was always going to tell it like it was."

In the final days of his battle with pancreatic cancer, Cecere refused to feel sorry for himself. Even from his hospital bed, he was determined to make the same impact on people that he had for more than five decades.

"He never asked, 'Why is this happening to me?' and he never got mad," Karol said. "He was almost on his deathbed last week and when a nurse walked into the room, he was asking them where they grew up, who they are as a person. He just cared about people."

Cecere's reach extended into professional baseball, where he played rookie ball with the Yankees following a successful college career at New York University and later served as an area scout for the Reds, Phillies and Expos. He never made it to the Majors, but his brief experience with the Yankees left an impression on him that he would share with his students for years to come.

"He always talked about how he could throw and hit with [Mickey] Mantle, but, 'Once they started throwing the changeup, I went back to the other side of the TV,'" recalled John Doherty, who played for Cecere at Eastchester before embarking on a five-year big league career himself. "He enjoyed the experience and the guys were great to him, but once they started throwing that changeup, that was his demise. As pitchers, he always made sure we had a good changeup for that reason."

Doherty, who won 32 games with the Tigers from 1992-95, nearly quit playing in ninth grade. Fearing that his student might later regret the decision, Cecere enlisted a former player of his to return to the school and talk with Doherty, encouraging him to continue with the team.

"That's the kind of guy Coach was," Doherty said. "He cared about kids and he wanted them to play to their potential."

LeRay was eight years old when he first met Cecere, who began coaching at Eastchester when LeRay's mother was a sophomore at the school. He attended Cecere's summer baseball camp for several years before playing for him, just another kid from Eastchester learning the ropes from a local legend.

"He was always adamant when you played for him that he wasn't your friend; he was your coach," LeRay said. "But he would say, 'After you graduate, you come back and my door is always open.' He was entirely focused on molding young men and not necessarily creating the next Major-League All-Star. He wasn't really interested in that. As much as he loved baseball and he loved his players, he was more interested to see his players graduate high school and college and see how successful they were in their lives off the field."

Cecere was never interested in the awards and accolades, though there were plenty, whether it was a national coach of the year award or induction into the New York State Public High School Athletic Association Hall of Fame. Karol wouldn't even tell him when he nominated him for such an honor, knowing his friend would discourage such things.

"He would say, 'It's enough. It's not about me.'" Karol said.

Yet for the Eastchester community, it was about him. Since his passing Saturday, a "Coach Dom Cecere Friends" page on Facebook has been flooded with testimonials from former students, players and friends, all mourning the loss of a man that meant as much to the town as anybody who ever lived there.

"He was the community; he defined that town in so many ways," LeRay said. "I've lived my entire life in Eastchester. Coach defined what Eastchester was; he brought an old-school mentality into the town and engrained it in his players, in his students and the people that knew him."

Doherty played for manager Sparky Anderson, whose Hall of Fame plaque includes the words "humility, humanity, eternal optimism" in describing him. In Doherty's eyes, the same could be said for Cecere.

"They were one and the same; one guy just happened to be in the Major Leagues and famous and the other guy stayed in a local town," Doherty said. "He was famous in his own right in this town.

"Coach is the best man I've ever met in my life; it's as simple as that. The way he lived his life, how he dedicated himself to serving others, he walked the walk and talked the talk."

Mark Feinsand is an executive reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.