Each June, thousands of aspiring ballplayers gather around friends and family and suffer through the suspense of MLB draft day. They await the call that has the power to turn a boy into a professional baseball player. A certain uneasiness and restless whispers fill the room. When that call finally comes, there is a sense of relief, triumph and joy. The draftee is showered with hugs and kind words from loved ones.
With the 278th pick in the 1988 MLB Amateur Draft, the Pittsburgh Pirates selected Joe Ausanio, a right handed pitcher out of Jacksonville University.
The only thing Ausanio heard before some of the best news of his life was the sound of a recreational softball game he was umpiring.
“I needed money,” a smiling Ausanio said. “My father came down and said, ‘Hey you got a phone call. You were drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates,’ and I was like, ‘Oh, awesome.’”
Currently, he coaches the Marist Women’s Softball team. Ausanio wasn’t your typical draftee, and after a professional baseball and wrestling career, he certainly isn’t your everyday softball coach either.
Ausanio’s unique journey began when he made the decision to enroll at Jacksonville University, instead of going pro. Originally drafted out of high school by the Atlanta Braves, Ausanio chose college over going straight to the big leagues because he felt he needed more time. At eighteen years old, he felt it was best to prepare mentally and physically in college rather than going straight to the minor leagues. Like many, Ausanio, too, had a desire for the college experience. After maturing for four years at Jacksonville, Ausanio was ready for the next step; he was ready to start his career as a professional baseball player.
Although he didn’t make it to the MLB with the Pirates, Ausanio attributes his time spent there as an important building block for his future. Leading the New York Penn League in saves his first year after being drafted, the right handed reliever was invited to the club’s spring training the following year. That was when Pirates General Manager, Larry Doughty, gave Ausanio and teammate Blas Minor some surreal news.
“Hey I need to talk to you two,” Doughty said. “I want you two to pack your bags. You’re going to join the major league team on a three day road trip as extra pitchers.”
So at the age of 23, Ausanio’s first and only batter he had faced in spring training thus far was his childhood idol: Fred Lynn. Lynn smoked a single back up the middle, but Ausanio settled down afterward and struck out two batters in the inning. He gained confidence and reassurance that he could be successful at this level.
That was as close to the majors Ausanio would get as a Pirate. He was selected by the Montreal Expos, now the Washington Nationals, during the 1992 Rule 5 Draft—a way for Major League Baseball to provide playing opportunities for prospects. In this case, Ausanio had played professionally four or more years, and not on a franchise’s 40 man roster, making him eligible for the Rule 5 Draft.
After spending only one year in the Expo system, he was Rule 5 Drafted again by the New York Yankees. Becoming a Yankee would be the best thing to professionally happen to Ausanio.
During the 1994 MLB All-Star break, Ausanio got another monumental call. He was headed to the big leagues.
It had always been his dream to pitch in the majors, although at times it seemed like an impossibility. Ausanio credits his step brother and former Atlanta Braves infielder Paul Runge and friend David Ferraro, a Professional Bowlers Association Hall-of-Famer, as role models whom he could trust and seek advice from.
He totaled 53 and 1/3 innings for the Yankees over the next two seasons, never securing consistent work at the big league level. The 28-year-old rookie enjoyed every moment of his time spent with the Yankees. Playing with legends like Don Mattingly and Wade Boggs and pitching for legendary manager Buck Showalter, Ausanio soaked everything in.
After the middle reliever’s last demotion to the minor leagues with the Yankees, he never pitched in pinstripes again. He spent the next two seasons in the New York Mets’ and Colorado Rockies’ minor league systems. When the 1997 season finished, Ausanio’s career was over. He retired at the age of 31 after a nine year run in professional baseball.
Ausanio had to find another career and start over.
“I had no idea what I wanted to do. I went to school to be a teacher,” Ausanio said. “I actually took a permanent substitute job, but I didn’t like teaching…it just didn’t feel right to me.”
Ausanio took a job in sales working for Cellular One, now a part of AT&T. The former Yankee earned more money as a salesman than he ever did pitching in the major leagues.
Selling phones was not something Ausanio loved, so after a few years he left Cellular One and started to work for the Hudson Valley Renegades. He provided color commentary for their television broadcasts along with current MLB analyst Brian Kenny.
The player-turned-commentator craved more responsibility with the Renegades and became their Director of Baseball Operations in 1999. Now the liaison between the Renegades and their parent club, Tampa Bay Rays, Ausanio handles anything baseball related for the minor league club. This includes anything from the game’s official scorer to team travel to the umpires and everything in-between. He still holds the position.
The Kingston, N.Y. native’s wild ride took another twist. At the age 45, Ausanio was offered a chance to wrestle professionally. He went all in, training hard for months at a time, eventually teaming up with partner Dustin “Goldust” Rhodes, a future WWE Hall of Famer.
“It’s kind of an out of body experience, and I tell people, as crazy at it is, one of the things about it is is that I’ve never felt such an adrenaline rush,” Ausanio said.
He was a lifelong wrestling fan competing in the ring a few times to fulfill a childhood fantasy, but he never longed for a career in the sport.
That brings us to the most recent twist.
Dutchess Stadium, home of the Renegades, hosted the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference baseball tournament. Through Ausanio’s involvement, he befriended Marist College Athletic Director Tim Murray.
Murray thought that Ausanio would make a great assistant to the newly hired Marist Softball coach at the time. Ausanio accepted, and had only planned on assisting for one season.
The following year, Murray called Ausanio in a panic searching for a new head coach, after a late August resignation left the team without a skipper. Murray asked Ausanio to bail the team out during the 2009 season.
Ten years later, Murray’s panicked hire has worked out pretty well.
Entering his tenth season coaching the team, Ausanio has earned two MAAC Coach of the Year awards (2011, 2016), won two MAAC regular season championships (2014, 2016) and is the all time wins leader (254) amongst Marist softball head coaches.
Lessons learned from his days as a professional ballplayer helped shape his coaching style. The revered coach tries to treat his players the way he wanted to be treated during his playing days through unappreciated things like communication, fairness and creating memorable experiences for each player. Simple, yet commonly overlooked.
“Coach Ausanio means everything to the team. He truly cares about our well being and success, and there is no other coach I would rather play for,” said junior pitcher Kallen Leeseberg. “I made the right decision coming here to play my career.”
34 years later, Ausanio finds himself back on a softball field. Unlike his eighteen-year-old umpiring gig, this job isn’t for the money.
Asked what he hoped his players think about their beloved coach, Ausanio paused a moment.
“That they love me,” he said. “And that they know that I’m there for them.”