Sean McMahon had trouble searching for the right words when asked about the passing of his former college baseball coach.
"I think he made me realize that all the hard work would play off, and he always knew I had the potential," said the former Pittsfield High School and North Adams State baseball standout in trying to describe Joseph Zavattaro.
"Not just me, he rode a lot of us hard," McMahon said. "He made us the guys we are today."
Zavattaro, 86, died Tuesday morning in Naples, Fla., of natural causes.
"It's hard to put into words. He was so many things," former player Chris Barbarotta of Pittsfield said. "First and foremost, he was a coach. More than that, he was a mentor. As life went on, he turned into a friend. It's pretty amazing, the reaction talking to my teammates and the amount of people that I spoke with, shows the impact that he had on people."
Zavattaro is a member of the New England Baseball Hall of Fame, the New England Intercollegiate Baseball Hall of Fame, and the MCLA Athletics Hall of Fame. He is a member of the Class of 2019 of the MASCAC Hall of Fame.
He went 497-314 at MCLA during a career that spanned from 1964 to 1995. Zavattaro did not coach during the 1982 season, with George Galli taking over that year.
While at North Adams State and MCLA, Zavattaro's teams won or shared 12 MASCAC championships and made four NCAA Division III tournament appearances. The final appearance came in 1995, his final year at the helm. The Trailblazers went 24-14 that year, and they won the MASCAC championship.
For 31 years, Zavattaro acted as baseball coach and athletic director. But in 1997 and 1998, Zavattaro took his talents to Springfield, where he coached for two seasons at Division II American International College. He was 29-48 as a coach there.
As athletic director, Zavattaro helped create the foundation for MCLA athletics. He helped finalize plans for the Zavattaro Athletic Complex, which includes the turf soccer field named for former men's soccer coach Ron Shewcraft, grass soccer fields, baseball and softball facilities and tennis courts.
Zavattaro was a standout athlete at Pittsfield High School. He played professionally in the Pittsburgh Pirates organization, reaching the Class AAA level. After baseball, he returned to Berkshire County and enrolled at North Adams State. He was a standout in basketball and in baseball.
One of Zavattaro's countless players made his way to the big leagues. Ken Hill signed as an undrafted free agent with the St. Louis Cardinals organization. Hill, who was an infielder from Lynn Classical when he arrived in North Adams, was converted to a pitcher by Zavattaro. Hill made his debut in 1988 with the Cardinals.
Hill spent 14 years in Major League Baseball with seven organizations, and pitched for the Cleveland Indians in the 1995 World Series.
McMahon was one of a number of former NASC/MCLA players who turned pro under Zavattaro's tutelage. That number included Hill, the late Tom Rizzo, John Malzone and McMahon.
One of them was Pittsfield's Joe Sondrini, who reached Class AA with the Pittsburgh Pirates organization. He now works in marketing for SABIC, and lives in Concord, N.C. He was a 39th-round pick of the Pirates in 1990. Playing professional baseball was nowhere on Sondrini's radar screen when he first went from Pittsfield High School to North Adams.
"There was no idea of me playing professionally when I got to North Adams State," Sondrini said, when reached at his North Carolina office. "I was worried about playing, period, with the talent they had on that team. I was more worried about just getting an opportunity to play in college. Then around my sophomore year, I started to develop into a better player. My junior year, I really excelled. That was based on the work ethic I put in, but also being around the veterans and saw how they worked.
"Everyone on our team worked hard, but that was based on what Zavvy had shared with us."
Jody DiMassimo played at MCLA in the late 1980s for Zavattaro. Like McMahon and Sondrini, DiMassimo came from Pittsfield High School.
"They kind of go hand-in-hand," DiMassimo said, when asked for his memories of Zavattaro as a person and as a coach.
"He was very smart, very funny, incredibly loyal, very generous and the same goes as a baseball coach," DiMassimo said. "He was a consummate teacher, always looking to pass on the small things, the small tidbits of information that would help you in a game or just in your everyday life. How to treat people with respect and dignity and to be giving to your community.
"A lot of us got involved in charity work that he was also involved in. He kind of preached to us to keep yourselves as a group or a family, and to keep your community close."
Information on a memorial service is pending.
Howard Herman can be reached at email@example.com, at @howardherman on Twitter, or 413-496-6253.