By Guest Correspondent, Mark Fainaru-Wada
On an evening dedicated to celebrating the elite of Marin County high school athletics, two Redwood Baseball Giants shined brightest.
Redwood head coach Mike Firenzi and former pitching great Frank Ferroni (class of 1976) joined eight others as the latest inductees into the Marin County High School Athletic Hall of Fame.
More than 200 people attended the ceremony at the Embassy Suites in San Rafael, and both Firenzi and Ferroni were well-represented by friends, family, former teammates and coaches. The one glaring absentee was legendary coach Al Endriss, a longtime mentor to Firenzi and former coach to Ferroni, who was unable to attend due to a recent surgery that left him sidelined for a few weeks.
Both inductees took a moment during their acceptance speeches to describe the massive impact the great Endriss has had on their lives and careers.
For Firenzi, the evening put a stamp on a remarkable 27-year career – a career that, if anything, continues to pick up steam. The record he has amassed during that time is, well, naturally, Hall of Fame worthy: 434 wins, nine MCAL titles, five NCS championships, 19 consecutive playoff appearances, 48 kids placed on college rosters and 8 selected in the Major League draft.
His win total is 38 shy of Endriss’ county record (472), and the 53-year-old Firenzi has his sight sets on 500. He told the crowd he has no plans to retire, as long as his body and mind continue to thrive.
For those who have known Firenzi all the way back to his days growing up in Corte Madera and playing in Twin Cities Little League, it’s little surprise he has made baseball his life’s work. His father, Roger, coached during the 70’s through the early 80’s at Twin Cities, making a long-standing impact on the league and the players he coached, including his son. His name is enshrined on a plaque on a bench in right field. It is that bench where you might find Mike taking in a Twin Cities Little League game. The sport always has been Mike’s greatest passion, and he has forever been fully committed to the game, whether as a player or coach.
His former teammates, players and coaches know him as a man devoted to the fundamentals – a coach with little tolerance for anyone who doesn’t play the game the right way.
“I’m an old-school guy,” Firenzi told the Marin IJ for a story about his induction into the Hall of Fame. “We play catch, throw strikes and run the bases. No smoke and mirrors. That’s my formula, and it’s working.”
Firenzi first brought his approach to Marin Catholic in 1991, when the school made him its head coach at just 26. This was during a time when his alma mater, Redwood, had been the dominant force in MCAL baseball — a dynasty built by Endriss.
But Firenzi, carrying with him the Redwood traditions, transformed Marin Catholic into the county’s preeminent program. The Wildcats won the MCAL title in Firenzi’s first season, and, over the next two decades, they would go onto amass eight county crowns and four NCS titles.
Firenzi took a few years off from coaching to recharge his batteries, and then he resurfaced back home – at Redwood.
“My son Joe went to Redwood at that time. That’s how I ended up at Redwood,” Firenzi told the IJ. “When he was in Little League, I was always the dad who got there in the second inning because I had my own team that was practicing. I was missing my own kids’ career.”
Since returning to Larkspur, where he had the chance to coach Joe, Firenzi has resurrected the Giants’ program, conjuring memories of the glory days. As he did at Marin Catholic, Firenzi won the MCAL and NCS titles in his first season, and his teams have captured the MCAL crown in three of his four seasons at Redwood.
Firenzi was named the NCS Honors Coach for 2010, and after he led the Giants to the 2015 NCS title, he was selected the NorCal Division II Coach of the Year.
At the Hall of Fame banquet, Firenzi thanked his family – son Joe, mother Donna, sister Donna (aka Sissy) and longtime girlfriend Christine – and his current and former assistant coaches. He singled out Bill Benz, who grew up with Firenzi in Corte Madera, played high school ball with him at Redwood and has been coaching with him on and off since his first season at Marin Catholic.
“I’ve known Mike since we were in kindergarten together. Growing up, we had dreams of playing in the Major League. Little did I know back, then, that he would influence and send kids on that journey. I’ve had the honor of coaching with him and to this day, I still learn from him, whether it’s insights on the fundamentals of the game, strategy, or how to get the best from your players, his evolution as a coach has been fun to watch” said Benz, whose youngest son, Michael, was coached by Firenzi at Redwood and is now pitching at College of Marin. “He’s devoted the majority of his life to the game, it’s great to see his work and influence recognized by the MCAL Hall of Fame.”
But Firenzi saved the bulk of his thanks for the hundreds of dedicated and talented young men he has coached over the years, saying that his success wouldn’t have been possible without them.
After Firenzi accepted his award, Ferroni was honored for one of the great careers in MCAL baseball history. His senior season of 1976 was otherworldly, producing numbers that now seem unthinkable: 17-1, with a 0.91 ERA, striking out a state-record 194 batters in just 95 innings. This is his second Hall of Fame induction in 2018 as Frank was inducted into the Redwood Athletic Hall of Fame earlier this year.
A transfer from Tam, Ferroni was so dominant that longtime El Cerrito Coach Larry Quirico, who has spent 45 years around Bay Area prep baseball, told the IJ that Ferroni was the best pitcher his teams ever faced. Yes, said Quirico, even better than Livermore’s Randy Johnson, who would go on to play 22 seasons in the majors before being elected to the Hall of Fame.
The summer after he graduated, Ferroni pitched three innings of shutout ball in the North-South All-Star Game at Angel Stadium. He was drafted by the San Francisco Giants straight out of Redwood but decided he wasn’t ready. He went on to play at Central Arizona Junior College before helping Cal State Fullerton to a National Championship.
“When I got drafted by the Giants out of high school, it was like a dream come true,” Ferroni told the IJ. “But I knew I wasn’t ready. Mentally? I was cocky as heck? But physically? Put me in against guys 19, 20, 21 years old, I’m not sure I was ready.”
Ferroni would later be a first-round Major League pick in two subsequent supplemental drafts, but his promising career was derailed by a shoulder injury.
At the banquet, several of Ferroni’s former Redwood teammates were on hand, and he made sure to thank them all. He said he was particularly grateful to his younger brother Gary (Class of ’83), who also pitched at Redwood and was a teammate of Firenzi’s. It was Gary who nominated his super sibling for his spot in the Marin high school Hall of Fame.