You could say that Mark Saukas is all Hearts.
For nine years he attended Sacred Heart Grammar School. For four years he was a student at Sacred Heart High School. For the past 41 years he has been a teacher, guidance counselor, and most famously, a baseball coach for the Hearts.
Saukas’ only separation from his beloved SHHS was the four years he spent at Providence College.
But last week the unthinkable became official: Saukas has stepped down as Hearts baseball coach after an astonishing 36 seasons. This retirement is as big as the one by guy who wore No. 2 in the Bronx.
“I feel good about this,” Saukas said.
“The time is right. It was time.”
It was a long time.
Saukas, 64, who is still a member of the guidance staff at Sacred Heart and who will still lead the “Hearts” cheer at home basketball games, spent five seasons as an assistant with the Hearts, first to his brother, the late Dick Saukas, and then to Don Sasso. Mark Saukas took over as head coach in 1979. He managed 728 games, won 323 of them, and that includes the biggest win in the history of Hearts baseball, and the biggest ever for city schoolboy baseball: On June 17, 1997 at Palmer Field, the Hearts defeated Litchfield High, 17-2, to win the school’s only state baseball championship.
It remains the only state baseball title won by a city school.
“The thing I tell Mark,” said Sacred Heart principal Anthony “Butch” Azzara, who reluctantly accepted Saukas’ resignation, “‘You know what? You’re the only guy in the city of Waterbury who has won a state championship in baseball.’ One guy.”
That title was won a long time ago, Saukas admits, but the accomplishment remains fresh in his memory.
“It must be difficult,” he said. “At the end of each season I always send an email to some of the players on that team. I say to them, ‘Believe it or not, we’re still the only one.’ Even if someone wins it from the city someday, we will always be the first.”
Saukas wears that championship ring every day. That last thing he does every morning before he leaves for school is put that ring on his finger.
Saukas leaves behind a trail of memories. Naugatuck head coach Tom Deller called Saukas his “favorite NVL coach,” perhaps because Saukas kept Deller supplied with lifesavers and mint candies for Hearts-Naugy games.
Former Torrington coach Gerry Carbone called Saukas, “One of the finest men I ever coached against. A true gentlemen and always a great role model. We had many great battles, including a 10 inning game which Sacred Heart won against Conor Bierfeldt. And the next time we played, Conor threw someone out in the bottom of the seventh for a Torrington win.
“Win or lose, Mark always told our players, ‘Great game.’” Mike Vacca, who has spent 37 years as the Ansonia head baseball coach, was saddened that he will not coach against Saukas again. Vacca used the words that marked every description of Saukas: “Mark was a complete gentleman at all times. I cannot remember one time, and we had some battles, that we left the field with ill feelings. He is a class act, no doubt about it.”
There is a side of Saukas that is never seen. It is a story he did not tell often.
“When I was 14 my father died very unexpectedly,” Saukas said. “I never played at Sacred Heart. I had to work my entire life.”
Saukas did not compete on the field.
He competed, instead, in the game of life. He regrets that he did not wear a Sacred Heart uniform, as a player.
“I like to tell stories to the kids,” he said. “I tell them that I would have given anything to wear a Sacred Heart baseball uniform, but I did not have the opportunity. I want them to know that wearing that uniform is a great privilege.”
What Saukas takes away from four decades as coach of the Hearts cannot be defined by statistics. It is the people, the friends, the coaches, and especially the players, who made the experience rich, rewarding, and victorious on every level.
“I can remember, in 2008, we lost to Thomaston in the state semifinals, in the bottom of the seventh inning,” Saukas remembers. “Early that year we were horrible, and then it kind of clicked and we couldn’t get beat. The team chemistry came together. We cried like crazy when we got beat.”
Because of the defeat? No, Saukas said. “Because we loved each other.”
There is your definition of a great coach, of Mark Saukas of Sacred Heart.
(source: REPUBLICAN-AMERICAN, 9/29/2014, PAGE B9, JOE PALLADINO)