Senior Legion coach Mike Abate shows his passion for the game
Published 2:46 pm, Wednesday, August 10, 2011
Mike Abate has worn several hats, or helmets, in his life.
One of the most talented athletes to come out of Fairfield County, he was drafted not once, but twice, by Major League Baseball teams, received numerous accolades as a college football quarterback and played professional football.
The passion that led him to accomplish so much is also what drives him to teach the game he loves, baseball, to youngsters in Fairfield County.
Abate, 33, just completed his fourth season as coach of the Greenwich Cannons American Legion team and is the director of staff development and curriculum coordinator for the Bobby Valentine Sports Academy in Stamford.
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"I have a great deal of confidence given his passion and commitment to being as good as he could possibly could be," former major league manager and ESPN baseball analyst Bobby Valentine said of Abate. "To be able to share what he knows is special. Those who teach are usually those who can't play and those that play well can't teach, but Mike has the rare ability to do both."
Abate has been at the sports academy since it opened five years ago and is grateful he gets to teach the game he loves to students who share his passion.
He teaches high school and college-age players at the academy and also runs the academy's summer baseball camp at Mead Park in New Canaan for campers age 5-16.
"These kids work hard and they have a lot of trust in you," Abate said. "We teach them skills, but also try to build their confidence so that they have the belief that they can accomplish their goals."
Valentine and Abate's uncle grew up together and played on the same Little League team. When Abate signed with the Seattle Mariners after college, his uncle took him to Shea Stadium to get some advice from the then-manager of the New York Mets.
"Bobby's mind for baseball supersedes anyone I have been around and I have had some really good coaches," Abate said. "I learned a lot and I am so grateful to have a mentor like Bobby V. When I signed with Seattle ... We went to the locker room and he started talking to me about pro ball life and that was the first time I met him."
Born and raised in Norwalk and graduating from Norwalk High School in 1996, Abate was drafted by the California Angels but instead opted to attend Norwalk Community College and work on his game closer to home.
While at NCC, Abate was a two-time Northeast Player of the Year, two-time first-team All-American, and 1998 Rawlings National Junior College Player of the Year.
When his career at NCC ended. Abate was again drafted, this time by the Seattle Mariners, where in spring training games he was on the field alongside players such as Ichiro Suzuki, Alex Rodriguez and Edgar Martinez.
Abate played three seasons at the A-ball level before a broken hand cut short his career.
Undaunted, Abate enrolled at Southern Connecticut State University, and despite only one year as a high school football player, earned a position on the team and later became the starting quarterback.
While at SCSU, Abate twice made the All-Northeast-10 team and left the school owning several passing records.
In 2005 he played 10 games, throwing for 2,550 yards and 28 touchdowns.
Having already played professional baseball, Abate channeled his inner Bo Jackson and signed a contract to play in the Arena League for the Manchester Wolves.
"He is remarkable," Valentine said. "He signed professional contracts in two sports, which puts him at the top of the pyramid. It is very rare to be at that level in two sports."
With his career as player over, Abate turned his attention to teaching the game through his work at the academy and as the head coach of the Greenwich Cannons.
In 2008, American Legion baseball was struggling in Greenwich when Abate got a call asking him to take over as coach of the Junior team.
Along with assistant coach Kenneth Lewis, Abate quickly turned around the fortunes of the program, going 30-4 in his first year, winning the state and regional championships and being named 2008 Junior Legion coach of the year after his first season as a head coach at any level.
Abate coached one more season with the juniors before deciding to move up to the Senior level and stay with the group of kids with which he had become very close.
This summer he coached the Senior team to a 23-4 mark, winning the Zone 4 regular season championship and qualifying for the state tournament.
Ryan Carr has been playing for Abate since he took over the Cannons and credits him with not only being a good coach but someone the boys can look up to.
"We all love playing for him," Carr said. "I think I speak for the other guys that just graduated from the team when I say that he made our experience great. He and coach Lewis work so well together. Since they took over our teams have become one of the most respected in the state."
The Cannons made a deep run in the state tournament but had their season ended by Branford at Muzzy Field in Bristol.
Abate watched the players grow up over the last four years and considers them family more than just players, making saying goodbye much more emotional.
"My God, I can't say enough about them," Abate said. "It was hard on coach Lewis and I to address these kids after the Branford game. We saw these guys grow from young boys to young men and it was more than a team, it was a family. These guys turned the face of the Greenwich Cannons around."
Abate says he will be back at the helm of the Cannons next season and is looking forward to watching players such as Dylan Callahan, Taylor Olmstead and Brian Schutzman step into the shoes of the departing players.
The Cannons hold tryouts at the sports academy in January and several of the players work out at the academy year-round.
In a world where parents are quick to question coaches, Valentine has not received one complaint about Abate but rather has heard from numerous parents offering their unsolicited praise of "Coach Mike."
"It gives me chills because I am so proud," Valentine said. "I have never heard anything negative and I am serious when I tell you that I have had 50 parents tell me what a wonderful experience they had working with Mike. He builds their confidence, but there is also a fun element that makes it so enjoyable for the kids."