Mario Moccia was a 21-year-old corner infielder for the Single-A Niagra Falls Rapids in 1989. The former New Mexico State Aggie had notions of playing for the Detroit Tigers and gave scant thought to what else the future might bring.
The Rapids led the New York-Penn League in hitting that season, but tragically fell a game behind the Jamestown Expos in the Stedler Division standings. Moccia played in 37 games and batted .253 that year, but the next season, he got only 28 at-bats in 10 games and his major league aspirations were bleak. And while his agent urged him to continue, Moccia knew it was over.
“At that point I was done with baseball,” Moccia said.
So what was a bright young man to do with the rest of his life?
On Jan. 5, Maro L. Moccia will assume control of the New Mexico State athletic department, an Aggie in charge of the Aggies.
But the NMSU athletic director-in-waiting has lasting ties to the Lobos of New Mexico, connections that reach to when his baseball days were done.
“I really didn’t know what to do,” Moccia said by phone from Carbondale, Ill., where he was in his final hours as athletic director at Southern Illinois.
His girlfriend at the time, Melissa Garcia (now Dr. Garcia, a family medicine specialist in Albuquerque), moved to Albuquerque and he joined her.
“I got a job at Defined Fitness, opening the gym at 4:30 in the morning,” Moccia said.
It helped pay the bills, but it was not the challenge he sought. John Edward, another former Aggie ballplayer who had ventured to Albuquerque, suggested Moccia look into UNM’s masters program in sports administration, one of the first such degrees offered in the country.
Moccia got accepted, joining fellow students Larry Teis (now athletic director at Texas State) and Lee Reed (Georgetown’s AD). In December, 1992, he became an intern for UNM associate athletic director Mike Alden.
“Mike was extremely intense,” Moccia said. “It was light shirt and tie, five days a week. Much was demanded.”
UNM had another intense guy at the time in athletic director Rudy Davalos.
“Mike and Rudy struck fear into the hearts of interns,” Moccia said.
Still, Moccia responded well to that environment and eventually turned that internship into a job as UNM’s director of sales.
“The one nice thing is that if you were competent, they gave you a lot of rope,” he said.
He learned the importance of perseverance when it comes to sales.
“If you call 100 people, you sell to 10,” he said. “If you call 1,000, you sell 100. If you call 10,000 you sell 1,000.”
Moccia was at UNM for 4½ years, leaving in 1997 to join Alden at what is now called Texas State. He followed Alden to Missouri, then, in 2006, took the reins of an athletic department of his own at Southern Illinois.
The lessons he learned at first base, the experience of trying to sell Lobo football, the teachings at the foot of Mike Alden, and his time as the head Salukis have led him back to Las Cruces.
Alden, in a voicemail, said he knows Moccia is excited to be back in the state of New Mexico and that he will “do a great job.”
Moccia understands that while basketball is popular in Las Cruces, football is the driving force in today’s college athletics. He saw how coach Jerry Kill made football relevant at SIU (and later Northern Illinois and now Minnesota). He believes it can be done at New Mexico State.
His contract (four years, $240,000 a year) contains the usual academic and athletic performance incentives, based on the NCAA’s Academic Progress Rate and Aggies winning certain conference championships.
But it also includes “revenue enhancement” incentives. That would stem from increased contributions to the Aggie Athletics Club, ticket revenue, concessions and marketing and media rights.
Albuquerque will be a target.
“We have so many alums in Albuquerque,” Moccia said. “We need to stay in contact with them. We need to personally ask them to help us.”
He said since he’s gotten the NMSU job, he has run into a number of Albuquerque Aggies and he’s asked them what their involvement with their alma mater is. They say not much.
“That’s going to change,” Moccia said.
Moccia built lasting friendships during his time in Albuquerque. Former Lobo football players Scott Creagan, Kim McCall and Calvin “Eclipse” Allen are among them. There’s also Janice Ruggiero, UNM’s senior associate athletic director and Tim Cass, UNM’s chief operating officer (and the school’s tennis coach when Moccia was there).
It’s unlikely he will get any of them to wear Aggie crimson. That doesn’t mean he won’t try.