Paul O'Neill was whining about being knocked down by a pitch. John Marzano told him to shut up, get back in the box, and hit.

It was Aug. 28, 1996, but the memory is still fresh. The Yankees were on their way to being swept by the Mariners. It was the eighth inning. I was in the press box at Seattle's Kingdome, beginning to work on a story for the New York Post describing what was about to be a fourth consecutive Yankees loss.

Back on the East Coast, the 10-2 defeat surely would bring an angry response from Yankees owner George Steinbrenner.

But the Boss' fury would not match that of the Mariners catcher, John Marzano.

O'Neill, a great player but a noted crybaby, had taken exception to a high and tight pitch from Seattle's Tim Davis. From his backside, O'Neill started bellyaching about the pitch. That brought out the South Philly in Marzano.

"Shut up and hit," he told O'Neill.

O'Neill rose menacingly and went at Marzano. Marzano jabbed his catcher's mitt into O'Neill's face, a leather hoagie, if you will.

The two scuffled and the benches cleared. Marzano, O'Neill and others were ejected.

After the game, I visited Marzano in the Seattle clubhouse. His first reaction was to laugh.

"Come on, man, you know where I'm from," he said.

Yes, everyone in baseball knew where John Marzano was from. Wherever he went, wherever he played, from Boston to Texas to Seattle, he let it be known that he was proud to be from South Philadelphia, proud to be from Central High, proud to be from Temple.

The equipment managers from the Boston Red Sox were so aware of Marzano's deep love for his hometown that they gave him a little present when he became established in the majors - uniform No. 20, in honor of another pretty good ballplayer who played in South Philly, Mike Schmidt. He was Marzano's boyhood hero.

All over baseball, Marzano was being recalled yesterday. He was called "an overachiever" and "a good, hard-nosed player" by Charlie Manuel, who once managed him in the minor leagues. He was called "a great teammate" - a high compliment in this game - by Jamie Moyer, who played with him in Seattle. Those who rubbed elbows with Marzano in the media, his post-playing career, recalled his upbeat, affable personality and his passion for his work.

We wish it wasn't this way, of course. We wish John Marzano wasn't in the headlines today. We wish he didn't leave us yesterday, way too young at 45.

Marzano died in his South Philadelphia home, possibly of a heart attack.

And just like that, the baseball community, and in particular the Philadelphia sporting community, had lost a great and treasured member.

Remembrances of Marzano's South Philly toughness were plentiful. Of course, there was the famous Seattle melee, when he told O'Neill to stop whining. That took some guts, because O'Neill stood 6-foot-4 to Marzano's 5-11. No problem. Marzano won by TKO.

Years earlier, I had seen Marzano's toughness and character on a smaller stage. I was covering the triple-A Pawtucket Red Sox in my first job out of college in 1988. Marzano, a former U.S. Olympian, was a stud prospect with the Red Sox and had played 52 games in the majors in 1987.

The following year, Marzano's progress stalled. There was talk that the Red Sox believed he was taking things for granted. There was talk the organization wanted to send him a message. He was sent to double A. It was humiliating.

Eventually, Marzano got back to Pawtucket, and he came with fire in his eyes. He vowed to get back to Boston. He said that his demotion wasn't so tough, that nothing compared to what he had gone through that winter. In January 1988, Marzano had lost his father, also named John, at age 61. The two were best friends. The elder Marzano had taught his son the game, and when he saw him play at Fenway Park late in the 1987 season, he couldn't stop pointing and telling his wife, "I can't believe that's our boy out there."

Marzano got back to the majors. He did it for his dad. He ended up playing 10 seasons. It's not easy to last that long as a backup catcher. You have to be able to accept a secondary role, while keeping yourself physically sharp. Backup catchers have to be unselfish, team-first guys. Those who aren't quickly become former major-leaguers.

Marzano was a great teammate, quick with a joke or a smart-aleck comment when needed, quick with a supporting shoulder when needed, quick with a right jab to the face when needed.

"He really understood his role on a team," Moyer said. "And that extended from the field to the clubhouse."

Marzano counted former teammates Alex Rodriguez, Ken Griffey Jr. and Roger Clemens among his best friends. He loved playing the game, talking about the game, and teaching the game to youngsters at his academy in Northern Liberties.

Here's hoping one of Marzano's pupils makes it big some day. May the kid carry that Philly pride and Philly toughness with the class and dignity that his teacher did.

Jim Salisbury:

Inside

Former baseball player and Philadelphia native John Marzano is found dead in his home at age 45.

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Contact staff writer Jim Salisbury at 215-854-4983 or jsalisbury@phillynews.com.