Mazzilli does it all -- and does it all well

The Orioles didn't just hire a New Yorker when they picked Lee Mazzilli as their new manager.

They hired the New Yorker, a 48-year-old who seemingly embodies the Big Apple image as if he had invented it.

"If you had to cast the role of a New York guy, you couldn't do better," said Keith Bodie, one of Mazzilli's longtime friends.

Indeed, a quick summation of Mazzilli's life sounds like a succession of familiar movie scenes.

He grew up in Brooklyn, played stickball in the street and wore tight pants during the disco era, like John Travolta's character in Saturday Night Fever.

His father is a former professional boxer who still lives in the 3 1/2 -room apartment where Mazzilli was raised in Sheepshead Bay, a neighborhood near Coney Island.

Once referred to as "The Italian Stallion" by tabloid headline writers, Mazzilli co-starred with an actress who now appears in The Sopranos when he performed in an off-Broadway theater production in the early 1990s.

"Lee had that New York edge about him, and he comes by it naturally," said Joe Malone, Mazzilli's baseball coach at Lincoln High School in 1972 and 1973.

Yet you should think twice before tagging him with the simplistic "brash New Yorker" label.

"That's not me," Mazzilli said last week, "and anyone who knows me knows that's not me. What's that old saying: 'Don't judge a book by its cover.'"

Mazzilli departs from the New York stereotype in several ways. He isn't a typical tobacco-chewing baseball guy, either.

As a youngster, he won or shared seven age-group national championships in speed skating.

Since his playing career ended, he has worked as a banker, an actor, a baseball executive and a Yankees coach while living in Greenwich, Conn., an exclusive suburb so far from the city's mean streets that police direct traffic with white gloves.

And if Mazzilli is so brash, how come Malone, his high school coach, says of him, "Lee was such a shy kid, not a boisterous kid at all"?

"Brooklyn boys get a rap for shooting their mouths off," he says. "That wasn't Lee."

Moral: Beware of making assumptions about Mazzilli.

Brought up right

"I've coached a lot of kids over the years, and no one was more unassuming and respectful," said Sal Cappucci, a Brooklyn teacher who managed Mazzilli for four years on a top club team representing the Gravesend Youth Center. "Lee is anything but a wise guy. His father brought him up right."

Mazzilli's grandfather had immigrated from Bari, Italy, and worked in the piano business, a trade he passed on to his son, Libero, who was a piano tuner and a professional welterweight. Libero and his wife had three children - Lee has an older brother and sister - and encouraged them all to skate.

"Skating was something I had always done," the elder Mazzilli said last week.

Lee Mazzilli was a boy wonder, his strong legs and tenacity taking him far. Competing for the Prospect Park and Yonkers skating clubs, he shared the long track national championship at age 11 and then won outright titles at 13 and 15.

In short track skating, he won or shared the national title every year from 1968 to 1971.

When he shared the short track title in 1970, a younger division winner was 11-year-old Eric Heiden, destined to become America's greatest speed skater.

"Lee probably stood on a podium [of winners] with Heiden," said Bill Kellick, director of media and public relations for U.S. Speedskating. "He probably could have been something [in skating]."

'Just a great talent'

But Mazzilli also excelled in baseball. Playing for Gravesend, he was an ambidextrous center fielder with great range and a productive bat.

Cappucci said he would never forget Mazzilli's first tryout.

"He comes up and says, 'I throw lefty and throw righty, and I bat lefty and bat righty.' I thought he was a crazy kid," Cappucci said. "But he was just a great talent. Amazingly fast."

In one game, the opponents started to walk off the field and celebrate after what they thought was to be a game-winning home run. "Mazzilli tracked it down and made an over-the-shoulder catch to win the game," Cappucci said.

Scouts were on to him by the end of his sophomore year. Although he had Olympic potential in skating, he chose to concentrate on baseball when the national skating trials conflicted with Gravesend's playoff games in 1971.

"He came to me and said, 'Coach, I got a problem,'" Cappucci said. "I told him the decision was his. His father told him the same. No one influenced him. He made the call."

Why baseball?

"It was a no-brainer," Mazzilli said. "I had a passion for speed skating, did it with all my heart. But I don't know that I would have made the [1972] Olympic team. And it was a different era back then; there weren't all these other sports. Baseball was the No. 1 sport by far, and it was always my first love."

The Mets selected him with their first-round pick in the 1973 draft, making him the 14th player taken overall. The franchise later drafted other New York-area players such as Bodie, John Pacella and Neil Allen.

"We became a kind of 'Rat Pack,'" said Bodie, a Brooklyn native. "We hung out together in the offseason, went to the gym, went out at night. We had an affinity."

Mazzilli became their resident celebrity. He broke in with the Mets in 1976, and the organization, desperate for attention, labeled him a future superstar.

"He was a good-looking center fielder, a local kid, and they made him a teen-age idol," Bodie said. "We'd buy new pants and take 'em to the tailor and get 'em cut skin tight."

Mazzilli found the attention unsettling. "That [future superstar] tag was something that was put upon me rather than my choice," he said.

The pressure was intense. He responded well at first. In 1979, he batted .303 with 15 homers and played in the All-Star Game, where he hit a home run off Jim Kern and drew a bases-loaded walk from Ron Guidry to force in what became the winning run.

Rough transition

But his production and playing time dwindled as a new generation supplanted him. Traded in 1982, he played for the Rangers, Yankees and Pirates before returning to the Mets, with whom he won a World Series ring in 1986. A career .259 hitter over 14 seasons, he finished up with the Blue Jays in 1989.

His transition to life after baseball was jarring.

"That was probably the hardest thing I've had to deal with," he said. "Your whole life has revolved around one thing, playing the game. Then, all of sudden, it's not there. It's 4 o'clock and you're home barbecuing when you think you should be going to the park."

His friend, Bodie, never reached the majors as a player but stayed in the game as a minor league coach, instructor and manager. Countless others have done the same. Mazzilli wasn't sure that was for him at first. He was happy to be home in Greenwich with his wife, Dani, and their three children: a girl named Jenna born in 1988, and a boy and a girl, L.J. and Lacey, twins born in 1990.

Doors to other jobs in the area were opening to him. He was a glib, handsome, homegrown, well-known athlete who had played for both of New York's major league teams.

"I'm a curious person, and there were a lot of opportunities out there. I wanted to see what they were about," Mazzilli said.

He tried radio broadcasting and the restaurant business. A good friend who was an actor - Dan Lauria, who played the father in The Wonder Years - suggested acting, and Mazzilli took some classes and got the lead in Tony and Tina's Wedding, an off-Broadway comedy.

"I wasn't sure I could do it because you have to be uninhibited, and I'm not always that," Mazzilli said. "I mean, my wife says if you're looking for me at a party, you can usually find me in the corner. But it was a great experience."

In Tony and Tina's Wedding, the actors stage a church wedding and dinner reception. Audience members serve as the guests and interact with the cast. Mazzilli played "Tony" from October 1992 through January 1993.

"He was great in the role," said Jim Hannah, who in 1992 was company manager and is now the show's general manager. "He has a lot of fans in New York, and they turned out to see him. He was great for business. We needed it at the time, and it worked out for us. Of course, his fans wanted to talk to him as Lee Mazzilli, and he'd say, 'You know, I look a lot like that guy, but I'm Tony.'"

Mazzilli's co-star, Sharon Angela, became Rosalie Aprile on HBO's The Sopranos.

The producers of a television sitcom asked Mazzilli to audition for a role, but he declined, according to the New York Daily News, because getting the part would have meant moving to California.

Leaving acting behind, Mazzilli spent the next two years as vice president of a mortgage banking business based in Connecticut and New York.

"A friend of mine owned it. He said, 'This could be different and new for you,'" Mazzilli said. "I thought about it and decided to give it a try. It was just another thing I could experience. I got a real flavor of the corporate life."

Another coat-and-tie job beckoned in 1995. He became the commissioner of the Northeast League, a newly established independent minor league circuit.

"I got a real education in the business side of baseball there," Mazzilli said. "You dealt with county governments and banks. It was a start-up venture."

The urge to return

It was baseball again, and that moved Mazzilli. Six years after the end of his playing career, he felt the urge to get back in uniform.

"I did a lot of different things, but I don't know that I thought any of them would become a career," he said. "I think I always knew deep in my heart that I'd get back into the game. It's what's in my blood."

He finally put a uniform on in 1997, leaving the Northeast League (which is flourishing) to become a minor league manager for the Yankees. The call came courtesy of Joe Torre, who had been Mazzilli's manager in his first stint with the Mets and a mentor throughout Mazzilli's career.

"It's what I wanted to do all along," Mazzilli said. "Managing is the closest you can get to playing as far as feeling that competitiveness again. That appealed to me."

After three winning seasons as a minor league manager in Tampa, Fla., and Norwich, Conn., Mazzilli joined Torre's staff for the 2000 season as first-base coach and outfield instructor.

The Orioles made him their 15th manager nine days ago.

'Greatest achievement'

"It's very humbling," he said. "My three greatest thrills in baseball were getting called up to the majors for the first time, hitting a home run in the All-Star Game and winning a world championship. But this beats all that. This is by far my greatest achievement."

His many vocations should help him, he said. "You have to manage people, and I have been in countless different situations," he said. "I like to think I have learned something about dealing with people."

But he doesn't want anyone thinking that defines managing.

"It's a baseball job. You have to know the game, most of all, and excel in that," he said.

He still relishes his time with his family.

"I can sit at home for four or five days in a row, be with the kids, play with the dog," he said. "I don't have to go out to dinner, be seen. I don't need that. I love picking up the kids from school, watching their basketball and football games. My oldest [age 15] is a cheerleader now. I went to watch her the other night and it was 32 degrees out. I said, 'You know how much Daddy loves you now.'"

His New York roots remain strong. On Wednesday night, he attended a gala fund-raiser for Torre's Safe at Home Foundation. Billy Crystal was the emcee.

"Billy is a friend. I'm lucky: Baseball has opened a lot of doors for me as far as meeting people and getting a chance to do things," Mazzilli said. "But managing in the major leagues is what I always wanted to do. I love the responsibility. You're in charge of 25 guys, trying to develop a world champion."

Some Baltimore fans might dislike the fact he is an ex-Yankee, but his New York supporters are rooting for him.

"I'm biased, but I love the hire," said his friend, Bodie. "Lee is very energetic, very enthusiastic, very positive. ... He's going to be tremendous in his rapport with the players. There are no hidden agendas. What you see is what you get. You can forget the New York thing. His aspiration will be to beat the pants off the Yankees next year."

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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