Monday, January 20, 2014

The Best On The Worst: Lee Mazzilli

When the Mets made their debut in 1962, they did so by employing a manager and several players who had achieved various levels of success on the New York baseball stage.  But Casey Stengel, Roger Craig, Gil Hodges and Don Zimmer did not replicate that success with the Mets.  Attempts to bring native New Yorkers into the fold also failed to generate fan-demonium at the Polo Grounds and Shea Stadium, as Brooklyn-born backstop Joe Pignatano failed to catch on with the Mets and Bronx-bred Ed Kranepool played well, but not nearly at the level expected from a player who broke Hall of Famer Hank Greenberg's home run records at James Monroe High School.

Other than Kranepool, whose team records were set more through longevity than actual successful seasons, the Mets did not have a true blue (and orange) New York success story with any of their players.  The athletes who contributed to the team's rapid rise in the late '60s and early '70s were mostly out-of-towners, with few native New Yorkers in the mix.  If the Mets drafted a native son, he was traded away before becoming a star (see Singleton, Ken).  Likewise, if the team traded for a player born in the Big Apple, it was usually after he had played his best baseball (see Torre, Joe).

After over a decade of existence, the team finally drafted a native New Yorker, developed him, and turned him into a fan favorite at Shea Stadium.  Unfortunately, once he became a star, there weren't that many fans coming to see the team play at the ballpark.

Lee Mazzilli was a hometown boy through and through at a time when fans were through with the Mets.

Lee Louis Mazzilli was a typical New York kid growing up in the Sheepshead Bay section of Brooklyn.  His parents were children of Italian immigrants and his father worked in the family business.  As a young man, Mazzilli was a two-sport athlete.  But his second sport wasn't a team sport.  In fact, as much as he loved baseball, Mazzilli was probably better at speed skating.

Mazzilli won several speed skating tournaments as a teenager, but knew he had a brighter future as a baseball player.  The Mets noticed Mazzilli's baseball skills as well, drafting him with the 14th overall pick in the 1973 June amateur draft, just a few selections behind future Hall of Famers Robin Yount and Dave Winfield.

Growing up, Mazzilli idolized center fielder Willie Mays.  Like Mays, Mazzilli played stickball on the streets of New York.  Mazzilli would also corral fly balls using the same basket catch made famous by the former Giant.  Now Mazzilli was going to play for his hometown team, the New York Mets, the same team that employed the soon-to-be retired 42-year-old Mays.  Mazzilli never got to play with his boyhood idol on the field at Shea Stadium, but when he finally reached the big leagues in 1976, everyone had their eyes on him, just like they used to watch Mays.  But not everyone was looking at Maz for his baseball talent.

Before playing in his first game with the Mets, Mazzilli was a five-tool talent in the minors.  With blazing speed that he honed on the ice skating rink, Mazzilli turned fly balls in the power alleys into routine outs.  He also averaged over 40 steals per season from 1974 to 1976, while reaching double digits in home runs in each of those three campaigns.  The Mets finally called him up on September 7, 1976, but Mazzilli did not hit for a high batting average in the final month of the season, managing a .195 mark in 24 games.  However, Mazzilli did display a keen eye at the plate, drawing 14 walks in 93 plate appearances to give him a respectable .323 on-base percentage.  He also stole five bases and hit two homers, including a three-run blast for his first major league hit a day after making his big league debut.  Mazzilli's other homer was even bigger, as he crushed a walk-off two-run shot off Pirates closer Kent Tekulve on September 20, a blast that effectively ended the Bucs' reign atop the NL East.  (Pittsburgh won five division titles in six seasons from 1970 to 1975.)

Despite an up-and-down month at the plate in September, Mazzilli's future looked bright in New York.  And who could blame him for being optimistic?  He was 21 years old and in the major leagues playing for a Mets team that had just finished the 1976 season with 86 wins, the second-highest win total in franchise history.  Mazzilli appeared to have everything going for him except for one thing - his "franchise" teammate.

Tom Seaver was never one to keep his feelings to himself, especially when it came to his feelings on the state of the Mets.  When team chairman M. Donald Grant refused to join other teams by participating in the new concept of free agent signings, Seaver was livid.  "The Franchise" was in favor of the Mets signing outfielder Gary Matthews to a free agent deal after the former Rookie of the Year posted career highs in several offensive categories in 1976.

Photo by Harry Harris/AP
Matthews was not a center fielder by trade, but he would have provided much-needed stability in the Mets' outfield - an outfield that featured nine different players who started at least ten games for the team in 1976 and no player starting more than 111 games.  Center field alone saw five players start at least 14 games at the position, including Mazzilli.  But after Grant would not budge on his free agent stance, Seaver was quite upset, saying "how can you not even try" to sign Matthews.  With each passing day, Seaver was one step closer to becoming a former Met.  Finally, on June 15, 1977, the team's greatest player was traded to Cincinnati.  By then, Lee Mazzilli was on his way to becoming the team's new best player.  But that wasn't good enough to keep the rest of the team from returning to its pre-Seaver depths.

By 1977, the Yankees had replaced the Mets as the city's top draw.  The Bronx Bombers had just won their first pennant in a dozen years and then signed free agent Reggie Jackson during the off-season, bringing the slugger to New York a decade after the Mets passed on Jackson to draft Steve Chilcott as the top overall pick.  The Mets, who had always ranked in the league's top five in attendance since moving to Shea Stadium in 1964, saw their ticket sales drop dramatically in 1977.  From 1977 to 1983, the Mets finished in the league's bottom four in attendance six times, reaching rock bottom in 1979, when the team averaged fewer than 10,000 fans in attendance per game.  But the fans who did come out to Shea Stadium came out for one reason - to watch Lee Mazzilli.  As the saying goes, men wanted to be like him and women wanted to be with him.  And no one got more attention on those awful Mets teams than Mazzilli.

Mazzilli's looks were all he had going for him during the first month and a half of the 1977 season.  Under manager Joe Frazier, Mazzilli played horribly, batting .217 with no homers and only six RBI in his first 45 games.  But when Joe Torre - a fellow Italian-American from Brooklyn - took over as a player/manager in late May, Mazzilli's career took off.  Maz batted .263 from that point on, collecting 18 doubles, two triples, six homers, 40 RBI and 15 stolen bases.  Mazzilli improved upon those numbers in 1978, batting .273 with 28 doubles, five triples, 16 homers, 61 RBI and 20 steals for the Mets.  But he saved his best for 1979, when he became a first-time All-Star.

In 1979, the Mets reached the depths of their post-Seaver depression.  The team lost 99 games, their highest total since Seaver's rookie season in 1967.  Craig Swan was the only pitcher to win more than six games and the team struggled at the plate, finishing in the league's bottom three in most offensive categories.  But 1979 was also the year Lee Mazzilli fulfilled his five-tool destiny with the Mets.  Mazzilli finished the year with a .303 batting average, 15 homers, a career-high 79 RBI, 34 stolen bases and 12 outfield assists.  He also finished in the league's top ten in hits (181; 9th in the NL), doubles (34; 9th) and walks (93; 6th).  Mazzilli reached base 274 times in 1979, setting a Mets club record that wasn't surpassed for nearly two decades (John Olerud set the new team mark in 1998).  The only players in the National League who reached base more times than Mazzilli in 1979 were Pete Rose and Keith Hernandez, who was the league's co-MVP that year.

As great as his 1979 season was, the highlight of Mazzilli's breakout year occurred in the Midsummer Classic.  Although he sat on the bench for the first seven innings, Mazzilli hit a game-tying pinch-hit home run off Jim Kern in the eighth inning.  Ironically, Mazzilli was batting for Gary Matthews - the same player Tom Seaver wanted just a few years earlier in order to give the Mets an offensive force in the outfield.  One inning later, Mazzilli won the game by drawing a two-out, bases-loaded walk off Yankees pitcher Ron Guidry.

The only thing tighter than the 1979 All-Star Game was Lee Mazzilli's pants. (AP Photo)

In 1980, the Mets' public relations team assured the fans that "the magic was back" at Shea Stadium.  But although the Mets flirted with the .500 mark in the month of July, the only things back at Shea were Lee Mazzilli, his sex appeal and another 95-loss season.  Mazzilli nearly duplicated his All-Star season in 1980, batting .280 with 31 doubles, 16 homers, 76 RBI, 82 walks and a career-high 41 stolen bases.

So how great was Mazzilli's three-year stretch from 1978 to 1980?  Well, Mazzilli had 93 doubles, 47 homers, 95 stolen bases and reached base 739 times in those three seasons.  According to, Mazzilli was the only player in baseball to accumulate all those offensive numbers during that time period.  But despite reaching levels that no other major league player was reaching, Mazzilli's tenure as a Met would soon come to an end.

In 1981, baseball took a two-month sabbatical because of the players' strike.  Mazzilli also took a break at the plate that season, as his average dipped to .228 and he hit just 14 doubles and six homers in 95 games.  Although Maz was only 26, new general manager Frank Cashen had a plan to rebuild the team through shrewd trades, and one of those trades would involve the Mets cutting ties with their top box office draw.

On April 1, 1982, the Mets sent Mazzilli to the Texas Rangers for two pitching prospects.  Obviously, the trade didn't sit well with Mazzilli's adoring fans.  (It also didn't go over well with Rangers farm director Joe Klein, whose sole reaction to the deal was saying "this meeting is over; we're going to the bar".)  But Mets fans soon got over Mazzilli's basket catches, blazing speed and Brooklyn charm, especially when Ron Darling started to become one of the team's all-time great pitchers and Walt Terrell was flipped for Howard Johnson in a subsequent trade.

Mazzilli, on the other hand, had a tough time accepting the trade, but insisted he would remain a New Yorker, even though he would play his home games in Texas.  Mazzilli went on to say,

"I still don't really know where I am.  Mentally I'm not here yet.  Physically, I'm O.K., but emotionally and psychologically, there's a lot going through my mind.  One thing I'll tell you though - I'm going to stay the same way and there's no way I'm wearing a cowboy hat or boots." 

Mazzilli's six-year career with the Mets was over (or so everyone thought).  From 1976 to 1981, the center fielder was one of the best position players to ever put on a Mets uniform.  At the time of the trade, Mazzilli was among the team leaders in runs scored (349; 5th all-time), hits (714; 6th), doubles (133; 4th), triples (21; 6th), home runs (61; 8th), RBI (303; 7th) and walks (376; 4th).  He also left the team as its all-time leader in stolen bases.  Mazzilli's 139 thefts were two dozen more than what Bud Harrelson achieved in 13 seasons with the team.

For all of Lee Mazzilli's success with the Mets, he never got to play for a team that finished above fifth place in the division after his 24-game tryout in 1976.  He also never had a season of more than 323 at-bats after the trade to Texas, as Maz batted just .248 and averaged five homers and ten steals per season from 1982 to 1985 as a member of the Rangers, Yankees and Pirates.  His 1985 season in Pittsburgh was particularly difficult, as he started only 15 games for a Pirates team that lost 104 times.  In July of '86, Mazzilli reached a personal nadir, as the 31-year-old was released by the Bucs.  Mazzilli was now an unemployed 11-year veteran who had never played for a team that won more than 86 games.  But things were about to change for Maz, in a most unexpected way.

Less than two weeks after he was released by the Pirates, Frank Cashen decided to take a chance on the man he had traded away four years earlier, signing Lee Mazzilli to be a pinch hitter and corner outfielder.  The move irked George Foster, who considered the signing to be racially motivated against him, even though Foster had already lost playing time to fellow African-Americans Mookie Wilson and Kevin Mitchell.  Foster was released four days later.

Mazzilli was a key contributor off the bench as the Mets steamrolled their way to a division title.  He reached base in 30 of his 72 plate appearances (.417 OBP) and started games at first base, left field and right field, giving much-needed rest to Keith Hernandez, Mookie Wilson and Darryl Strawberry.  After more than a decade in the big leagues, Mazzilli was finally going to participate in the postseason, and he made the most of his opportunity.

For most of the NLCS and World Series, Mazzilli was quiet, collecting one hit in seven at-bats prior to Game 6 of the Fall Classic.  But Mazzilli got over his 1986 postseason doldrums just when the Mets needed him the most.  With the Red Sox just six outs away from a World Series title, Mazzilli stepped up to the plate as a pinch-hitter to lead off the eighth inning of Game 6.  On a 1-2 pitch from Calvin Schiraldi, Maz stroked a single to right field to get the Mets' rally started.  Four batters later, Mazzilli scored the tying run on Gary Carter's sacrifice fly.  The Mets would go on to win the game in dramatic fashion in the tenth inning.  Two nights later, in the seventh and deciding game, Mazzilli and the Mets found themselves down by three runs going to the bottom of the sixth.  Sid Fernandez had been dominant in relief of starter Ron Darling, but now El Sid's spot was up in the batting order with one out and no one on base.  Faced with a tough decision, manager Davey Johnson took Fernandez out of the game for pinch-hitter Lee Mazzilli.  It was a decision that ended up changing the outcome of the game and the series.

Mazzilli delivered a single off southpaw Bruce Hurst, less than 48 hours after Hurst had come within a strike of being named the World Series MVP.  Mazzilli's hit opened the flood gates for the Mets, as the team scored three runs in the inning to tie the game.  The Mets scored three additional runs in the seventh inning and tacked on two more in the eighth to claim the World Series crown.  After 11 seasons in the big leagues - more than half of them coming with the Mets and the majority of them coming with losing teams - Mazzilli had finally tasted the sweetness of victory.

Mazzilli played two-and-a-half more seasons with the Mets, reaching the postseason again in 1988 one year after posting one of the best seasons for a bench player in franchise history.  In 1987, Mazzilli had just 124 at-bats, but was able to record 12 extra-base hits and 24 RBI in very limited action.  He also batted .306 and had a .399 on-base percentage.  The 1988 season was not nearly as good for Mazzilli, as he slumped to .147 in 116 at-bats.  Finally, after batting .183 in 60 at-bats for the Mets in 1989, he was waived by the team, finishing up the year with Toronto.  Mazzilli earned his third postseason trip in four seasons as a member of the Blue Jays, then retired as a player at the end of the season.

After some time away from baseball, Mazzilli returned to the game to become a coach with the Yankees and later managed the Baltimore Orioles in 2004 and 2005.  He also worked as an in-studio analyst at SNY and continues to have an eye on the Mets, especially now that his son, L.J., is a minor leaguer in the Mets' system.

When Lee Mazzilli made his major league debut for the Mets in 1976, he became one of the few native New Yorkers to play for the team.  To this day, only 37 players who were born in the five boroughs have suited up for the Mets.  Ed Kranepool is the most notable of those players, and as the longest-tenured Met in team history, Kranepool is obviously the leader in most offensive categories for native New Yorkers.  But Lee Mazzilli is second to Kranepool in practically every category.  And he was a Met for far less time than Kranepool.

A quarter century after playing his final game as a Met, Mazzilli is still among the team's all-time leaders (regardless of his place of birth) in numerous offensive categories.  You can find his name in the team's top twenty in runs scored, hits, doubles, triples, RBI and OBP.  And he still ranks in the top ten in walks (10th) and stolen bases (6th).  In New York, Mazzilli was a matinee idol at a time when no Mets fan had a player to idolize or ogle.  He was the best player on many bad Mets teams, then he became a bit player on some of the best Mets teams.

Lee Mazzilli put up outstanding numbers for several years with the Mets with little recognition from baseball lovers outside of the Big Apple.  But the Brooklyn kid finally got all the recognition he wanted when he won a World Series ring for the team he grew up with.  When he was a teenager, Mazzilli could have chosen to become a speed skater instead of a baseball player.  Instead, he sped his way into the hearts of Mets fans.  And that's the best anyone could have wished for.

Lee Mazzilli idolized Willie Mays.  Mets fans did the same with Lee Mazzilli.

Note:  The Best On The Worst is a thirteen-part weekly series spotlighting the greatest Mets players who just happened to play on some not-so-great Mets teams.  For previous installments, please click on the players' names below:

January 6, 2014: Todd Hundley 
January 13, 2014: Al Jackson

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