Mazzilli does it all -- and does it all well

Orioles: The team's new manager came out of Brooklyn on skates, went off-Broadway, and from there back to baseball.

November 16, 2003|By John Eisenberg | John Eisenberg,SUN STAFF

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.

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