The Yankee In Our Midst

He's an Italian from Brooklyn whose cell phone plays the theme song from 'The Godfather.' And he is quickly becoming the toast of the town. But what does Baltimore really know about O's manager Lee Mazzilli?

April 29, 2004|By Patricia Meisol | Patricia Meisol,SUN STAFF

Day 1

It's April 20, 2 1/2 hours before game time, and Lee Mazzilli, 49, comes out of his office and into the dugout. Former manager Mike Hargrove let reporters into his inner-sanctum for pre-game press conferences. Not Mazzilli. He's in control. A Yankee thing, control.

He looks like a tough guy. Intense. Confident. Big brawny face, high cheek bones, stares you straight in the eye. The beat reporters complain about his short, cliche-laden sentences. But at least he's talking. When you're a Yankee, you don't have to. But this is the Orioles. You gotta make it interesting.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in yesterday's editions on Orioles manager Lee Mazzilli misidentified Elrod Hendricks' job with the team. He is the Orioles bullpen coach. The Sun regrets the error.

And what an interesting moment it is: The O's are 7-4, in first place in the American League East, their best start in six years.

For a Yankee, Mazzilli is uncharacteristically shy. Somebody asks about the year he stole seven bases in a single game. He blushes, grunts yes. That's old news. The Italian Stallion doesn't want to talk about those days, when the Mets brought him up early from the minors and gave him that nickname.

Speaking of Italian, half of Brooklyn came out for his opening night at Camden Yards. His mother gave him a birthday gift. And he responded something like, Oh, ma, and she pushed it into his hand, insisting, take it, take it, take it. It was a scene, with everybody chatting away among themselves, not saying a word to outsiders. And they won't, not until they know you. Not until you are part of The Family.

Let's put it this way, the first time players heard The Godfather theme ringing on a cell phone, one of them said, "It's gotta be Lee's."

In the dugout now, he's doing his nightly radio interview. "It's good to be home," he says. "You always want to be home."

Home?

His three kids have Orioles jerseys now, sure. They'll be cheering tonight in their seats behind home plate. OK, maybe a few people did recognize him on his day off, when he went shopping at Arundel Mills with his wife and kids, in town from Connecticut for spring break.

But home? Is he calling Baltimore home?

Day 2

At today's pre-game news conference, he wears dark sunglasses that make him look ominous, and talks about how "chemistry has a lot to do with it."

It's a short news conference. The O's won last night, 9-1.

You can see his pursed lips, his funny smile, more like a pout, really, that he puts on when he gets ready to answer. There's a Mazzilli grimace, too, two lines on either side of his upper lip. A low, even-toned, gravelly voice. The press is frustrated; they can't read him, and he's not giving up much.

For 20 minutes, he is on the field talking with a Devil Rays coach. Wouldn't you know it? Don Zimmer is a former Yankee. Famous in his time and yet now, at 73, some guys on the field hardly know who he is.

Zimmer's locker was next to Mazzilli's for five years, and Mazzilli took up most of the space in both. "He had better clothes than I did."

At 8 a.m. the day he got the O's job, Mazzilli called Zimmer. All winter Zimmer has been hearing from Mazzilli. "He called me to say you wouldn't believe how good these guys are treating me."

So today Zimmer is razzing Maz: "How the hell'd you get so smart so quick?"

If players play good, the manager gets smart. If players don't play good, well, it's the manager's fault. Mazzilli is one of 30 people in the world who do what he does, Zimmer says, and he deserves happiness.

But can Oriole fans trust him? Do we dare fall for this guy?

"He's still the enemy," Zimmer says. "He has to prove himself."

But he's an Oriole now. And Mazzilli might not admit it, but he wants to beat the Yankees even more than everybody else. But it's not easy. Six division championships in a decade, six league championships, four World Series.

OK, all right. We don't need to be reminded.

Day 3

Maz is on the field, making a bank commercial. He's selling mortgages to Baltimore, and he hasn't even moved here himself. He's gonna sell cars, too, here in Baltimore, home to the team he worked four years to defeat as a Yankee first-base coach. Not only does he take over, but he gets a car out of it.

It's not just his face that's intense now, but his whole body.

"Think this is easy, eh?" he says to the television crew.

He's in his home whites, hat with the orange brim. Again and again, he repeats his lines. "This is Lee Mazzilli for Baltimore Savings and Loan ... ."

He says "FBIC-insured" instead of FDIC-insured.

Another take.

He says "There's no better time" instead of "There's never been a better time" to get a mortgage.

One more, the camera guy tells him, we need to end on a good one.

"The other ones were bad?"

Everybody laughs.

Mazzilli clenches his fists. He wriggles his fingers.

Give me a little smile, they say.

"Yull need," he says.

"Say `you need,'" they tell him.

"That's what I said."

Another take. This time he uses his hands for emphasis and his lines are clean. It's a wrap.

Well, almost. Once more - and a little friendlier, please.

Hands on hips, smiling. "Whaddaya saying, I'm not friendly?"

Day 4

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