Save the date: Mazzilli meets his mentor

O's manager sees Torre, old team for first time


May 25, 2004|By Joe Christensen and Peter Schmuck | Joe Christensen and Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

They still talk every now and then. Orioles manager Lee Mazzilli's cell phone will ring - the theme from The Godfather signals the call - and Joe Torre will be on the line, sharing his wisdom.

"It's just friends talking," Torre, the New York Yankees manager, said. "He may relate things that went on, but it's not about strategy."

"Family things, stuff like that, whatever's going on," Mazzilli said. "I might ask him a question about something he's been through."

The bond is deep. Both have Italian heritage and hail from Brooklyn, N.Y. Mazzilli first played for Torre with the New York Mets in 1977, and, 19 years later, Torre helped resurrect Mazzilli's career in baseball.

Mazzilli spent three years as a minor league manager in the Yankees' system and four years as Torre's first base coach before landing the Orioles' job in November. And once he saw the schedule, it didn't take Mazzilli long to find this date: May 25, Orioles vs. Yankees, Camden Yards, 7:05 p.m.

It's the first meeting between the mentor and the protege. But more than that for Mazzilli, it's the first chance to show the Yankees the progress being made in Baltimore.

"If you're a human being," Mazzilli said, "I don't know how you can say it's another game. You always want to try to beat your former team. It's like a player, when you go against your former team, you always want to do well against them. I think that's human nature."

In his four years as Yankees first base coach, Mazzilli saw his side win 46 of its 68 games against the Orioles, including 13 of 19 last season.

This is something the Orioles hired him to change. Their fans are tired of following a team that looks up to the Yankees, not just in the standings, but in general. The Orioles restocked their lineup for Mazzilli, hoping to reverse this trend.

Disappointingly, Mazzilli's club enters this series riding a season-high four-game losing streak. That's not exactly the type of momentum you want to bring into any series against the Yankees, but after his team finished getting swept by the Anaheim Angels on Sunday, Mazzilli stood firm.

"We're going through a tough road right now," Mazzilli said, "but we'll be all right."

He wasn't slamming chairs. He wasn't even pounding his fist. His whole demeanor, quite frankly, was Torre-like.

And back in Texas, where the Yankees were experiencing another reunion - Alex Rodriguez against the Rangers - the conversation sometimes sped ahead to this week and their chance to play against the man they called "Maz."

"Maz is a great guy," said shortstop Derek Jeter, who called Mazzilli with congratulations when he got the job. "He played the game. He understands the game. He just has that demeanor - never too high or too low. I think he got that from Mr. T [Torre]. He's an easygoing guy."

Mazzilli played 14 seasons in the big leagues and then walked away from the game for seven years. He and his wife started raising a family. He acted in the off-Broadway play Tony n' Tina's Wedding. He tried broadcasting and business.

Nothing seemed to fit.

In 1996, Torre's first year as Yankees manager, Mazzilli talked to him about coming back. Torre recommended him for a minor league managing job. Mazzilli spent two years managing at Single-A Tampa and one at Double-A Norwich before joining Torre's staff.

"I go back to what kind of player he was," Torre said. "He may not have been as good a player as he could have been ability-wise, but he never was afraid of pressure situations. You can count on one hand the guys who you want in those situations, and he was one of them."

With the Yankees, Mazzilli studied Torre closely, noting the way he handled his players, the way he handled the media, the way he always provided a calming influence in the circus-like atmosphere of New York.

"He was always patient," Mazzilli said. "That was the big thing. And he used to always say, no matter what you do, you've got to do what you believe."

So far, Mazzilli has done just that, defying conventional wisdom at times with mixed results. He had success using pitchers Rodrigo Lopez and B.J. Ryan in critical situations early in the season, and then had a move backfire Friday in Anaheim, when he inserted struggling reliever Mike DeJean to protect a two-run, eighth-inning lead.

But the important point is Mazzilli trusted his gut with each choice.

"He's going to make mistakes, like we all did," Torre said. "It's going to be hard to be patient because you want everyone to do well right away. But he's really a good communicator, and in today's baseball, that's pretty important."

Orioles tonight

Opponent: New York Yankees

Site: Camden Yards

Time: 7:05

TV/Radio: Comcast SportsNet/WBAL (1090 AM)

Starters: Yankees' Jon Lieber (3-1, 4.40) vs. Orioles' Erik Bedard (1-1, 4.97)

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