Against ex-team, Mazzilli shows true colors: black, orange

May 26, 2004|By LAURA VECSEY

SO MUCH FOR a "no fraternization" rule. Bear hugs and backslapping were definitely in order.

You only say hello and goodbye to your old team once, make the final break. Last night was Lee Mazzilli's night.

Nineteen times the Yankees will play the Orioles this season, barring any more biblical storms that wash away games and anything else not bolted down. But for the scheduled first meeting between the Yankees and Orioles, Mazzilli was the man in the middle.

He's the manager who got to wear black and orange in part because of what he learned while wearing pinstripes.

"You look over and see where you came from. When I got back into baseball, it was with them. I spent seven years over there," Mazzilli said last night.

During batting practice, Yankees players and coaches sidled over to the cage. One by one they approached Mazzilli, smiling and affectionate: Luis Sojo, Ruben Sierra, Enrique Wilson, Bernie Williams, Mel Stottlemyre.

The old gang. Now the rival gang.

Then there was the media horde, a cicada-like swarm that sawed the same question over and over, attempting to elicit responses fitting a Brooklyn-born Italian New Yorker who has yet to air his emotions in public, but, boy, wouldn't this be the night.

Hey, Maz. Was this a game you circled the first time you saw the schedule?

Maz, is this extra special?

Maz, is this game different because it's the Yankees?

Maz, do you want to beat them even more because they're the Yankees?

The answer to all these questions? A deadpan, "No."

The Orioles rode a four-game losing streak into last night's series opener against the Yankees. Any win would be good. The Orioles had dropped to .500 after being swept in Anaheim and could use a win against any team, Yankees or no Yankees.

Well, it was certainly not going to be the Yankees.

In his heart, Mazzilli must have known better. Taking a 23-year-old rookie fresh out of Double-A Bowie and putting him on the mound, in relief, for his major league debut, against the Yankees.

A 2-0 Yankees lead quickly ballooned to 8-0 before a humiliating loss for the Orioles was in the books, 11-3.

If the Orioles' brass thought they were going to catch lightning in a bottle by installing Denny Bautista as their surprising stopgap reliever, they were better off trying to capture some of the violent bolts that electrified the skies over stormy Baltimore last night.

Kaboom, indeed.

Of all general managers, Jim Beattie and Mike Flanagan should have known better than attempting trickery or tempting fates. Former pitchers both of them, and Beattie a one-time Yankee. Who better to understand the psychological damage that could result - for the young pitcher and for the team - from a disorganized loss against the juggernaut all teams use as a measuring stick?

Boys on the mound aren't going to cut it against the crew Joe Torre brought to town, even if this is part of the character-building process through which the Orioles are willing to put their young pitchers.

There's a thin line between a taste of the big leagues and being swallowed by a tsunami of Yankees hits and runs. That's not a taste of the big leagues, that's the taste of demoralization.

What a shame, too. Before the game, the Orioles manager figured to be the central figure in the first meeting of the season between his old team and his new one.

Everyone wanted Mazzilli to talk about the Yankees. Mazzilli had a different opinion about what was important, especially since the Orioles made good on their offseason promise that this year they would truck their fleet of young pitchers in and out of the major leagues.

This season was about giving chances to Daniel Cabrera and Bautista if Kurt Ainsworth and Matt Riley proved they weren't ready to go the distance - in a game or for the season.

That's not the worst thing for a club that thinks it has the arms in its minor league system on which to build a contender. But the shuffling of pitching staff and the lack of reliable relievers, now that Rodrigo Lopez has been installed as a starter and Mike DeJean is toast, must have its limits.

Earlier yesterday, Mazzilli had to talk to seven Orioles who were added to the roster, designated for assignment or optioned. Mazzilli showed pretty clearly where his heart is these days: About as far removed from the Yankees as he can get.

How can it be any other way when the foundation work required for building this Orioles team involves a lot of heavy emotional lifting? Mazzilli was ecstatic to get his first crack at managing in the big leagues, but how often do you visualize the tough moments and worst-case scenarios?

Mazzilli had more than his share of those yesterday.

"One thing you have to get used to is the control you have over things. You have control over careers. When you have passion for your players, sometimes the decisions you make are hard," Mazzilli said.

This is Year One for Mazzilli in Baltimore. It's also Year One for an Orioles team whose nucleus will be together the next three years.

This is about starting from scratch, which explains why Mazzilli is hard-pressed to be obsessed with what was (the Yankees) when what is and what will be (the Orioles) is everything.

"Today, we had to make some decisions that were very hard," he said, amplifying a theme he set forth in spring camp, when relationship building and trust and becoming a team were stressed as much as not striking out, stealing bases, disrupting the opponent.

After a nice start to the season, the liabilities of the Orioles' pitching are glaring. To some degree, this scenario was to be expected. What wasn't expected was using boys to shut down the reigning AL East winners and World Series contenders.

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