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

May 26, 2004|By LAURA VECSEY

EVERYONE WANTED LEE Mazzilli to talk about the Yankees. Mazzilli had a different opinion about what was important.

Welcome to Storm Central - and not because Camden Yards was tabbed to play Noah's Ark during last night's sensational deluge.

Mazzilli was in the middle of his own inner squall, facing his old team last night while his new team consumed him. No wonder he claimed exhaustion before the first pitch was thrown.

Yesterday, the Orioles made good on a spring training promise that this year they would truck their fleet of young pitchers in and out of the major leagues, giving chances to the Daniel Cabre ras and Denny Bautistas if the Kurt Ainsworths and Matt Rileys proved they weren't ready to go the distance - in a game or for the season.

Yesterday, Mazzilli had to talk to seven Orioles who were added to the roster, designated for assignment or optioned.

Here's the one thing Mazzilli said yesterday that really seemed to engage him emotionally. It wasn't about the Yankees. It was about the Orioles - the young players who will come and go as Mazzilli works with vice presidents Jim Beattie and Mike Flanagan to turn this perennial fourth-place team in the AL East into one that can legitimately take aim at Boston and New York.

"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.

If there was any mystery about where Mazzilli's heart lies, the events of yesterday just about cleared that up.

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.

That didn't mean that Mazzilli adhered to a "no fraternization' rule with the Yankees. Bear hugs and backslapping were definitely in order.

You only say hello and goodbye to your old team once, make the final break, go from being one of them to being one of the other guys. Last night was 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 before the heavens opened over Camden Yards.

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 were riding a four-game losing streak heading 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 will now take any victory against any team to get back in the win column, especially since three Mike DeJean relief appearances and the switch of Rodrigo Lopez from middle reliever to starter are all that stand in the way of the Orioles being 23-17 or better heading into last night's game.

"The difference between the minors and here is that every move you make is because you win at all costs." Mazzilli said.

Not that Mazzilli denied it was "a little strange' facing the Yankees.

"You have to keep your emotions out of the game. You put your guys on the field and let them play." he said.

Mazzilli said he will be forever grateful for the opportunity Joe Torre and the Yankees gave him, but anyone looking to comb the nether regions of Mazzilli's sentimental journey was going to come up empty.

And that's a very good sign from a manager who knows where his loyalties now lie.

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