03/01/2004 11:04 AM ET
Mazzilli brings confidence to O's
By Gary Washburn / MLB.com
Lee Mazzilli: 56K | 300K
|Lee Mazzilli wants to make his own imprint on the Orioles organization. (Robert F. Bukaty/AP)
FORT LAUDERDALE -- Masked behind Lee Mazzilli's cool shades and unflappable demeanor is an almost childlike excitement.
As confident as he might have been in his ability to lead a Major League team, not even Mazzilli believed he would be a manager this quickly. The seventh person to interview for the Orioles job last fall, he was considered a longshot before walking into the Warehouse to meet with general managers Jim Beattie and Mike Flanagan.
Mazzilli was so impressive during his four-hour interview that club officials walked away in awe. When they threw him surprise hypothetical questions about game situations, he had the right answers. When they asked him about erasing inconsistency in a young team, he had the remedy.
When they asked him about the Yankees, New York's first-base coach referred to the Bombers as "them," not "us."
"We were looking for a guy who was hungry, with a lot of fresh, new ideas, and who would maybe take some chances," said Flanagan, who passed over three former teammates -- Eddie Murray, Rich Dauer and Rick Dempsey -- in favor of Mazzilli. "Lee had everything we were looking for. He just overwhelmed us in the interview."
Since being hired on Nov. 7, Mazzilli has sought to rid the organization of any inferiority complex regarding the Yankees and Red Sox. The once-proud Orioles had legendary battles with those teams and won many of those matchups.
For the past six years, however, the Orioles have been also-rans in the American League East, reduced to watching the Yankees and Red Sox celebrate playoff berths and division titles. Until this offseason the Orioles were the kid behind the chain-link fence who was unable to afford a ticket to the ballgame.
Mazzilli is here to change that image. When asked about the Orioles lacking the talent to compete with Boston and New York this season, he snapped back, "Who said that? If that is what anybody in this clubhouse is thinking, then why are they here? You never know what might happen on that baseball field. I like the guys we have in this clubhouse."
Confidence and self-assurance are two staples of Mazzilli's background. He was certain he could manage in the Majors after his playing days were over, but spent eight years helping to raise his three infant children before his wife, Dani, pushed him out of the house and back into professional baseball.
"I knew this is something I would eventually do," he said. "I wanted to stay in the game, but my wife had one young child and two on the way. It was time for me to be a family man."
When he needed work, he called on old friend Joe Torre, who had just won his first World Series championship with the Yankees. Mazzilli and Torre had a close relationship. The two were teammates with the Mets, and Mazzilli played under Torre when the latter was named Mets manager in 1977.
Torre made sure that Mazzilli was given a job in the Yankees' system, as skipper of Single-A Tampa in 1997. Mazzilli was promoted to Double-A Norwich in 1999, and named Yankees' first-base coach a year later.
"I think I have a unique perspective of having played with, played for and coached under one of the legendary minds in baseball," said Mazzilli. "I have to use that to my advantage. He has helped me a great deal."
Mazzilli does not consider being called a "Torre disciple" an insult, but he definitely wants to make his own imprint on an organization that desperately needs revitalization.
He recently filmed a commercial to promote the 2004 season. In a surreal scene, a uniform-clad Mazzilli is yelling at umpires, walking to the mound and making tactical moves. Only it's the middle of winter, the field is covered with snow and he is at Camden Yards alone. The most hilarious scene has Mazzilli walking through the snow to make a pitching change, handing the ball to an imaginary pitcher and saying, "Let's close this one out."
The commercial may be a parody, but it accurately describes Mazzilli's anticipation for his first season.