Bucs CF Omar Moreno left for the Houston Astrodome as a free agent following 1982. That wasn’t much of a loss as his career was in a downward spiral from which it wouldn’t recover. (Regarding Moreno, Bill James’ 1984 Baseball Abstract states: “There can be absolutely no excuse for writing his name on a lineup card.”) Three days before Christmas in 1982 and less than two weeks after Moreno signed with Houston, the Pirates acquired Lee Mazzilli from the Yankees for four minor league prospects – Tim Burke, Don Aubin, John Holland and Jose Rivera. One of the players, Burke, would have a solid ML career. The others would never see the light of an ML stadium while in uniform.
Mazzilli was a Brooklyn bred standout athlete. He was the Mets first round pick in 1973 and he showed great improvement every year in the minors. His BA went up, his walks went up and his Ks went down each year while he played for in the minors. Mazzilli made his ML debut in 1976 at the age of 21. In 1978, 1979 and 1980 he posted an OPS+ of better than 120. He made the All-Star team in 1979 and homered in his first at bat off Jim Kern. The sky was seemingly the limit.
Mazzilli was a player, in the lady killing sense of the word. Think of Scott Baio as a baseball player. As a good looking and very public figure in NYC, he got a rep as beign a female fan favorite. But after a so-so year in 1981 (partially caused by back and elbow issues), the Mets traded him to the Rangers in a deal that broke the hearts of many in Flushing. The Mets got Ron Darling and Walt Terrell. So, the trade worked out well for them. But in the beginning, Mets fans (and women in NYC) hated it. Mazzilli played at the same level in Texas as he had for the Mets in 1981. Not terrible but not as good as before. He again had injuries, spending two stints on the DL with wrist and shoulder issues. In August he was shipped to the Bombers for Bucky Dent and Mazzilli’s bat came to life. Then the Yanks traded him for Burke and the slew of others.
Mazzilli was the Bucs starting CF in 1983 and homered on Opening Day. He hit second originally, but then became the primary lead off hitter. He was hitting well – .284 – and leading the league in walks when he strained his back in mid-June. The Pirates apparently sensed danger and acquired Marvell Wynne from the Mets. Wynne played CF the rest of the year and Mazzilli became almost exclusively a pinch hitter. He wasn’t a very good PH. He was just 6 for 41 with one RBI and no homers.
1984 started like 1983 ended. Mazzilli was nearly exclusively a pinch hitter. Dave Parker was gone. Signed to a free agent contract was the rapidly aging Amos Otis. Manning right field was Canadian Doug Frobel. Neither of them hit much and Mazzilli was the regular left fielder from late May to late August when he went on the DL with a burn to his left hand, the result of touching a hot muffler while working on his car. When he got off the DL, he appeared only as a pinch hitter until the season concluded. While he was a regular, he didn’t hit very well, posting an OPS of less than .700 in 220 or so ABs.
It is hard to imagine an OF more inept and screwed up than the Pirates was in 1984. But, it might’ve been even more messed up in 1985. Nine different players started 30 or more games in the Pirate OF in 1985. Mazzilli wasn’t one of them. He started just three times in the OF and 12 times at first. He was used as the Bucs primary PH and did well, going 16 for 56 with 15 free passes.
1986 was the same story for Mazzilli. The Bucs were in disarray and he was the main PH. He started 15 times and appeared in 61 games before being released in late July (the same day the Bucs acquired Bobby Bonilla from the White Sox for Jose DeLeon). He was hitting just .226 at the time with a .301 slugging percentage.
Mazzilli was picked up by the Mets and helped them win the World Series with a couple of hits against the BoSox. He was solid in a role for the Mets in 1987 with an OPS+ of 132 in 124 ABs. 1988 was miserable. He hit .147 in 1988 in 116 AB and had an OPS+ of 17. That has to be a record for guys with 100 ABs in a single season. That’s just wretched. He started off slowly again in 1989 and was claimed off waivers by the Blue Jays from the Mets. He finished his career in 1989, batting poorly, but drawing a fair share of walks. He was hitless in 8 ABs for the Jays in 1989 ALCS.
This review of Mazzilli’s career left me with more respect for him as a ballplayer than I had as a kid. He hit for a decent average, had some power, was fast and drew some walks. Yet I’m surprised that Mazzilli wound up as a coach and manager in the Majors. The Mazzilli I remember with the Bucs was an uninspired player. For example, on June 6, 1984 against the Mets (and Dwight Gooden), Mazzilli left third base early when he tagged up on a fly ball in the bottom of the 9th with what would’ve been the winning run. The Mets appealed, Mazzilli was out and the Mets won in 13. That could’ve happened to anyone, of course, but to me at the time, it seemed typical of his effort. My favorite Mazzilli story comes from 1985. I’m 14 and hanging around the Pirates dugout at Riverfront trying to get autographs. This was when the Reds opened the gates two hours before game time and there was almost nobody who got there that early. Signatures were easy to come by. My sister, 22 at the time, was hanging out with me. Mazzilli comes in from BP and I ask him cordially for his John Hancock. He looks up to tell me, “No” and then spies my sister. He flashes his grin and says, “How are you?” My sister wasn’t having any of it and gave him a terse, “Fine.” And that was the end of that. I didn’t get his signature and he didn’t get my sister’s phone number.
Mazzilli was also criticized for having a candy arm. I do recall people saying that about him and it is one of the reasons, I assume, that he was used so sparingly in the outfield by the Pirates. Somewhere, someone probably has a record of people that have tagged up and gone from second to third on a fly ball to left. I would bet Mazzilli was victimized more than a few times while playing left. But I can’t recall any specific instances of that happening. I do know that on Mazzilli’s home debut in 1983 he was manning CF. In the 10th inning, not so swift afoot Keith Hernandez doubled. He advanced to third on a fly ball to Mazzilli and then scored the winning run on another fly ball to Mazzilli that could accurately be described as shallow. Fans booed.
Mazzilli was one of the players that testified at the Pittsburgh Drug Trials.
Mets fans still love him. Check out his fan memory page at the Ultimate Mets Database.