Each week during the off-season, I will be selecting a random, former Met to highlight. This will be taking place of our usual Friday segment, Rising Apple Player of the Week, until the regular season starts back up in April. If you have a former Met that you’d like me to highlight, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org and title your email: Rising Apple Off-Season Player of the Week suggestion.
As we moved through each week this off-season, I’ve started to find it harder and harder to think of a random Mets player to highlight. Shortly after my article shining the light on Tom Seaver was published last week, I got an email from my lovely mother requesting I focus on one of her all-time favorite Mets. Like the good son I am, the latest player of the week honors go to Lee Mazzilli.
Growing up in Brooklyn, the switch-hitting outfielder was a gifted all-around athlete, as I just found out he was a serious speed skater in his amateur years, winning eight national championships in the sport. While he could have been destined for the Winter Olympics, he decided to stick with baseball, and it worked out; he was selected by the Mets in the 1973 first-year player draft with the 14th overall pick, fresh off graduating from Abraham Lincoln High School.
It didn’t take long for Mazzilli to make his way up to the Big Leagues, as it only took him three seasons between Single-A and Double-A before he made his debut in 1976 at the young age of 21. He immediately had success as he worked his way through the farm system, as he showed he could do a little bit of everything; he hit at least 11 homers while decreasing his strikeouts from 82 to 69 in three seasons, while also getting on base at a .408 clip, stealing 40+ bases twice, and scoring 80+ runs three times.
Once up at the Big League level, he quickly became a fan favorite because of his raw talent, the fact that he was a hometown kid, and his dashing good looks, as my mother could confirm if asked. From the time he was called up in ’76 through ’78, you could tell he was slowly starting to get comfortable, and the 1979 season was quite possibly the best overall year of his career. He earned his first and only All-Star selection of his 14-year career, and did so by hitting .303/.395/.449 with 15 homers, 79 RBI, 78 runs scored, 34 doubles, 34 stolen bases, and 93 walks.
He followed up that performance with another strong showing for the 1980 Metsies, hitting .280/.370/.431 with 41 stolen bases, but struggled with injuries to his elbow and back throughout the ’81 season, which led to the Amazins trading him away to the Texas Rangers. Since he was a fan favorite, it was tough for the Shea Faithful to see him go (especially the ladies), but the deal proved to be an important one, as the Rangers sent Ron Darling and Walt Terrell in return. Obviously, we know Darling was a key cog of the 1986 championship rotation, but who is Walt Terrell? He’s the guy Frank Cashen eventually used to send to Detroit to acquire Howard Johnson.
Once Mazzilli left Flushing, his career took a turn for the worse, as he struggled on the field with the Rangers, Yankees, and Pirates, while also getting involved in the wrong crowds off the field. Prior to ’86, Cashen was looking to unload Ray Knight (the eventual World Series MVP) and tried to ship him off to Pittsburgh in exchange for Mazzilli, but the Pirates wouldn’t go for it. However, they would release the outfielder that July, allowing him to re-sign with the Mets in August, primed and ready to contribute for the playoff-bound Amazins.
He hung out in Triple-A for a short time before a roster spot opened up in the Big Leagues following the release of George Foster, but Mazzilli hit .276/.417/.431 in 39 games played before the playoffs, and appeared in nine games between the NLCS and World Series, being able to hoist the championship trophy with his hometown Mets. His second tour with New York went into 1989, until he was claimed off waivers by the Blue Jays. Once the ’89 season finished, Mazilli said the same for his playing career, hanging up his spikes at the age of 34.
Once he was done as a ballplayer, he eventually tried his hand at coaching, as he was with the Yankees as their first base coach from 2000-’03, then earned his first and only managerial gig with the Orioles in 2004. He spent two years with Baltimore, compiling a less-than-impressive 129-140 record, and getting fired 107 games into the ’05 season. He returned to the Yankees to be their bench coach in ’06, then spent three years as an analyst on SportsNet New York, before Bobby Ojeda took his place. Mazzilli bounced around to a few different places in his professional career, but he will forever be remembered as a Met, and spent his best years with the organization.
So, here’s to you, Mr. Mazzilli. Even though I’m sure the trade to Texas was tough, I’m glad to see you were able to come back and reap the benefits of what were some really bad Mets teams in the late ’70s and early ’80s. Thank you for always being loyal to the Orange and Blue, and my mother will always be a fan of yours.