Mazzilli bolts Yanks to take O's job

Updated: November 8, 2003, 2:03 AM ET
Associated Press

BALTIMORE -- Lee Mazzilli smiled broadly as he buttoned up the Baltimore Orioles jersey with his name and the No. 13 stitched on the back.

"It's a good fit," he said, which is exactly how the Orioles felt Friday about having Mazzilli as their new manager.

Lee Mazzilli is only 48 years old, but it seems like he's been around baseball forever. Hired Friday to be the Orioles' new manager, Mazzilli paid his dues as a player and has worked hard as a coach. I believe he's ready to take the next step.

Mazzilli is intelligent and brings a wealth of experience to Baltimore. To be a first-base coach with the Yankees, you need to be one of the game's top coaches.

One of Mazzilli's priorities will be to put his stamp on the Orioles, who need to develop a team identity. It's tough to speculate now about what that identity will be, before Baltimore makes offseason moves. He needs to identify minor-league prospects, project when they'll be ready and establish a game plan for long-term success. The Orioles seem to have a roster full of guys in transition who are trying to find their niche. Mazzilli is well-suited to help them develop.

One example of his ability to instruct young players came in Game 1 of the World Series: After Nick Johnson was picked off third base by catcher Pudge Rodriguez, Mazzilli told Johnson not to dive into third on a throw from the catcher. He told Johnson to stay up next time so as to block the throw to the third baseman. That was great coaching instruction.

Mazzilli, 48, received a two-year contract with two one-year club options. After waiting anxiously for a week, he learned around midnight Friday morning that he was about to become a major league manager for the first time.

"It got me all choked up," Mazzilli said.

Mazzilli has less experience than several of the other applicants and no ties with the Orioles. In fact, he spent the past four years as first base coach for Baltimore's most bitter rival, the New York Yankees.

It was under manager Joe Torre that Mazzilli learned the finer points of running a winning team, and that is precisely why he was selected to be the 15th manager in the history of the Orioles.

"We think we have a leader for these players," said Orioles vice president Jim Beattie, who worked with VP Mike Flanagan to pick the manager. "Our goal is to win, and with this step we take a large step in that direction."

The hiring of Mazzilli ended a five-week process to find a replacement for Mike Hargrove, who was fired on Sept. 29 after his fourth straight losing season.

"Lee Mazzilli was the right man at the right time for the right job," Flanagan said.

During Mazzilli's four seasons with the Yankees, New York won the AL East every season and Baltimore finished fourth.

Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, who granted the Orioles permission to talk to Mazzilli, said in a statement, "Lee had some wonderful years here with the Yankees. It's an exceptionally good opportunity, and I wish him all the luck in the world."

Knowing that many Orioles fans might have trouble accepting a former Yankee as the team's new manager, Mazzilli made it clear where his loyalty now lies.

"Well, guess what? I'm not a Yankee anymore. I'm an Oriole," he said. "I have a lot of fond memories being there. I learned a lot about the game, and it's helped me. But there comes a time when you need to sprout your wings."

Before coming to New York, Mazzilli managed for three years in the Yankees' farm system. He played for five major league teams over 14 seasons, hitting .259 with 93 homers and 460 RBIs.

He managed the Class-A Tampa Yankees in 1997-98, then moved up to Double-A Norwich before joining the major league coaching staff. He was to be promoted to third base coach under Torre in 2004 before accepting the job with Baltimore.

"I couldn't be happier for him," Torre said. "He certainly has gained valuable experience over the years, and I have a great deal of confidence that he'll do a fine job with the Orioles."

With Mazzilli's departure, among the candidates to take over as New York's third-base coach are Bucky Dent, Tim Raines and Chili Davis.

Mazzilli, whose fiery demeanor and knowledge of the Orioles helped land him the job, won't let friendship stand in the way of defeating New York.

"Let's be honest. You always want to try to beat the team you just cam from," he said. "It's human nature to feel that."

The Yankees know it, too. As he was hearing to Camden Yards, Mazzilli took a call from New York shortstop Derek Jeter.

"He said to me, if we drill him, he's going to charge the dugout," Mazzilli said. "That's my boy!"

Managing was the only job that could pull him away from the Yankees in favor of leading a team that has stumbled through a franchise-record six consecutive losing seasons.

"This is a good, good ballclub," Mazzilli insisted. "This is not a rebuilding ball club. This is a club that can compete with any team in the league. That's what I believe."

Other candidates considered by the Orioles were Grady Little, Terry Francona, Tom Foley, Baltimore bench coach Sam Perlozzo and former Orioles players Eddie Murray, Rich Dauer and Rick Dempsey.

Perlozzo and Orioles first-base coach Rick Dempsey are expected to return as part of Mazzilli's staff.

"Though the other candidates were exceptional, each in their own way, we felt at this point in time Lee Mazzilli was the right guy for the Oriole franchise," Flanagan said.

Notes: Albert Belle formally filed for free agency Friday, a move that enabled the Orioles to finally remove him from the 40-man roster. Belle missed the last three years because of a degenerative hip injury, but was carried for insurance purposes. Orioles SS Deivi Cruz filed provisionally for free agency; the Orioles have until Nov. 15 to exercise his $1.5 million option or pay a $200,000 buyout.


Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press