One Pack. No Turning Back.
The Magnificent Mazzo
Day 31: Brooklyn, NY, 7.19.15
Number of miles driven today: 80
Total miles driven on road trip: 6,892
Starbucks or Dunkin' Donuts? Dunkin' Donuts reigns Brooklyn.
Starbucks' record (# of days Starbucks was more common): 20-8-2
Dunkin' Donuts' record: 8-20-2
Cheapest gas I saw today: $3.29
Number of states visited overall: 18
Number of red states visited overall (as of 2012 presidential election): 10 (Texas, Arizona, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina)
Number of blue states visited overall: 8 (California, New Mexico, Florida, Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey, New York)
Final score of Trivial Pursuit game vs. my dad: 7-3
Winning question: (Category People and Places): "What country's currency is represented by this symbol: (Imagine a Y with an equals sign through it)"
The only jewelry Lee Mazzilli wears, other than his wedding ring, isn't even really jewelry. There's no sign of his 1986 World Series ring with the Mets. All he wears are two simple white elastic bracelets on his right wrist imprinted with "Fred L. Mazzill Foundation." In every waking moment, that reminder of his older brother sits in his peripheral vision. But really he needs no reminder--he thinks about Fred all the time, every day.
Mazzilli is 100% New York. He grew up here, he played here, he'll probably die here. Technically he has lived in Greenwich, Connecticut for the past 35 years, but Greenwich is just a tony suburb of New York.
He doesn't enter a room, he commands it. And this, you see, has always been the paradox of Lee Louis Mazzilli. His slicked black hair, olive/tan skin, and matinee idol looks draw attention that he doesn't want.
"My wife always says that if you want to find me at a party, look in the corners of the room," he tells me and my dad, leaning against the wall of Ruby's Oyster Bar and Bistro in Rye, NY and stretching out his legs on an adjacent chair.
"Do you like people?" I ask.
"Yeah I like people," he says, direct and in a thick Brooklyn accent. "It's not so much that I'm introverted, it just takes me awhile to open up to people," he says.
And who can blame him? While some may argue for Boston or Philadelphia, the New York press is the most merciless in the country, a bloodlusting pack with swords for pens. The New York press has broken athletes. Mazzilli, however, had the advantage of growing up here, the son of a piano tuner and beautician who scraped his knees in the Sheepshead Bay section of Brooklyn, where my dad and I have spent the past couple of nights.
"You're staying in Sheepshead Bay?" Mazzilli asks us, cringing. "Good luck."
Driving through Queens to meet Mazzilli, I took in row after row of high-rise government project housing and thought back to Camargo, OK, Don Carman's hometown, with its single storefront and infinite horizons of pasture.
Mazzilli is wearing all black--a black t-shirt, black jeans, providing a striking contrast to his bright white smile. He comes from an Italian family--the youngest of three--and tells us how grateful he is that his mom handed down her recipe for chicken cacciatore before she passed. He orders liver, bacon and onions, and tells us how impressed he is that we are making a point of spending father/son time together.
"Enjoy your time together," he tells my dad. "It's precious."
Family is the most important thing in Mazzilli's life. More important than being a number one draft pick in 1973. More important than starting the rally in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series, a chain reaction that ended with Bill Buckner unlisting his phone number. More important than wing-manning for Joe Torre on those championship Yankees teams.
When Mazzilli returned to coaching baseball after an 8-year absence in 1997, he almost quit after a month. His biggest concern was not being around his family--he had three young kids at home that were used to having him around. His son L.J., now a Mets prospect playing for their Double A team in Binghamton, was only 6. Mazzilli and his wife Dani made a deal, promising the family wouldn't go more than three weeks without seeing each other. L.J. was still sad, and his dad reassured him that once September rolled around, he'd be back full time.
About a month into his season of managing the Tampa Yankees, he made a surprise visit home, nudging a sleeping L.J. awake.
L.J. rubbed his eyes. "Is it September already?"
Mazzilli went downstairs, heartbroken, and told Dani he couldn't do it. She told him to not make any rash decisions, to give it some thought. She had seen her husband sample various careers in the 8 years since retiring as a player, and she knew better than he did what he needed. Just like Rocky Balboa in the eponymous movie, the real-life Italian Stallion still had something left in the basement. He still needed baseball, and baseball needed him.
As we wound down our meal, I asked about the tattoo I saw peeking beneath the sleeve on his left bicep. There were some feathers visible, and some words, but I couldn't tell what it was.
"What's your tattoo of?" I asked.
He glanced at his arm. "That's for my brother," he said, without elaboration.
For their entire lives, he and his older brother Fred spoke every single day.
"Not once did we have a fight," he had said earlier.
Fred died suddenly of lung cancer three years ago.
"Is it a heart?" I asked, trying to decipher it.
"Nope," he said, pulling up his sleeve briefly to look at it, then changing his mind and covering it up.
He patted his bicep, and looked away. He started to form some words, then just let silence descend.
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