One afternoon last week, about an hour after his 10th-inning run had given the New York Mets a 4-3 victory over the Los Angeles Dodgers, Lee Mazzilli left Shea Stadium by a back entrance. From behind the 10-foot chain link fence that encloses the players' parking lot, a cry—no, a shriek—came forth: "Lee! It's Lee! Oh, Lee!" Mazzilli seemed flustered and walked shyly past his Cadillac Coupe de Ville toward a throng of girls. They thrust pens through the fence and twittered. Mazzilli is olive-skinned, dark-eyed, high-cheekboned—very Kiss-Me-I'm-Italian.
And surely they would have, but for the fence. Mazzilli has inaccurately been described as a John Travolta look-alike, though both have a vulnerability—perhaps in the eyes—that women seem to find agreeable. He really looks more like Bucky Dent, the reigning poster boy of the Yankees, except that Mazzilli has the advantages of being a bachelor and being able to hit. He signed some autographs, stopped a few hearts with a quiet "How you doin' today?" (sounding rather like Rocky Balboa), then returned to his car. An 18-year-old girl, wiping tears—of what? ecstasy? fantasy?—from her eyes, snapped at her father as he tried to reclaim his pen, "No! He touched it! He touched it!"
"Believe me," Mazzilli said, driving away, "that was nothing."
Something is when they tear off his shirt collar or pluck out his hair. He has put up with, even courted, such attentions since becoming the starting center-fielder of the Mets two years ago, at age 22. But this season Mazzilli has also become the star the Mets predicted he would be when they made him their first draft choice in 1973. In what has otherwise been a dismal season for the club, Mazzilli leads the Mets in batting (.322) and walks (54, for a .419 on-base percentage), is second in RBIs (48), stolen bases (21) and home runs (9), third in runs (45), and was the only Met selected to the National League All-Star team.
"You can compare him to Pete Rose," says Dick Sisler, the Mets batting coach. "Both are switch hitters, they use the whole field, and they can beat you a number of ways. He's got a little more power than Rose, but I wouldn't want to see him go for home runs. It would ruin his swing. He dips his shoulder sometimes when he goes for the pump."
Nonetheless, the Mets' manager, Joe Torre—who like Mazzilli is an Italian-American raised in Brooklyn—expects Mazzilli to "go to the pump" more often in the future. "He's not going to be a George Foster or a Mike Schmidt," Torre says, "but he can hit 25 homers. He's comparable to another switch hitter, Ted Simmons, who's as good a hitter as there is in the league. Both are questionable defensively but, because they work hard, are still better than average."
Mazzilli's speed allows him to cover centerfield effectively, but runners are not afraid to try for an extra base on him; he does not throw well. Until he turned pro in 1974, he played ambidextrously. He owned a lefthanded mitt and a righthanded mitt, brought both to his high school games, and would decide on a whim which to use. There is no conceivable advantage in being an ambidextrous outfielder, but such a talent does attract attention, and Mazzilli has never been one to shy away from attention. M. Donald Grant, who ran the Mets when Mazzilli was drafted, claims that the club first heard of him from a cashier at Grant's brokerage firm. "She told me her brother-in-law ran a team in Brooklyn that had a great prospect who could throw just as well with his left or right arm," Grant says. "Which was true. But he didn't throw well enough with either to be a major-leaguer."
The Mets signed him out of Abraham Lincoln High School in Brooklyn—among whose alumni are playwright Arthur Miller and singer Neil Diamond—and told him to concentrate on throwing righthanded, because he could make the transition to other positions more easily as a righty. (Ironically, because the organization has some good young outfielders in its farm system and a first baseman, Willie Montanez, who is making $330,000 a year and hitting .220, there is now talk about playing Mazzilli at first, where it is better to be lefthanded.)
In his three years in the minors, Mazzilli improved steadily, showcased his speed by stealing seven bases in a seven-inning game and perfected the basket-style catch of his childhood hero, Willie Mays. This did nothing to improve his throwing arm, and he has since reverted to more conventional eye-level catches with men on base—but, as Mazzilli says, "The fans seemed to like it."
Indeed, almost from the day that the Mets brought the kid from Sheepshead Bay to Shea, the press has called him a throwback to the days when New York boasted three of the top centerfielders in baseball—Mays, Mickey Mantle and Duke Snider. A .250 hitter as a rookie, Mazzilli was batting better than .300 last year until mid-June, when he tired; he finished the season at .273. The seventh-leading hitter in the National League at the All-Star break, Mazzilli seems likely to finish above .300 this season and could even get 200 hits. "I'm not saying I can't win the batting title," he says, "but I don't think I will this year. I've got a lot more to learn. And it's tough to stay up there with a last-place team. The dog days...."
Ah, the dreaded dog days. Mazzilli has experienced them for two straight summers with the Mets, and he already says he will talk tough when his contract expires after the 1980 season. He grew up a Mets fan, and like most of them, he is critical of the club for not participating more actively in the free-agent market. Were he to test those waters, Mazzilli would attract immense interest. He knows it. Not much about Lee Mazzilli slips by Lee Mazzilli. Perhaps it was just coincidence that the organist at Shea Stadium broke into Carly Simon's You're So Vain when Mazzilli stepped on the field before the Dodger game to sign autographs. Perhaps not. "If everything can be kept in the proper perspective," says Torre, "Lee's got limitless potential."
Oddly, it was Torre who gave Mazzilli's heartthrob image its first big push by presenting him with an ITALIAN STALLION T shirt during his rookie year. The name has stuck. He is also known to his teammates as "Hollywood." Last winter he did a reading for Paramount Pictures which, Mazzilli says, "they were well pleased with." He met Robert DeNiro and was mentioned for the role of DeNiro's brother in a film about boxer Jake LaMotta, Raging Bull, though nothing came of it. All of which makes perspective a little difficult for Mazzilli, who is not only contending with the legends of New York centerfielders past, but also with that of the memorable New York actor Joe Namath. "This stuff is good up to a point," Mazzilli says, "but it can get out of hand. I want to be known as a ballplayer; I don't want to be known as the heartthrob of New York. Though it does have its fringe benefits."
He says this with an engaging and not altogether innocent smile. He has an ITALIAN LOVER pin on his locker, presumably voluntarily, and some say he has had his uniform formfitted. Mazzilli's done all right in endorsements, too, lending his name and good looks to a chain of men's stores, a restaurant and Amoco. None of this is lost on the Mets, who held a Lee Mazzilli Poster Day last week. The only other Poster Day the team held was for Hank Aaron.
Clearly the Mets are holding their breath, hoping not to lose the first potentially great offensive player in the history of their franchise before they have a chance to rebuild around him. "I don't know what's in the wind for me," Mazzilli says, quietly, sounding very much indeed like Rocky Balboa. "I'm not getting married till I make my first million, and I plan on making a lot more than a million when I sign my next contract, I'll tell you that. Till then, I take things on a day-to-day basis." Which doesn't sound so terribly hard in Mazzilli's case, and is probably not a bad way for a Met to get through the dog days.