LJ Mazzilli delivers in first pro game as Cyclones fall to Yanks
By John Torenli, Sports Editor
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Cameras snapped countless photos, video cameras rolled throughout and microphones were thrust into the face of the 22-year-old second baseman just 48 hours before his professional debut.
You'd have thought Michael Jordan or Derek Jeter was inhabiting the Brooklyn Cyclones dugout Saturday evening as a media maelstrom descended on LJ Mazzilli, the Mets' fourth-round pick out of the University of Connecticut in this month's Major League Draft.
For the son of Mets legend and Brooklyn native Lee Mazzilli, the attention was awe-inspiring, but didn't leave him awestruck as he handled question after question with the poise of a big league veteran during the Baby Bums' initial workout at newly renovated MCU Park on Coney Island.
“I feel more relaxed knowing that I have people around me to point me in the right direction. I’m ready to go," noted the younger Mazzilli, who proved he was, in fact, "ready to go" by pounding out a pair of hits in the Cyclones' season-opening 2-1 loss to rival Staten Island on Monday night at Richmond County Bank Ballpark.
With his proud father watching from the stands, LJ lined a single into center field in the top of the fourth inning and added another laser beam base hit to left in the sixth.
He also handled his three fielding chances -- two pop ups and a grounder -- without hesitation, taking his first steps toward what he hopes will be as illustrious a career as his father enjoyed over 14 Major League seasons, 10 of which came with the hometown New York Mets.
“I’m so proud to be his son," LJ said with his famous dad sitting next to him Saturday. "But I’m here to add to my own legacy. I’m excited to start and get rolling.”
As for the father, who currently works in the Yankees' front office, having his son playing within shouting distance of his old Benonshurst home is truly a dream come true, especially with the Mets taking the younger "Maz" exactly 40 years after he himself was selected in the opening round of the 1973 Draft out of Lincoln High School.
“I'm sitting here with goosebumps," Lee admitted on the eve of what had to be his most special Father's Day yet. "I grew up just a mile or two away from here. As a dad, I don’t know if I could be any more proud. I’m so fortunate to work for the Yankees, to win two world championships, one with the Mets (in 1986) and one with theYankees (as a coach on Joe Torre's staff in 2000). Now, to see my son with the Mets, I think any dad would feel the same way.”
“I think he was a little more excited (when I got drafted)," added LJ, who was a two-time Big East First Team selection at UConn. "The feeling was unbelievable. He jumped up and grabbed me right away. My grandparents lived here and I grew up around them here.”
LJ, who is staying at the Quality Inn in Downtown Brooklyn along with most of his new teammates, grew up in Greenwich, Conn., and finished his high school career in Bardenton, Fla., before starring for four years with the Huskies.
While he isn't exactly Brooklyn born-and-bred, the budding prospect feels quite at home in the shadows of the world's most famous amusement park.
“I’ve played a lot of AAU ball growing up in New York for the Bayside Yankees," LJ revealed. "I played at Parade Grounds, where [my father] played when he was younger. It’s a lot grittier when you’re up here [in Brooklyn]. I feel like this is my first step. I hope to be playing for the Mets one day at Citi Field.”
“He probably knows more baseball than all of us put together," Brooklyn manager Rich Donnelly said of his new second baseman. "Knowing, Maz, he was probably showing him how to switch-hit since he was born. Coaches sons are very fortunate to be around the game and to see how big leaguers do it. He’s probably been around a lot of big league players. That’s what I’m most excited about. You don’t have to tell him how to do thing. He’s already half-way there.”
In yet another twist to this hardball fairy-tale, Donnelly and the elder Mazzilli also share quite a lineage. Donnelly was the opposing manager when Lee made his pro debut as a Minor Leaguer in Anderson, S.C. back in '73. The two were reunited when Donnelly was a coach on manager Jim Leyland's staff in Pittsburgh during Lee's time with the Pirates in the 1980s.
“I was with Maz since his first pro game. I was 25 in my first year as a manager and he was 17," Donnelly recalled. "Maz was a player on the 1986 Pirates when I was there. When I heard that we drafted his son, I was almost as happy as a dad can be. It’s unbelievable that all that time is past, and that a guy that I coached in '86, I get to manage his son now.”
Lee feels LJ is in good hands with Donnelly, a baseball lifer who has spent better than three decades in the pro game as a Major League coach and Minor League skipper.
“When I found out that Rich was LJ’s manager, I said ‘You can’t be with a better guy on your first stop in professional baseball’," the elder Mazzilli said.
While the challenge of living up to the Mazzilli name in New York is a formidable one, Donnelly feels LJ has the tools to focus on the task at hand during his teeth-cutting summer in Brooklyn.
“[Players' sons] want to have their own identity," he noted. "He's heard it all his life, 'Hey, he’s Maz’s son.' That’s all they here since they were kids. I know his dad, I can tell him some stories he hasn’t heard yet. He looks like his dad, but Maz told he his son is actually a better player than he was at that age. As a manager, I'll take that."
Though the comparisons are sure to follow him throughout his career, LJ Mazzilli is already making a name for himself in Coney Island -- one he hopes will be heard over the PA system in Flushing sooner than later.
"He's got a chance to do some pretty good things," the father said of the son before the two embraced in a heartfelt hug that further illuminated their status as Brooklyn's new first family of baseball.