FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. Feb. 28 -- In the fading moments of a long day of practice last week, Baltimore Orioles Manager Lee Mazzilli gathered a group of reporters and told them the story of how a home run hitting contest led to his marriage.
The manager, then a player for the Pittsburgh Pirates, participated in a charity home run hitting contest against teammates Dave Parker and Bill Madlock, among others. Mazzilli, knowing his chances of winning against such powerful hitters were limited, insisted on using an aluminum bat. The others relented. With the aluminum bat, Mazzilli easily won the contest and the prize that came along with it: two airplane tickets to anywhere in the world. Mazzilli used those tickets for a trip on which he proposed to his wife.
Orioles' Lee Mazzilli endured a rough first season as a major league manager, especially before the all-star break. "You just deal with it."
(Rick Bowmer -- AP)
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"The moral of the story?" he asked.
"Never win a home run hitting contest," he deadpanned and then ran onto the field.
Such moments of candor and humor were rare for Mazzilli last season. The Orioles' manager spent most of the year learning about a new city, a new team and a new job. A slow start had Mazzilli in a tenuous position. Owner Peter Angelos had grown frustrated. Several veterans privately wondered whether he had lost control of the team. By the all-star break, Mazzilli faced the real possibility that he would be a one-year major league manager.
"You just deal with it," Mazzilli said. "Everybody wants to hear the good but not the bad."
The change in Mazzilli's demeanor this spring has been a revelation. He no longer appears reticent. He is more forthcoming and his relationship with players appears to improve each day. Already Sammy Sosa has called Mazzilli the most honest manager he has encountered.
"I think he's definitely a little more relaxed," second baseman Brian Roberts said. "I'm not saying he was uptight [last year], but now he knows everyone. It takes a while to learn about your players."
Mazzilli enters this season in the final guaranteed year of his contract. The Orioles' two one-year options aren't binding. His future will largely be determined by his success early in the season. Baltimore begins the season with 11 games in April against the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees, a stretch that could prove crucial to Mazzilli. The Orioles manager said he isn't at all concerned.
"It's a challenge, that's what it is," Mazzilli said.
Publicly, the Orioles have not set guidelines to determine Mazzilli's future.
"I don't think we've thought about any part of an evaluation," Mike Flanagan, the Orioles' vice president of baseball operations, said. "We're happy with what he's done."
The Orioles manager's status is directly tied to the futures of Flanagan and Jim Beattie, Baltimore's executive vice president, who strongly backed Mazzilli. His hire has been the most important decision of their tenure as co-GMs. Beattie and Flanagan's contracts also expire at the end of the season. One team source said he believes the presence of pitching coach Ray Miller, a two-time manager and successful pitching coach hired in June of last year, should help with some of the decision-making. Mazzilli, with only a two-year guaranteed deal, has had little room for error.
"I'll try to turn it around as quickly and positively as we can," Mazzilli said. "I think we made big strides last year."
Baltimore was 41-36 after the all-star break and several sources said the team seemed to fight for Mazzilli after the criticism surfaced.
"If you asked to a man if we thought we would scuffle [in the second half], we'd have all said yes," bench coach Sam Perlozzo said. "But he did not give up for one second. He's an intelligent man. He knows what needs to be done. If things go wrong it isn't always the manager's fault."
Mazzilli said he has learned to work with Beattie and Flanagan and has developed a much better relationship with Angelos. Early last year, Mazzilli was reluctant to approach Angelos. Now he says he speaks to him often. Angelos did not return a phone call seeking comment.
The full weight of a long season appeared to hit Mazzilli on the final day of the 2004 season. In a team meeting shortly after the Orioles' 3-2 win against the Red Sox, Mazzilli sobbed as he thanked his players for their effort during a trying year.
"I think behind that exterior of a New York guy, he's a family guy with lots of emotions," Perlozzo said. "He does a very good job of hiding that."