Mazzilli sat in the Mets' dugout Aug. 25, dressed in his civies, trying to come up with some hit, some catch, some moment ... someTHING that stood as his foremost Shea memory, and nothing he had done in uniform measured up to what he experienced the day he signed his first professional contract.
He met Willie Mays that day.
The images of that day are indelible in Mazzilli's memory. His face softened as he retold the experience. He was 18 again as he said: "I signed the contract at Shea. [General manager] Joe McDonald asked me if there was anything I wanted to see, and I told him 'Yeah, Willie Mays. I'd like to meet Willie Mays.' So they took me down to the clubhouse, the trainer's room. I walk in, and Willie Mays is on the trainer's table."
The player widely regarded -- then and now -- as the greatest to play the game and a patron saint of center fielders was there to be beheld by a teenage would-be center fielder with New York in his DNA.
"What could have been better? And then he came into Yogi's office. I'm there with Yogi Berra and Willie Mays. You kiddin' me?
"He was like a monument to me. Talk about being star-struck."
Mazzilli and Mays never were teammates. Mays retired after the 1973 World Series. And Mazzilli and his basket catch, a touch of Mays, didn't reach the big leagues until September, 1976. He didn't play at Shea until Sept. 15 by which time he
introduced himself to the Cubs with a three-run, ninth-inning home run -- it was his second big league at-bat -- at Wrigley Field.
And he all but eliminated the Pirates from the division race with a two-run, final pitch home run at Shea Sept. 20. So his career began more productively than Mays'.
"People compared me with him when I came up," he says now. "That was a little far-fetched. I could run and the basket catch was something I liked and the fans liked. But Willie was such an amazing talent, nobody should have been compared to him. He did things on the field no one else ever did."
The subsequent years have kept Mazzilli in baseball, first as a successful Minor League manager in the Yankees organization, then as one of Joe Torre's Yankees coaches, than as manager of the Orioles and, these days, as a pre- and post-game analyst of Mets' cablecasts on SNY. His admiration for Mays is what it was, if not greater.
"One day," Mazzilli says, "we were in Joe's office and he says 'Let's call Willie.' We talked to him. I called him Buck. That's what the players called him -- Buck. And that was pretty special. Getting to know him well enough to call him Buck and to know him ... to get to know your idol."