ALL-STAR FLASHBACK: MAZ STARS IN ’79

Lee Mazzilli sat on the bench at The Kingdome in Seattle for seven innings, watching the 1979 Major League Baseball All-Star unfold. Mazzilli, then the 24-year old New York Mets center fielder who was named to the team by National League manager Tommy Lasorda, was soaking it up like a sponge.

It was Mazzilli’s first and, eventually, only All-Star appearance and from the beginning it must have felt more like a circus freak show than a showcase of baseball’s biggest stars.

Before Nolan Ryan (Texas Rangers) faced Davey Lopes (Los Angeles Dodgers) to start the game, actor Danny Kaye bounced a 40-foot first pitch. After Ryan struck out Lopes and Dave Parker (Pittsburgh Pirates), Steve Garvey (Los Angeles Dodgers) walked, Mike Schmidt(Philadelphia Phillies) tripled, George Foster (Cincinnati Reds) doubled and the NL took a 2-0 lead.

In the bottom of the first with George Brett at the plate the game came to a halt when Morganna The Kissing Bandit sprinted from the stands to home plate and planted a kiss and hug on the Kansas City Royals All-Star third baseman. Brett blushed and smiled.

Mazzilli had to be thinking, so this is it? This is the All-Star Game? What’s next? The bearded lady making a leisurely stroll to the mound looking for a hug from Steve Carlton!?

No, but close. How about a chicken? What’s an All-Star Game without a chicken or – at least – some farm animal? The San Diego Chicken made his appearance, sliding head first into third base. But even The Chicken’s showing seemed normal compared to Kaye and Morganna.

Mazzilli, the lone Met representative in 1979, waited and watched as the lead swung back-and-forth through the early and middle innings.

Mets fans were especially fond of Mazzilli, a Brooklyn native and the shining star of collection of bad baseball players in Flushing. In 1979, Mazzilli was having his best season as a major league player. He would hit .303 with 16 home runs, 78 RBI , 34 stolen bases, including a 19-game hitting streak.

With the American League clinging to a 6-5 lead, Lasorda sent Mazzilli to the plate as a pinch-hitter for Gary Matthews (Philadelphia Phillies) to lead off the eighth inning. The switch-hitting Mazzilli stepped in from the left side against AL reliever Jim Kern (Texas Rangers). It was Mazzilli’s first All-Star at bat.

Mazzilli hit a low line drive down the left field line, the ball just clearing the fence, landing just inside the foul pole in the first row of seats for a home run.

The home run, unlike Reggie Jackson’s majestic blast off the lights at Tiger Stadium in 1971, offended some. Washington Post staff writer Thomas Boswell, wrote the following: That Mazzilli pinch-hit homer to start the eighth – a homely 320-foot thing that only the Kingdome could embrace – took most of the starch out of the perennial losers.

Like it or not, the home run tied the game 6-6 and Mazzilli became the first Met to hit a home run in a All-Star Game. Lasorda, commenting on Mazzilli after the game said, “We held him back until late in the game because we wanted him in center field at the end. He hasn’t even begun to scratch the surface of his ability yet.”

Mazzilli stayed in the game, taking over for Dave Winfield (San Diego Padres), who shifted from center to left field. Bruce Sutter (Chicago Cubs) gave up a leadoff single to Angels catcher Brian Downing, setting the stage for the most memorable play of the game.

With two out and Downing at second after a sacrifice bunt by Bruce Bochte, Yankees third baseman Craig Nettles singled to right field. Downing carrying the go-ahead run tested Dave Parker’s arm. The Pirate RF rifled the ball to catcher Gary Carter who forced Downing to slide head-first to the inside of the plate. Carter applied the tag for the third out as 58,905 at the Kingdome roared.

After Pete Rose lined out to left field to start the ninth, teammate Joe Morgan walked and Kern balked the Reds infielder to second base. Kern walked Parker intentionally to set up a potential double play. One batter later, Dodgers third baseman Ron Cey walked to load the bases, giving Mazzilli another chance to play hero.

Before Maz stepped up, AL manager Bob Lemon replaced Kern with Yankees ace Ron Guidry, who had started two days before.

“I knew that if they walked Cey ahead of me, Guidry would come in,” Mazzilli said. “The only time I faced him was in spring training. He’s one of the best pitchers in baseball. It was like the battle of New York.”

Guidry was tired. “I didn’t have nothing and I said so to Craig (Nettles),” Guidry would tell the New York Times later.

Mazzilli laid off the first two pitches from Guidry, both balls. “What was I looking for? Fastball, slider, something hard. He threw a fastball on the first pitch, and it wasn’t around the plate at all. The 2-and-0 pitch I hit foul past third base, that was a ball really. He was high all night.”

Guidry’s next two pitches sailed away from Mazzilli, bring home the go-ahead – and eventual winning run – on a walk. “I’m still recuperating from pitching on Sunday … yeah, I’m both tired and disappointed.” Guidry would say later. “But disappointed first. This is the lowest point you can reach, coming in and walking a guy in that situation.”

In a season with few bragging rights, Mets fans rejoiced. In two at-bats Mazzilli homered to tie the game and walked against a Yankee pitcher to bring home the winning run. “It was the battle of New York: me against Ron Guidry,” said Mazzilli.

The National League won their eighth straight All-Star game 7-6. It was the NL’s 16th win in the last 17 games. St. Louis Cardinals center fielder Lou Brock, playing in his final All-Star Game at age 40, told Mazzilli, “It’s about time somebody from New York did something.”

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