It’s been a long road for the Ducks’ L.J. Mazzilli, the son of former Met and Yankee Lee Mazzilli. A drug suspension, a few down years, a trade and, finally, a release from the team that his father won a World Series with as a coach isn’t exactly the minor-league path that the younger Mazzilli envisioned when the Mets drafted him out of UConn in 2013.
But, after all that, Mazzilli, 28, feels as good as he has in years and is ready to take back a career that has taken some harsh left turns on the way to Central Islip.
“I’ve felt really comfortable,” said Mazzilli, who went 2-for-8 with two RBIs and three walks in his first three games with the Ducks. “I was actually telling my dad, ‘I feel like myself when I was in 2014’ – confident, calm, not jumpy and ready to hit the ball hard wherever it’s pitched.”
That season was Mazzilli’s best year as a professional. He hit .301 with 29 doubles and 79 RBIs in 131 games in the Mets’ system and was an All-Star in Class A. He hit .306 with seven RBIs in the Arizona Fall League. But in December of that year, Mazzilli was suspended 50 games without pay for violating baseball’s minor-league drug policy, testing positive for a second time for a “drug of abuse’’ – a distinction that includes, but isn’t limited to, recreational drugs such as marijuana, cocaine and ecstasy and doesn’t include performance-enhancing drugs, according to The New York Times.
“I was young and immature,” Mazzilli said. “…It puts a lot of things into perspective, not only baseball, but your life, your family, your friends, and people that mean the most to you… When that happened to me, it was a big speed bump. I had to take that time to self-reflect and see who I wanted to be as a person and where I was headed. I did that. I took it head on, and when I came back, all I really wanted to do was make everybody proud and show them that I am a good person. People make mistakes and you can come back from that.”
Mazzilli hit .261 with 25 RBIs in 91 games, mainly at the Double-A level, in the Mets’ system in 2015 and .239 with 43 RBIs in 122 games in 2016. He was traded to the Yankees in April 2018 for minor-leaguer Kendall Coleman. Mazzilli hit .243 with 25 RBIs in 79 games with Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre in 2018 and was released this March, on the last day of spring training.
“That’s the worst time to be released because all the rosters are set on that day. Openings weren’t there,” Mazzilli said. “When I was home, I was staying ready and had to weigh options with my agent with what might be available in affiliated ball, independent ball and maybe overseas. I knew the Ducks and Wally [Backman, the manager] were an option, so I was kind of just staying ready and trying to come up with a decision that was best for my career with my dad. We came to a point where it was time to play and time to play for Wally.”
Mazzilli had played for Backman in the Mets’ system and wanted another go-round with his father’s former teammate.
“He’s one of the best coaches I’ve ever played for and one of the best baseball minds I’ve ever been around,” Mazzilli said.
The feeling was mutual. Backman had always admired Mazzilli’s swing and, after being so close with his father, knew he was getting the kind of player he covets.
“You know that they’ve been taught the game the right way,” Backman said of players who grow up around MLB fathers. “You don’t see the stupid baserunning mistakes that happen a lot of the time. They’ve all been taught the right way.”
Backman added: “He can hit. But he needs to play. He’s going to get a chance here.”
Right now, a chance might be all Mazzilli needs.