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09/27/08 10:00 AM ET

Brooklyn's Maz was King of Queens

Local product became patron saint at Shea Stadium

NEW YORK -- He was Shea Stadium's first matinee idol, the dashing, Brooklyn-born centerfold center fielder, with muscles, that black hair and pants as tight as the 1967 American League pennant race. He played 494 games at Shea, 475 with the Mets, and represented the club in the All-Star Game in 1979. He was the local boy who made good, the focal point of the Mets' marketing campaign in 1977, after Tom Seaver was shown the door and shoved through it -- "Bring your kids to see our kids."

Lee Mazzilli was the primary attraction, the King of Queens. And Shea was his castle. The ballpark always loved Maz. And he reciprocated. He had so many moments there, not the least of which were his initiating come-from-behind rallies in Games 6 and 7 of the 1986 World Series.

And his fondest recollection involving Shea has nothing to do with any of that.

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?

Farewell Shea Stadium

"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."

Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.