The Home Team

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Dani Mazzilli is talking on the phone and the melodic b-l-i-i-n-n-g-g in the background betrays the fact that she is also online, instant-messaging someone else.

Suddenly, her cell phone rings, adding to the chorus, and she interrupts two conversations to begin a third with one of her three teen-aged children.

Yes, she will bring the equipment bag to school that the child left at home that morning. She will be at school anyway, she says, working on the '70s dance.

"Now where were we?" she asks when she returns to the phone in her hand.

Where, indeed? Dani Mazzilli is living in two places at once these days -- in her home in Greenwich, Conn., and in her new hometown of Baltimore.

She's the wife of the Orioles' new manager, Lee Mazzilli, who has been on what amounts to one long road trip since being hired in early November.

In baseball family fashion, Dani Mazzilli is both mother and father to a trio of busy, demanding teen-agers.

"I am a two-parent parent," she says.

It is a job made more complicated by her husband, an intense man who cannot last even hours without the sound of his children's voices and who needs the heaping helping of family served at the dinner table more than the food itself.

And complicated also by a battle with uterine and ovarian cancer that Dani Mazzilli appears to have won.

"They tell me I have a 95 percent survival rate," she says. "And I am the kind of person who sees the glass as half full, not half empty.

"But I never want to put all my eggs in a doctor's basket. I realize how important now is."

So, for now, Dani Mazzilli is making the 3 1/2 -hour trip from Greenwich to Baltimore every other weekend, balancing her husband's need for family with the busy lives of her teen-agers.

These are the kinds of little logistical miracles Dani Mazzilli, 50, has been pulling off for years, keeping her baseball family from splintering like a broken bat. But her husband's new job in Baltimore will be the biggest test.

"I need a clone of me," she says.

They heard bells

The only Dani Mazzilli there is was born Danielle Folquet in Corvallis, Ore., the oldest of two girls and a baseball fan.

"I was a huge Cincinnati Reds fan. We didn't get much baseball on TV on the West Coast and the Reds dominated Monday Night Baseball. Davey Concepcion was my favorite player," she says.

She went into television with a not-too-secret hope of being a sports reporter. She ended up in New York City in 1980, as host of PM Magazine.

She worked crazy, long days, six days a week, but found time for baseball, taking in games with her friend and neighbor, Rusty Staub, who had played for the Mets.

It was the 1981 season when one of the ushers behind home plate recognized her from television and introduced her to Fredo Mazzilli, whose brother Lee played for the New York Mets.

Fredo gave her number to Lee and the hunk of a baseball player known as the Italian Stallion called her for dinner.

"Bells went off," she says now. "I mean bells. For both of us. That was it."

It was a startling match.

She was this talkative, engaging blond from the Pacific Northwest. He was a dark-haired, dark-eyed, brooding Italian from Sheepshead Bay in Brooklyn, N.Y.

"She is just the opposite of what I am," says Lee Mazzilli. "Outgoing, extroverted, very intelligent.

"People say that at a party, you will find Dani in the middle of the room talking to everybody, and I will be in the corner with a couple of guys."

"He was so traditional, so old-fashioned Italian. I felt like a Neanderthal had hit me over the head with a club and dragged me off," says Dani.

Two-and-a-half years later, Lee proposed on the floor of the Coliseum in Rome, where he took Dani after winning the trip in a home-run-hitting contest with the Pittsburgh Pirates.

"It was sundown. It was really romantic," she says now, her voice as dreamy as it might have been when she accepted his proposal.

Poor Lee. He had a tornado by the tail.

"He wanted to wait until after the next season to get married and I was, like, 'No-o-o-o.'

"He said OK, but only if we could get St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York. He didn't think I could pull it off, but I did.

"February 4 is not a big day for weddings."

That was 20 years ago this year, and Dani Mazzilli has been pulling logistical rabbits out of her hat ever since.

"Lee has this expression that he uses. 'Need to find a way.'

"When you are part of a baseball family, you've got to find a way to be together. Whenever we leave, my husband is already asking, 'When is the next time I am seeing you?' "

When the kids were younger, it was easy. Dani just packed them up and visited her husband for long stretches when he was managing in the minor leagues in Tampa, Fla.

These last few years, he was a manager in Norwich, Conn., and coach with the Yankees and commuted to work from their home in Greenwich.

Now Jenna is 16 and twins Lee Jr. and Lacey are 14. Among the three, there are five sports teams this season alone, plus two schools, one national cheerleading competition and an infinite number of social connections. Not to mention homework.

Dani's calendar looks like the one that Major League Baseball produces every year, and it takes just as much planning.

"The kids are in that high school time and it is very difficult socially to move them," says Lee.

"That doesn't mean I like it. I'd rather have them here. But if anybody can handle it, it will be Dani."

Importance of family

Right now, she is negotiating with teachers and coaches so that she can bring her children often to Baltimore to be with their father, who tends to mope when they are not around.

"He's Italian," she says, as if that explains it.

"He has to have that hand out to them and that touch," she says.

"We had something like 26 family members here to see him manage his first game. He was absolutely in heaven.

"But the day we left, here was this big strong guy and I could tell in his face and his eyes, it is not that easy for him."

That's where the cell phones come in.

The kids say their father calls each of them five or six times a day, and Lee admits to it.

"It is my medicine, so to speak," says the manager with a slightly self-conscious shrug. "It is my safe landing place."

Lacey worries that her father is lonely, but she rolls her eyes when asked about the ringing phone.

"We're, like, 'Dad, we love you but we've already talked to you, like, five times today. Nothing else has happened, OK?' "

"The girls just stop picking up," says Lee Jr. "But I always do 'cause I'd feel bad if I didn't. I don't like to think of him coming back to this apartment alone."

At 14, LJ needs the companionship of his father as much as the manager needs his boy around.

"He's a real boy's boy," says the father.

Already, Lee has asked Dani to simply put LJ on the train to him for a day or a night.

"I tell my mom I need the male companionship," LJ says. "I am surrounded by women."

But there is more to it than that. The bond of affection between the boy and his father is obvious even to a stranger.

It was nearly 2 o'clock in the morning when Mazzilli and the Orioles finalized the deal that would make him the team's new manager.

Lee woke the children to tell them the news. The girls went back to sleep. LJ stayed up with his father and went to Baltimore with him the next day.

LJ made a shopping stop on the way into the press conference that would introduce his father to Baltimore, and he arrived dressed like a mannequin in a souvenir store.

"It was like somebody flipped a switch," says his mother. "Yankees to Orioles. Boom."

Buying Oriole gear was the easy part. Absorbing the possessive affection fans have for the Orioles and their new manager -- startling to the Mazzillis, who are used to New York toughness -- was easy, too.

Managing a family out of two separate houses is not.

"I live at Wal-Mart," says Dani, who is trying to outfit the furnished apartment Lee rents in the Harborview high-rise.

Beautiful view. No measuring cups. And not enough beds.

But a very big dining room table.

"For my husband, it is the sit-down Italian meal with family and only family that is important," says Dani.

Lee surprised the kids by driving home to Connecticut first thing in the morning on a recent day off from baseball. Jenna was off from school, so he spent time on the porch talking to her.

"They just laid around in the sun and talked. She got some unexpected TLC from Dad," said Dani, approvingly.

That afternoon, he went to watch Lacey's softball practice and LJ's baseball practice.

"Lacey got to tell him in person about her grand slam the day before and her nine RBIs," said Dani. "It's not the same on a cell phone."

Dani cooked up a big spaghetti dinner and the family curled up to watch the last episode of Friends. The next morning, Lee was on the road at 9 a.m. to be at Oriole Park by 2 p.m. for a game.

"We needed that as much as he did," she said.

These family dinners are more like one of those boisterous ads for the Olive Garden restaurant than a Norman Rockwell painting.

"He has this idea in his mind that a sit-down dinner will always be special and everyone will get along. But there are always scenes."

With three teens just two years apart, it can be a chorus of bickering and nonsense, with Dani playing the conversation traffic cop.

"Dad is always sitting us down and saying, "You are family. She is your sister," says Lacey in a dramatic interpretation of her father's lectures on the importance of family.

A 'very tough' year

Two years ago, the Mazzilli family began a long lesson in the delicate nature of "family."

On opening day of baseball season and as she was running out the door to go to Yankee Stadium to watch her husband coach first base, Dani Mazzilli stopped long enough to answer the ringing phone.

It was her doctor and it was tough news. A routine test showed that she had uterine cancer.

"I sat through that game knowing that I had to tell him as soon as it was over. He was leaving Sunday night for a travel day, and we had to make some decisions," Dani remembers.

"I felt like I was numb the whole game.

"After the game, I pulled him aside and he thought from the look on my face that something had happened to one of his parents.

"We went into [Yankee manager] Joe Torre's office, and he just broke down and cried."

It used to be that baseball players weren't granted a day off even for the birth of a child, but the Yankees told their first-base coach to stay behind on the road trip and care for his wife.

She came through the surgery well and the surgeons were reassuring. But a week later, doctors told Dani that subsequent tests revealed that she also had ovarian cancer.

The hysterectomy had removed the affected organs, and there was no indication the cancer had spread. But four months of chemotherapy were required.

"That year was very tough. I lost my hair. I didn't go to games. I didn't want to answer the phone. I just didn't want to talk to anyone about it.

"I used to drive everybody everywhere. But the Maz- mobile was no more. I was in charge of the dances at school. Kids were at my house all the time. Suddenly, I was sick."

The Yankees made sure Lee was available for all of Dani's chemotherapy treatments. But he and the children -- and Dani -- worried about what would become of this baseball family if something worse happened to the mother.

"In a baseball family, you rely so heavily on your wife to hold down the fort and to support you," says Dani.

"I could see my kids thinking, 'Dad's gone all the time. What if we don't have Mommy?' "

Dani's cancers were both Stage One and her prognosis is excellent. But the death this month of one of her fellow volunteer mothers from cancer shocked her back to the uncertainty of two years ago.

"She died and left kids my kids' ages," said Dani. "Everyone turned to me and said, 'How are you?' And the first thing Lee asked was, 'Have you gone for your blood work?'

"It reminded me that life is too short, and I have already received one pass."

The ordeal of her illness makes the chaos of managing teen-agers and a regular commute between Greenwich and Baltimore seem like nothing at all.

So, without complaint, she will clean up the debris from the '70s dance she orchestrated, catch a couple of hours' sleep and drive the kids to Baltimore to be in a Preakness parade with their father.

"After something like cancer, you reinvent yourself," Dani says. "The things that were so important are not so important. It gave us a chance to rethink how important family is.

"My husband is living his dream. He has always wanted to manage in the majors and he is going to be great at it. We are not going to let anything get in the way of that.

"We will just pull it together, get on the train or in the car, and do what it takes to be together."

Like the sign in her husband's office says: "Need to find a way."

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