Swapping Stories: The Lee Mazzilli Trade of 1982

This is the first in a weekly, season-long series, a Newberg Report exclusive to MLB.com, in which I’ll take a look back at a trade that took place during the same week in a previous season in Rangers club history. We kick the series off with one of the more notorious deals in the franchise’s 35 years.

April 1, 1982: Texas trades righthanders Ron Darling and Walt Terrell to the New York Mets for outfielder Lee Mazzilli.

Rangers farm director Joe Klein was called out of the most important minor league meeting of the spring, a gathering of managers, coaches, and scouts during which farm rosters would be set. His boss, general manager Eddie Robinson, had phoned to tell him that he’d just traded minor league righthanders Ron Darling and Walt Terrell to the Mets for 27-year-old outfielder Lee Mazzilli, who was coming off of an injury-marred, unproductive 1981 season. It was not an April Fool’s joke.

An irate Klein hung up, stormed back into the meeting, slammed his fist on a table, and pronounced: “This meeting is (expletive) over. We’re going to the bar.”

Klein’s anger turned out to be well placed.

After the Rangers had posted the second-highest winning percentage in franchise history in the strike-shortened 1981 season, Robinson decided to shake up the offense, including a complete renovation of the outfield. Rookie George Wright took advantage of Mickey Rivers’s knee injury a week into spring training play, and won the center field job. Robinson traded Al Oliver to Montreal on March 31 for rookie Dave Hostetler and third baseman Larry Parrish, whom Texas converted to right field. The following day Robinson made the deal for Mazzilli, a center fielder whom the Rangers intended to shift to left field.

The move was instantly unpopular with Mazzilli, the son of a Brooklyn welterweight who was a first-round pick of the Mets; with New York fans, who had thrust matinee idol status on the former All-Star; and with some in Rangers management.

Klein’s assistant Tom Grieve, who had been Mazzilli’s Mets teammate four years earlier, considered Mazzilli a friend but was skeptical about the trade. “Lee was a New York kid to the core,” says Grieve. “I thought he would be a productive player for us, but at the same time I knew right away he wasn’t going to like coming to Texas.”

That’s to say nothing of what Texas gave up to get Mazzilli, who had hit just .228 in a 1981 season in which he was limited by back and elbow injuries and was slated to be New York’s fourth outfielder after the club’s off-season trade for George Foster. Going to the Mets were Darling, the club’s first round pick (ninth overall) in 1981, and Terrell, the Rangers’ next-to-last pick (33rd round) in 1980. Both had pitched for AA Tulsa in 1981, Darling going 4-2, 4.44 after signing and Terrell putting together a standout 15-7, 3.10 season for the Drillers. They were considered the franchise’s top two prospects.

Mazzilli displayed flashes of the top-of-the-lineup skills the Rangers coveted as spring training came to an end, giving Texas hope that he could replace Rivers offensively. But he never got untracked in the regular season, hitting .241 with no power and looking lost in left field, which he was quick to label “an idiot’s position.”

Four months after he’d arrived, Texas traded Mazzilli, who had appeared in just over half of the club’s games, to the Yankees for Bucky Dent during an August series in New York.

Darling reached New York in 1983 and won in double digits for the Mets every year from 1984 through 1989, going 86-52, 3.40 over that stretch. Terrell debuted for the Mets late in 1982, had two solid seasons after that, and was then flipped to Detroit straight up for third baseman Howard Johnson, who would finish in the top 10 of the NL MVP vote three times in his nine years with the Mets.

Texas had losing records in six of the seven seasons following the Mazzilli trade, sending out a rotation in most of those years that featured Charlie Hough and an ever-changing supporting cast. To envision that Darling and Terrell might have made a difference as Rangers starters is no leap.

“People always refer to the Sosa trade as the worst in Rangers history,” notes Eric Nadel, the club’s longtime radio broadcaster whose 13-year run in the booth with Mark Holtz began in that ill-fated 1982 season. “But this one was definitely the second worst, given that Darling and Terrell both had long, productive careers during a time when our pitching probably cost us a division title or two.”

The Rangers would finish the season with 98 losses. Robinson and manager Don Zimmer both lost their jobs, with Klein taking over as general manager. Mazzilli bounced around until 1989, mostly as a bench player, and got out of baseball before returning later in a coaching capacity. He would serve on a Yankees staff that included Zimmer and was headed by skipper Joe Torre – who had managed Mazzilli in the young outfielder’s first five full seasons in the big leagues.

Even a short stint for Mazzilli as Orioles manager in 2004-05 was followed by a return to the Yankees bench in 2006. He’s a New York kid, and always has been.

Joe Klein and a whole generation of Rangers fans wish he’d have remained one in 1982.

Jamey Newberg is a contributor to MLB.com. A Dallas lawyer, he has been an insane Texas Rangers fan since the days of scheduled doubleheaders, Bat Nights when they actually handed out a piece of lumber instead of a grocery store voucher, and Jim Umbarger. He has covered the Texas Rangers, from the big club down through the entire farm system, since 1998 on his website, NewbergReport.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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