This Date in Pittsburgh Pirates History: March 25th, Lee Mazzilli, Pirates Sign Gene Freese and Gregory Polanco

Only two former Pittsburgh Pirates player born on this date. We also have some transactions of note.

The Transactions

On this date in 2009, the Pittsburgh Pirates signed both Gregory Polanco and Joely Rodriguez as amateur free agents out of the Dominican Republic. That was an impressive day, considering that the best players are almost always signed in July, and the players signed in March have been eligible to sign for quite some time. Rodriguez has pitched parts of four seasons in the majors, two with the Philadelphia Phillies, before spending 2020 with the Texas Rangers and 2021 with the Rangers and New York Yankees. He played in Japan in 2019 and pitched well, earning himself a multi-year deal with the Rangers. Polanco played in his eighth season with the Pirates in 2021, which made him the longest tenured player in the Pirates system until he was let go in late August. He signed with the Toronto Blue Jays, but only played in the minors before reaching free agency at the end of the season. He signed to play in Japan for 2022. Through 2021, he’s a career .241/.309/.409 hitter in 823 games, with 96 homers and 98 stolen bases.

On this date in 1953, the Pirates signed 19-year-old third baseman Gene Freese as an amateur free agent. He batted .300 with 44 extra-base hits in 122 games during his first pro season in the minors with two lower level clubs, mostly playing for Brunswick of the Class-D Georgia-Florida League. Freese followed that up with a .332 average and 52 extra-base hits in 145 games with New Orleans of the Southern Association in 1954, playing four levels higher than the previous year. He would go on to play 12 seasons in the majors, starting with the 1955 Pirates, hitting .254 with 115 homers and 432 RBIs over 1,115 games. He spent his first four seasons with the Pirates, then came back to Pittsburgh in a player purchase prior to the 1964 season and stayed around until late in 1965. The Pirates used him in June of 1958 to acquire shortstop Dick Schofield from the St Louis Cardinals. In 472 games with the Pirates, Freese had a .247 average with 170 runs, 65 doubles, 33 homers and 139 RBIs. His brother George Freese was a teammate on the 1955 Pirates, and both played third base that year.

The Players

Lee Mazzilli, outfielder for the 1983-86 Pirates. He was a first round draft pick of the New York Mets in 1973 out of high school, going 14th overall. He worked his way quickly through the minors earning a promotion to New York in September of 1976. He didn’t play his first game until 1974, debuting in full-season ball with Anderson of the Western Carolinas League, where he put up a .269 average and a .778 OPS in 132 games, with 82 runs scored, 38 extra-base hits, 76 walks and 46 stolen bases. Mazzilli moved up to the California League with Visalia in 1975 and posted a .281 average and an .823 OPS in 125 games, with 103 runs scored, 13 homers, 88 walks and 49 steals. He went right from Double-A to the majors in 1976, batting .292 with 91 runs, 40 extra-base hits, 28 steals and 111 walks in 131 games for Jackson of the Texas League before his big league debut. With the Mets that September, Mazzilli hit just .195 in 24 games, but it was enough to keep him in the majors from that point forward. He became the Mets full-time center fielder in 1977. Mazzilli played 159 games during his first full season in the majors, hitting .250 with 66 runs, 24 doubles, 72 walks and 22 steals (in 37 attempts). He followed that up with a  .273 average in 1978, with 78 runs, 28 doubles, 16 homers, 61 RBIs, 20 steals and 69 walks. He would make his only All-Star appearance in 1979. That year he hit .303 in 158 games, while setting career highs with 93 walks, 34 doubles and 79 RBIs. He also added 78 runs, 15 homers and 34 stolen bases. His .844 OPS was his highest as a full-time player.

In 1980, Mazzilli mostly played first base and hit .280 with 82 runs, 82 walks, 31 doubles, 16 homers and a career high 41 stolen bases. He had over 600 plate appearances in each of those first four full seasons, then never approached that amount of playing time in his final nine seasons in the majors. The 1981 season was shortened by the strike and he hit just .228 with six homers. His .682 OPS that season was a 119-point drop over the previous season. Prior to the 1982 season, the Mets traded him to the Texas Rangers for Ron Darling and Walt Terrell. His stay in Texas was short. After putting up a .683 OPS in 224 plate appearances over 58 games, he was dealt to the New York Yankees mid-season in exchange for veteran shortstop Bucky Dent.

Mazzilli batted .251 with ten homers, 13 steals and 43 walks in 95 games in 1982 between both stops. His time with the Yankees organization was just as short as his time in Texas. Before the calendar year was over, they sent him to Pittsburgh in exchange for four minor leaguers, though only one of them (Tim Burke) made the majors. Mazzilli started each of the first 52 games of the 1983 season in center field for the Pirates, and despite the fact he was batting .284 at the time, he was sent to the bench on June 12th to serve in a pinch-hitter role. He would receive only five more starts the rest of the season, all at first base. His finished the year with a .240 average in 109 games and 305 plate appearances, collecting nine doubles, five homers, 15 steals and he posted a .703 OPS. In 1984 he platooned in left field, getting 70 starts, with Lee Lacy, Amos Otis and Brian Harper also seeing time there. In 309 plate appearances that year, he hit .237 with four homers, 21 RBIs, 40 walks and a .668 OPS. By 1985, Mazzilli was mostly being used as a pinch-hitter. He batted .282 that season and he had a .425 OBP in 147 plate appearances over 92 games. He lasted with the Pirates through late July of 1986 before he was released, hitting .226 with one homer in 61 games during that final year, though he had a .392 OBP due to 26 walks.

After being released, Mazzilli signed quickly with the Mets and played there until the trading deadline in 1989 when he went to the Toronto Blue Jays to play the last two months of his career. As a part-time player, he batted .306 in 1987, putting up an .858 OPS in 148 plate appearances. That strong bench performance was followed by a .147 average and a .391 OPS in 1988. He batted just .183 with the 1989 Mets, then finished his career strong with an .850 OPS in 86 plate appearances with the Blue Jays. Mazzilli later managed three seasons in the minors and two seasons in the majors for the Baltimore Orioles (2004-05), putting up a 129-140 record. In 1,475 career games, he hit .259 with 460 RBIs, 571 runs scored and 197 stolen bases. With the Pirates, he hit .244/.369/.337 in 373 games, with 11 homers and 30 stolen bases. He pinch-hit 415 times during his career and hit .288 with a .680 OPS in that role. We posted a Card of the Day article on Mazzilli here, along with a book review in that article.

Jimmy Sebring, outfielder for the 1902-04 Pirates. He played just 363 career games over five seasons, but Sebring was a big part of the 1903 Pirates team that went to the first World Series. He was also later involved in a trade for one of the best hitters of the day. Sebring debuted in pro ball at 19 years old in 1901, playing in Wilmington, North Carolina for two different teams, one in the Class-C Virginia-North Carolina League and the other in the North Carolina League. In 1902, he hit .327 in 103 games for Worcester of the Eastern League when the Pirates decided to sign him to his first big league contract that September. He almost didn’t make it there, as it was said in early June that the Boston Beaneaters (Braves) were trying to acquire him. It mid-June, the Pirates lost an exhibition game to Worcester, with Sebring playing a part in the win. Then in late July reports said that he was sold to the Detroit Tigers, with his local papers even reporting that he was on his way there. When it was announced on August 19th that he acquired by Pittsburgh owner Barney Dreyfuss and would soon join the Pirates, Detroit said that they would fight that contract, though Sebring was said to be joining the Pirates on trial and if he did well, he would sign with the team.

Sebring stepped right into the right field job in Pittsburgh and hit .325 over the last 19 games of the season. He was the starting right fielder for all of 1903, hitting .277 with 13 triples, 20 stolen bases, 64 RBIs and 71 runs scored. In the World Series, he would hit .333 in 30 at-bats, collecting ten hits, including the first home run in modern (1903-present) World Series history, which came against Cy Young. In 1904 he was hitting .269 through 80 games when the Pirates pulled off a three-team trade involving the Cincinnati Reds and New York Giants. Sebring went to the Reds, while the Pirates got Moose McCormick, and the Giants got Mike Donlin, a 26-year-old outfielder with a .356 average at the time. He was coming off a 1903 season in which he hit .351, trailing only Honus Wagner and Fred Clarke for the league lead. Sebring injured his ankle in a game on July 31st and was said to be out of action for at least a few days. When the team left on a road trip east two days later, Sebring left the team while they were waiting at the train station, not telling anyone where he went. He planned on signing with an outlaw league team instead of joining the Reds, but was talked out of it by friends. Signing with an outlaw team while on a big league contract would have got him banned from signing with a pro team in the future until after he goes to a hearing for reinstatement, which usually came with a waiting period before the player could come back.

Sebring struggled with his new team, although he did end up leading the league with 27 outfield assists during the 1904 season. He played just 58 games for the Reds in 1905 before leaving the team to go to the side of his wife, who was ill. He was hitting .286 at the time, with 31 runs and 28 RBIs. He began to play ball for a local team after leaving the Reds and was blacklisted from the majors when he failed to return to Cincinnati or accept a trade to the Chicago Cubs later that season. Sebring played minor league ball from late 1905 until 1908, playing for three different teams in the Tri-State League, with stops in Williamsport, Wilmington and Harrisburg. He was eventually reinstated in 1909 and signed with the Brooklyn Superbas. Sebring would play just 25 games for Brooklyn, hitting .099 in 81 at-bats. He was injured in mid-May (hand injury) and released in late June after he cleared waivers and Brooklyn was unable to deal him to any minor league team. He signed with the Washington Senators on July 27th, but got into just one game off the bench nine days later before he left the team (with permission) to return home for the off-season on August 19th. His only action was three innings as a defensive replacement in center field without getting an at-bat. He had planned to play in 1910 and was on the reserve list of Washington, claiming he would be ready for Spring Training, but in December of 1909 he fell ill and passed away at just 27 years old. In 363 big league games, he hit .261 with six homers, 168 RBIs, 178 runs scored and 52 steals.