This Date in Pittsburgh Pirates History: March 25th, Lee Mazzilli, Jimmy Sebring; Pirates Sign Freese and 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 international amateur players are almost always signed in July (up until the change to January in 2021), so the players who signed in March have been eligible to sign for quite some time. Rodriguez has pitched parts of five seasons in the majors, starting with two for the Philadelphia Phillies, before spending 2020 with the Texas Rangers and 2021 with the Rangers and New York Yankees. He spent all of 2022 with the New York Mets. He pitched well in Japan in 2019, 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 at the time, 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 2022-23. 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 had a .300 average and 44 extra-base hits in 122 games during his first pro season in the minors, which was mostly spent 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. He had a .254 average, 115 homers and 432 RBIs over 1,115 games during his big league career. He spent his first four seasons with the Pirates (1955-58), then came back to Pittsburgh in a player purchase prior to the 1964 season. He stayed around until late in 1965. The Pirates used him in June of 1958 to acquire shortstop Dick Schofield from the St Louis Cardinals. Freese had a .247 average in 472 games for the Pirates, with 170 runs, 65 doubles, 33 homers and 139 RBIs. His brother George Freese was a teammate on the 1955 Pirates. Both of them 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 Class-A 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, 48 RBIs, 76 walks and 46 stolen bases. Mazzilli moved up to the Advanced Class-A California League with Visalia in 1975, where he posted a .281 average and an .823 OPS in 125 games, with 103 runs scored, ten doubles, 13 homers, 52 RBIs, 88 walks and 49 steals. He went right from Double-A to the majors in 1976, batting .292 that year, with 91 runs, 40 extra-base hits, 43 RBIs, 28 steals, 111 walks and an .894 OPS in 131 games for Jackson of the Texas League. He made his big league debut with the Mets that September. Mazzilli hit just .195/.323/.299 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, when he played 159 games during his first full season in the majors. He had a .250 average that year, with 66 runs, 24 doubles, six homers, 46 RBIs, 72 walks, 22 steals (in 37 attempts) and a .679 OPS. He followed that up with a  .273 average in 1978, finishing with 78 runs, 28 doubles, 16 homers, 61 RBIs, 20 steals, 69 walks and a .785 OPS. He would make his only All-Star appearance in 1979. That year he hit .303 in 158 games, while setting career highs with 34 doubles, 79 RBIs and 93 walks. He also added 78 runs, 15 homers and 34 stolen bases. His .844 OPS was his highest as a full-time player.

Mazzilli mostly played first base in 1980. He hit .280 that year, with 82 runs, 31 doubles, 16 homers, 76 RBIs, 82 walks, an .801 OPS 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. He hit just .228 that year in 95 games, with 36 runs, 14 doubles, five triples, six homers, 34 RBIs and 17 steals. 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 .241 average and 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 between both stops in 1982, with 43 runs, ten doubles, ten homers, 34 RBIs, 13 steals, 43 walks and a .717 OPS in 95 games. 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. 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 over 109 games, with 37 runs, nine doubles, five homers, 24 RBIs, 15 steals and 49 walks. He posted a .703 OPS in 305 plate appearances. He platooned in left field in 1984, with Lee Lacy, Amos Otis and Brian Harper also seeing time there. Mazzilli made 70 starts that season. In 309 plate appearances that year, he hit .237/.338/.331, with 37 runs, 11 doubles, four homers, 21 RBIs and 40 walks. Mazzilli was mostly being used as a pinch-hitter by the 1985 season. He batted .282 that year, while putting up a .425 OBP in 147 plate appearances over 92 games. He had 20 runs, eight doubles, one homer, nine RBIs and a 29:17 BB/SO ratio. He lasted with the Pirates through late July of 1986 before he was released. He was hitting .226 at the time, with 18 runs, two doubles, one homer and eight RBIs in 61 games, though he had a .392 OBP due to 26 walks.

Mazzilli signed quickly with the Mets after being released by the Pirates in the middle of 1986. He 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. He finished off the 1986 season by hitting .276/.417/.431 over 72 plate appearances, which helped the Mets to the postseason. He went 1-for-5 in the NLCS, then went 2-for-5 with two runs in the World Series, which the Mets won in seven games. As a part-time player going forward, Mazzilli batted .306 in 1987, putting up an .858 OPS in 148 plate appearances. He had 26 runs, eight doubles, three homers and 24 RBIs. That strong bench performance was followed by a .147 average and a .391 OPS in 1988, when he batted 132 times over 68 games. He went 1-for-2 with a stolen base and hit-by-pitch in the playoffs that year. Mazzilli batted just .183 in 60 at-bats with the 1989 Mets, though that low average came with a .680 OPS, thanks to 17 walks in his limited time. He finished his career strong with an .850 OPS in 86 plate appearances with the Blue Jays. Despite that nice OPS, he batted just .227 for Toronto. He was helped out by collecting three doubles, four homers and 17 walks. His final big league games came during the ALCS that year, which the Blue Jays lost to the Oakland A’s. He went 0-for-8 in three games. 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 over 14 season, he had a .259 average, with 571 runs, 191 doubles, 93 homers, 460 RBIs and 197 stolen bases. With the Pirates, he hit .244/.369/.337 in 373 games, with 112 runs, 30 doubles, 11 homers, 62 RBIs and 30 stolen bases. He pinch-hit 415 times during his career, hitting .228/.355/.324 in that role.

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 for Wilmington, North Carolina in two different leagues, seeing time in the Class-C Virginia-North Carolina League and the North Carolina League (no stats are available for that year). He hit .327 over 103 games in 1902 for Worcester of the Class-A Eastern League (highest level of the minors at the time), 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. The Pirates lost an exhibition game to Worcester in mid-June of 1902, with Sebring playing a part in the win. What’s impressive about that win for Worcester is that the 1902 Pirates were the best team in franchise history, finishing 102-36. Reports in late July 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. However, it was soon said that Sebring was only joining the Pirates on trial, and he would sign with the team if he did well.

Sebring stepped right into the right field job in Pittsburgh, where he hit .325/.365/.475 over the last 19 games of the season, with 15 runs, four doubles, four triples and 15 RBIs. He was the starting right fielder for all of 1903, hitting .277 in 124 games, with 71 runs, 16 doubles, 13 triples, four homers, 64 RBIs, 20 steals and a .708 OPS. 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 the legendary Cy Young. Sebring was hitting .269/.308/.351 through 80 games in 1904, when the Pirates pulled off a three-team trade on August 7th 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. Donlin 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. That ban would lasted until after he went to a hearing for reinstatement, which usually came with a waiting period before the player could come back.

Sebring struggled with Cincinnati, 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. In 136 games between both stops that year, he had a .250 average, 50 runs, 20 doubles, nine triples, 56 RBIs, 16 steals and a .650 OPS. He began to play ball for a local team after leaving the Reds, and then 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 independent Tri-State League, with stops in Williamsport, Wilmington and Harrisburg. He was eventually reinstated in 1909, then signed with the Brooklyn Superbas. His 1905 stats are unavailable for his time in Williamsport. He’s credited with hitting .291 in 100 games for Williamsport in 1906, with nine doubles, 11 triples and seven homers. His 1907 season was split between Williamsport and Wilmington. He batted .255 in 75 games that year, with 46 runs, 12 doubles, two homers and 25 steals. He played 47 games in 1908, split between Wilmington and Harrisburg. He hit .235 that year, with 24 runs, eight extra-base hits and eight steals.

Sebring would play just 25 games for Brooklyn in 1909, hitting .099/.207/.136 in 81 at-bats. He was injured in mid-May (hand injury), then 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. Sebring had planned to play in 1910, and was on the reserve list of Washington, claiming he would be ready for Spring Training. However, he fell ill in December of 1909 and passed away at just 27 years old. He hit .261 in 363 big league games, with 178 runs, 51 doubles, 32 triples, six homers, 168 RBIs and 52 steals.