After 48 years in the game, Piniella is walking away for good. Or so he says. But I have a hunch that we haven't seen the last of Piniella in uniform.
During his Mariners years, Lou Piniella always made a remarkable transformation during the offseason.
Whereas he had left us in October (late October in the best years) bedraggled, rumpled and utterly stressed out, he always returned in February a new man. Invariably, Piniella showed up to spring training fit and tan, clean-shaven (for perhaps the only time all season) and looking like he had lost 10 years during the four months he was missing.
Then the transition would start anew, the stress of the job slowly but inexorably exacting its annual toll on Piniella, until finally, at the end of another year, he would limp off, wild-eyed and woolly, back home to Tampa.
Such was the toll of managing the Piniella way — with every ounce of heart and soul he could muster. The emotional investment was complete, and he wore it all on his nicotine-stained sleeves.
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Of all the managers I’ve been around in my career, he belongs with a small, elite group — Tony La Russa, Jim Leyland, Billy Martin and Whitey Herzog jump to mind (yeah, I’ve been around that long) — who had the charisma and force of personality to impose their will on a team.
That doesn’t mean he was infallible as a manager, or that he didn’t benefit immensely from having great players like Eric Davis, Ken Griffey Jr. and Randy Johnson. Just look at his run with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays (or the 2010 Cubs, for that matter) for proof that all the tantrums and cajoling in the world couldn’t produce a winner with an ill-equipped team.
But I’d take my chances with Piniella on a good club any day. His work with the 1990 Reds — a team that was unheralded heading into the season but went wire-to-wire to the division title before sweeping La Russa’s heavily favored A’s in the World Series — was masterful.
We all know Piniella’s Seattle story, how he was the right man at the right time to take a team of burgeoning stars and turn it into a winner.
No, he didn’t get the M’s to the World Series in four playoff appearances, just as he didn’t get the Cubs to the World Series in two cracks at the postseason. The same sabermetric analysts who tell you that managers don’t matter all that much will also note that for all the tools you can use to build a successful team, once you get to the short series of October, it’s pretty much a crapshoot.
But Piniella had a good, long run — good enough and long enough to win 1,823 games, 14th on the all-time list. He lost 1,691 in his 23 seasons (for a .517 win percentage) and ranks 12th in games managed.
Now, after 48 years in the game, Piniella is walking away for good. Or so he says. That disheveled appearance had taken permanent residence, and there’s absolutely no question Piniella was starting to look his age (67 as of Saturday) and then some. When I visited Wrigley Field in June, in advance of the Cubs’ series at Safeco Field the following week, I found Lou sitting all alone in the dugout, staring into space.
Piniella told me he was merely tired from an intense session of early instruction with some of the younger Cubs players, including 20-year-old shortstop Starlin Castro. But when he said, in the subsequent interview we conducted, that he still had the same passion, it didn’t ring true. I wasn’t feeling the Piniella fire, and his announcement in late July that he was stepping down at the end of the season came as little surprise.
That departure was accelerated by the declining health of Piniella’s 90-year-old mother (and also, I’d suspect, by the declining performance of the 2010 Cubs). And so last Sunday, Piniella walked away for good, weeping as the finality hit him.
It was a powerfully emotional moment, and I daresay no one begrudges Piniella’s early exit.
He was one of a kind, a singular personality and a highly endearing one. His histrionics tended to border on the edge of buffoonery, but Piniella, who was ejected 76 times as a player or manager, was just trying to put on a show. He learned that from Martin, his Yankees manager.
At least, that’s how it started, but once the argument progressed, and the synapses in Lou’s brain started firing, I truly believe it reached a point he was helpless to prevent himself from kicking dirt or throwing bases.
Will Piniella land in the Hall of Fame? Close call, and one I won’t be making. A 16-member Veterans Committee, comprised of Hall of Famers, executives and media members appointed by the Hall of Fame board, has the duty of electing managers, taking up the matter every two years.
Certainly, Piniella falls behind the active “Big Three” of La Russa, Bobby Cox and Joe Torre, but not by much. The low winning percentage will hurt him, and the fact he has just one World Series title. But voters can also factor in Piniella’s playing career, which will help. He was a productive outfielder in one of the most successful Yankees eras, making it to four World Series and winning two.
I have a hunch that Piniella will eventually sneak in. If I had a vote, I’d give it to him, by virtue of the entire package — the playing career, the managerial success and the overwhelming presence.
I also have a hunch that we haven’t seen the last of Piniella in uniform. There will come a day when he’ll be reinvigorated, when this year’s Cubs trauma will stop wearing him down.
He’ll be the tan, fit and rested Piniella I remember so well. And there will come a day when the Yankees, or perhaps the Mets or some other team, will need him, badly, to bail them out of a mess.
And I believe Piniella will give it one last ride, because I suspect, deep down, this isn’t how he wants to go out.
Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or firstname.lastname@example.org