Over and over, at a Safeco Field ceremony Friday to honor Lou Piniella’s induction into the Mariners’ Hall of Fame, the same topic resurfaced.
No, it wasn’t Piniella’s legendary managerial tantrums, though that was certainly part of the narrative. Piniella himself said that after those hat-kicking, base-grabbing interludes, he would invariably go into the umpires’ dressing room the next day and apologize for what he called “the ruckus.”
Piniella added, “I shouldn’t say this, but I’ve sent them (the offending umpires) over to restaurants to eat.”
Nor was it his undeniable charisma, though that, too, played into capturing the full measure of the man. Former Mariners pitching coach Bryan Price, now the Reds manager, said in a videotaped tribute, “In my time with you, I always felt like I was with a living legend.”
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I, too, felt that way while covering Piniella. He projected such a force-field of passion and energy that you couldn’t help but be drawn to his words. It’s not stretching too much to say he had an aura, like many of the greatest managers do.
As Piniella’s longtime hitting coach, Lee Elia, said Friday, “There’s something about Lou. He could be in that parking lot in the pouring rain at 1:30 in afternoon, and somehow the guys and coaches knew that Lou was here. We knew Lou was in the house. I don’t think too many guys were blessed with that, but he was blessed with that.”
And when Lou arrived, players knew it was time to amp up their intensity. Omar Vizquel, who broke in with the Mariners under Piniella, admitted in his taped tribute that, in those early years, Piniella scared him. He wasn’t alone. Ichiro said, “You knew right away he was the boss in the house.”
Terry Francona told a story, also via videotape, of his days as a young third-base coach in Detroit, when Piniella went to the mound one night to absolutely light into a struggling pitcher.
“Watch this, kid,” Piniella said to Francona as he trotted past the coaching box. And then when the deed was done, leaving the pitcher quaking on the mound, Piniella passed by Francona again on the way back to the dugout.
“What do you think of that?” he said.
Here’s what I think of that: It’s vintage Lou, and helps explain why one of his former coaches, Sam Perlozzo, said so aptly, “One thing I loved about Lou, he weeded out weak people. You weren’t going to win with weak people.”
Which brings us back to the essence of Piniella, and the No. 1 recurring theme on a day of tributes before his formal Hall of Fame induction before Saturday’s game with the White Sox: Piniella’s absolute obsession with winning.
“He has an insatiable desire to win, almost to a fault, if you can find a fault in trying to be successful,’’ Elia said. “His whole personality was about winning in everything he did.”
All four playoff seasons in Mariners history came under Piniella. Seven of their 11 seasons over .500 — including the record-breaking 116 wins in 2001 — came under Piniella. It is the standard to which all future Mariners managers are still compared, as the current one, Lloyd McClendon, is keenly aware.
“What he did here was just tremendous,” McClendon said. “Don’t think that I don’t think about that every day that I put this uniform on. I don’t want to embarrass him. I want to make him proud. He laid a tremendous foundation and I want to get it back to where he had it. That would be pretty good.”
Dan Wilson made a great point — that Piniella’s passion for winning was counterbalanced by an equally fierce hatred of losing. Piniella said later that the two forces worked in concert to drive him.
“They go hand in hand,’’ he said. “Fear of failure always motivated me. I think that pushed me a heck of a lot. If the losses don’t hurt, then you don’t really belong in the managing profession, for sure.”
Even though Piniella never reached his ultimate goal of getting the Mariners to a World Series — which he called “my only regret” — his stamp is all over Seattle baseball. Including a ballpark, filled Friday with Piniella admirers, that Elia called “the house the ’95 Mariners built.”
Piniella is nearly 71 now and insists that he’s done as a manager. He likes retired life too much — golfing, fishing, traveling with his wife of 47 years, Anita. And watching baseball as a fan, without the emotional investment.
“If I allow myself to get too deep into the game, then the competitive juices start flowing again, and I can’t afford to go kick the TV stand and buy a new TV,’’ he said with a laugh.
Piniella got emotional Friday during his speech, and he expects to do so again on Saturday. That’s how much Seattle, and his Mariners experience, means to him.
“It’s going to be hard for me, it really is, because these fans, they’re just wonderful,’’ he said.
Wilson told how his daughter, as a toddler, once pointed to the television and said, “Mommy, look, it’s Lou Vanilla.”
But as Wilson noted, his manager was anything but vanilla. Piniella was a character of the first order, a winner, and a worthy entrant into the Mariners Hall of Fame.