Lou Piniella will be in Cooperstown, New York, on Sunday, watching with pride along with tens of thousands of other baseball fans as Edgar Martinez is inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
Piniella was there when Barry Larkin went in the Hall in 2012, Randy Johnson in 2015, and Ken Griffey Jr., in 2016. All were players Piniella managed during his stellar career in the dugout.
It’s a career that should have warranted his own Hall of Fame induction Sunday. In a just world, Piniella would be up on the podium Sunday in Cooperstown, right there with Mariano Rivera, Mike Mussina, Lee Smith, Harold Baines and the family of the late Roy Halladay.
But most appropriately – and most poignantly – Piniella would be right next to Martinez, just as the two of them used to often sit or stand together in the dugout during Mariners games, talking hitting and strategy, usually in Spanish.
Instead, Piniella will be in the crowd with family members and former teammates of Edgar’s – and a whole lot of Mariner fans – beaming with pride.
“Life isn’t a bowl of cherries,” Piniella said in a recent phone conversation from his home in Tampa, Florida. “You have to swallow some disappointments at times. I can’t wait to be there for Edgar.”
Piniella is reluctant to talk about his situation. He doesn’t want to detract from Martinez’s shining moment. When pressed, he’ll admit to his disappointment in the results of the Today’s Game Era Committee election in December, when he fell one vote short of joining Smith and Baines in earning the 12 necessary for enshrinement.
Instead, he received 11, a near-miss that made it even more painful. Friends of Piniella say he was deeply wounded by the vote. Certainly, the Mariners organization was devastated by the missed opportunity to simultaneously honor two of their franchise icons.
But Piniella says he never even considered staying home, even if the reminders of how close he came will be painful.
“I’m going to be there for Edgar,” he said. “I’m looking forward to seeing him. I’m so happy for him and his family. He had a marvelous career, and the honor is so well-deserved. Edgar over the years I managed was as good a right-handed hitter as there was in the American League. His record speaks for itself. He got the biggest hit in Mariners history, the double.”
The reference, of course, is to Martinez’s double off Jack McDowell in Game 5 of the 1995 ALDS that scored Griffey from first and clinched the series over the Yankees. Piniella would manage the Mariners to the only three other playoff appearances in club history, including the 116-win season in 2001 – on top of the wire-to-wire run to the World Series title by the 1990 Reds. He won 1,835 games as a manager, 16th-most in MLB history, as well as having a .291 career batting average and four World Series appearances as a player.
“I was personally disappointed in not getting into Hall of Fame myself, but I’m so happy for Edgar,” Piniella said. “I can’t wait to see him and celebrate a little bit with him. I’ll be there to raise a little champagne and so forth.”
To me, Piniella was a no-brainer, but as often is the case with veterans committee selections to the Hall of Fame, something went wonky. It’s particularly curious since the 16-man voting panel included Pat Gillick, the Mariners’ general manager from 2000-03, and Tony La Russa, a managerial contemporary of Piniella’s – they squared off in the ’90 World Series – who grew up with him in Tampa.
La Russa and committee member Jerry Reinsdorf, owner of the White Sox, are believed to have advocated hard for Baines, whose election was roundly panned. Baines never received more than 6.1 percent from the Baseball Writers Association of America. Gillick no doubt pushed for Piniella, but it wasn’t enough to get that elusive 12th vote.
Piniella will be 76 in August. He’s feeling good but fully retired following a mini-stroke in 2017. While again stressing that this is Edgar’s time and expressing reluctance to discuss his situation, Piniella finally admitted, “The amazing thing about it, I missed by one vote. How in hell do you miss by one vote? You tell me. Jokingly, just jokingly, I was going to tell people, I’m from of the state of Florida; we have chad votes. Let’s have a recount. Jokingly.
“I congratulated the people who got in and told them how happy I was. I thanked the people who voted for me. I handled it the right way. But I was disappointed.”
The Today’s Game Era Committee will next consider candidates in 2021 for induction in 2022, according to the Hall of Fame.
“They told me I’d have another crack in three or four years,” Piniella said. “I might be dead in three or four years. But let’s talk about Edgar. I can’t wait to see him, give him a nice hug, and thank him for what he’s done for the Mariners, and the game of baseball, and me specifically as a manager.”
In extolling Martinez’s virtues, Piniella remember him as a “pretty darned good little third baseman” before injuries forced him to designated hitter. The move was masterminded by Piniella, who had to convince a reluctant Martinez that being a DH would not only be best for the Mariners, but also his career.
“I had a pretty good trio there with Edgar, Randy and Junior,” Piniella said. “There were other good ones, guys who had great careers, but those three were special. I was blessed to have that type of talent.”
Piniella is also proud of managing other Hall of Famers such as Rickey Henderson and Dave Winfield, as well as future Hall of Famers such as Ichiro and, he hopes, Alex Rodriguez.
“I know he’s at a disadvantage, but I look forward to the time we can possibly see him in the Hall of Fame,” Piniella said of Rodriguez, referring to his admitted use of performance-enhancing drugs. “Ichiro is a definite, another kid who brought a lot of joy. I’ve had a lot of special people with character who played hard and played to win.”
Piniella puts Martinez high on that list. He likens him to Hall of Famer Jim Rice as the best right-handed hitter he saw during his career.
“Edgar was an outstanding player, citizen and family man, and one of Seattle’s biggest sports heroes,” Piniella said. “He was a leader in the clubhouse. The other players respected him immensely. If everyone I managed was like Edgar, I would have gone on another 15 years.
“I never had a problem with him, never had a word. I got a chance to practice my Spanish, which I enjoyed immensely. What a class guy. I’m immensely proud of him. The vote speaks for itself. He should have been in a long time ago.”
Now Piniella is in the same category, a deserving candidate still on the outside looking in after two appearances on the Today’s Era Committee 10-man ballot (he also fell short in 2016, believed to have received eight or nine votes).
Martinez had to wait the full 10 years of his eligibility to finally get the necessary 75 percent of the vote by the Baseball Writers Association of America. That’s a voting body of more than 400 members. The dynamics are different in the 16-member voting committees that consider the Hall of Fame status of executives and give a second look to players passed over by the BBWAA, such as Smith and Baines.
Piniella said he hasn’t talked to anyone on the committee about how the vote went down. Nor does he plan to.
“They voted, and I respect their vote,” he said. “I don’t necessarily agree with it, but I respect their vote. No sour grapes. Everyone is entitled to their opinion.”
Here’s mine: It’s a damned shame Piniella isn’t up there with Edgar on Sunday. He deserved it.