As the Seattle Mariners seemed to reflect the stress of an ever-tightening division race last week, a cavern of calm existed just a few feet from the clubhouse.
Through the first door on your left, you most often would find manager Lou Piniella working on a crossword puzzle. Or watching stock reports on CNBC. Or testing his stroke with a new set of golf clubs that he plans to use this winter. Or telling baseball stories to writers.
Unless he’s involved in a sensitive meeting with his coaches, players or the front office, the door is always open to Piniella’s office. And last week, it seemed wide open to his heart as well.
Maybe it was his way of dealing with the most agonizing portion of a long season. Or maybe it was Piniella’s way of saying good-bye to the reporters who have visited him almost daily in the eight years he has been the Mariners’ manager.
With his contract ending after this season and speculation rampant that he won’t return to the Mariners, it was easy to read just about anything into Piniella’s mood and his words.
If these were his final days to occupy that space, Piniella used the occasion to reflect on the joys of managing in a sometimes cruel, heartless sport. Some observations from Sweet Lou:
“It’s been a pleasure to manage him for eight years. Edgar is a very intense person. People don’t know that about him and he doesn’t show it. But he’s intense and he’s very loyal. When you play 1,500 games for one organization, that says it all.
“Edgar is a good person and he’s genuine. He’s looked up to, not only by our veteran players, but our younger players as well. It’s been a great ride for Edgar, and it’s still not over.”
And, Piniella is convinced, Buhner can be productive for at least another year.
“He’s still got a quick bat and he’s still got good power. There’s no reason to assume that Jay can’t be a productive player here next year.”
“Trades are a part of the game. Sometimes that’s a part of the business that you don’t like, but it’s a reality you have to face. In this business, there’s change. Whether it’s a player, a manager or a coach.
“Trades aren’t so difficult because the player is getting an opportunity somewhere else. The hardest thing is when you have to release a player. One of the hardest things I had to do in my life was to release a Hall of Famer when I was in New York. Phil Neikro. I agonized over that for a long time.”
There’s little question that baseball has some cleanup to do when it comes to its postseason qualifying procedures. With the possibility for two days of one-game tiebreakers needed to determine the playoff field, the system obviously isn’t perfect.
However, if the suspense of the past week has shown anything, it’s that the game is on the right track. The American League West race has come down to the final day, as has the drive for the AL wild-card playoff berth.
Even the teams that have qualified for the postseason – the White Sox and Yankees in the American League and the Cardinals, Braves, Giants and Mets in the NL – weren’t sure who they’d be facing when the playoffs begin. Home-field advantage this year is determined by won-loss records.
“I think it’s a fair procedure,” Piniella said. “I sure don’t see how they could do it any differently. I think it’s good for baseball.”
What’s good for baseball is fine with Piniella, even though he packed for the Mariners’ final road trip not knowing if he’ll travel tonight from Anaheim to Seattle, Chicago or New York for postseason play, or (shudder) back home to Tampa for the winter.
“I’ve packed for seven or eight days, that I can tell you,” Piniella said.
As catcher Tom Lampkin rehabilitates his surgically repaired right elbow, nobody needs to remind him that his potent left-handed bat could have made a huge difference for the Mariners’ struggling offense this season.
Lampkin does his best to deflect such an observation.
“I don’t think that one guy can make a difference on a team,” he said. “I don’t think there’s one guy who can really have that much of an impact on a game that involves so many players. I think there would have been an opportunity to use me here and there, and I would like to have tried to contribute. But it just wasn’t meant to be and I accepted that a long time ago.”
All Lampkin can do now is prepare himself for next year and hope somebody besides himself believes he can still contribute. He’ll be a 36-year-old free agent when this season ends and realizes some teams may view him as a 37-year-old question mark when next season starts.
“I hope I see myself in Peoria, I really do,” Lampkin said. “We really haven’t sat down and talked (with the Mariners). I think they’re waiting to see how my (elbow) responds.
“I plan on being ready for spring training, and I hope it’s with Seattle.”