Piniella cares only about winning

  • Larry LaRue / The News Tribune
  • Monday, September 3, 2001 9:00pm
  • Sports

By Larry LaRue

The News Tribune

BALTIMORE – She is a lovely old woman now, still living in Florida, where the winter temperatures are like Seattle summers.

Margaret Piniella can reflect back on a good many winters, and on how it was her son spent most of his young life when he wasn’t forced to sit in class or work the odd job.

“We lived across from a park,” she said. “Lou was always there, playing ball. Day or night, winter or summer, that’s where he’d be. If I wanted him home, I had to go get him. He was at that park.”

Margaret’s boy turned 58 last week, but some things haven’t changed. Lou Piniella still has a home in Tampa, not far from his parents – but he’s rarely there.

Another woman now, Piniella’s wife, Anita, has learned to cope with her husband’s lifelong passion for baseball.

Last week, the Piniella family welcomed another child – Margaret’s great granddaughter, Anita’s third grandchild, the daughter of Lou Jr. When the family decided to induce labor, Anita wanted Piniella to know.

She had no trouble reaching her husband.

All she had to do was call him at the ballpark.

“He’s always at the park,” she said. It’s been that way throughout their 34-year marriage. It’s been that way throughout his life.

Occasionally, he talks about leaving baseball, about walking away from ballparks and staying home.

The women in his life don’t believe it.

  • Louis Victor Piniella has always been a character without really meaning to be. The kind of man who can hold a clubhouse of men spellbound with his stories once sold women’s clothing in the off-season – and was so good at the job he made more money than he had playing baseball.

    “You spend 10 minutes talking to him, you feel charged up,” Devil Rays manager Hal McRae said last week. “He’s got such passion for the game, it’s like it rubs off on you. I don’t know how you couldn’t love Lou Piniella.”

    “Everything this team has accomplished on the field this season starts with Lou,” Jay Buhner says of the Seattle Mariners. “I mean, look at Safeco Field – everyone says Ken Griffey Jr. and Randy Johnson and our ‘95 team saved baseball and got that park built.

    “Well, who got the most out of those guys? We had Junior and we had Randy in ‘92 and we damned near lost 100 games. This franchise got turned around the day it hired Lou.”

    In the spring of 1993, Piniella’s first with the Mariners, he inherited a team that had lost 98 games a year earlier. Two writers, one a New York columnist, took him to dinner early on in camp – and the New Yorker kept shaking his head.

    “You’ll never win here,” he told Piniella. “Ownership isn’t going to commit, the city isn’t a baseball town. You were hired for your name.”

    Piniella listened, sipped a prickly pear maragrita.

    “Well, they hired the wrong man, then,” Piniella said. “Because I came here for one reason. I came here to win.”

    That spring, the team lost its first week of exhibition games and Piniella saw quickly why it had lost 98 games the previous season.

    “I think we lost eight, nine, 10 in a row to start the exhibition season,” Norm Charlton said. “I mean, we stunk. We’re on the team bus heading home after one game and Lou looks out the window and sees a bunch of kids playing ball in the school yard.

    “He makes the bus driver pull over, and now all the players are looking at each other – what’s this about? – and Lou stands up and faces us. ‘You think we could beat those sons of bleeps?’ he yells, and points at these kids.”

    Everyone laughed, but the point was made.

    That first spring, the Mariners finished 16-14. Not everyone who started with the team survived. Mike Schooler, the franchise leader in career saves, was released midway through camp.

    “All Piniella cares about is winning,” Schooler said as he cleared out his locker.

    Once the Mariners realized Schooler was right, they became a different team. They became a Piniella team.

    That first season, Seattle finished 82-80.

  • Lou Piniella knows things.

    If he had his way, he’d live in the small beach house he and Anita own in St. Petersburg so close to the water that they’ve been flooded out a half dozen times by hurricanes.

    Last week, it seemed, every human being who entered the water off Florida was bitten by a shark. Piniella said he knew why.

    “You don’t swim early in the morning or late in the evening – I won’t even go in the water then,” he said. “That’s when sharks feed. I swim in the heat of the day, take a little nap, head for the ballpark. I guarantee you, look up the times of most attacks and they’ve been in the early morning or late evening.”

    Piniella thinks for a moment.

    “And I won’t swim in the lakes in Florida,” he adds. “Water moccasins. You swim into a nest of those, they’ll never get you out in time.”

    Piniella knows himself.

    “I’ve got a weak stomach,” he admits. “I see things, I start to gag.”

    There was the year Griffey lost a bet to his manager – a steak dinner – and paid to have a live cow brought into Piniella’s office. Lou walked in after the morning workout in Arizona, opened his office door and – moo – there’s the cow staring back at him.

    The cow drooled on Piniella’s desk.

    Piniella grabbed his mouth and fled.

    Buhner noticed. A man with the peculiarly self-taught ability to vomit at will, Buhner saw a way to torment Piniella. Each day for a week, he’d approach Piniella behind the batting cage, start to speak, then upchuck.

    Piniella would gag. Buhner would laugh.

    “I had to will myself to get over that,” Piniella said, “or Buhner would still be walking up and doing it to me every day. He was killing me. The day it stopped was the day he did it and I just stared at him.

    “Once that happened, it was no fun for him.”

    Piniella knows himself. He has determination that can be eerie.

    “I never had great ability as a player, I had certain skills – good hand-eye coordination,” he said. “And I had the will to get better. I made the most of what I had.”

    Seventeen seasons playing, a career .291 hitter. If the pressure grew, Piniella improved. He hit .305 in 18 league championship games – .319 in 22 World Series games.

    As a manager, it hasn’t changed. Piniella had won more than 1,200 major league games entering the final month of his 15th season.

    He’s managed in one World Series.

    His record is 4-0.

  • Listen to most ex-players talk, they never made an out when it mattered, never lost a game or threw a pitch that wasn’t a strike. The stories get better. Ex-players get better each re-telling.

    Not Piniella. He will answer questions about his greatest moments with humility, but given an audience and the chance to tell stories, he’ll do so.

    “My first major league at-bat, I pinch-hit for Robin Roberts,” Piniella said one day. “I grounded out to shortstop. I went back to the dugout and Roberts is waiting for me. He said, ‘Hell, son – I could have done that.’ “

    He remembers the hits that mattered. He talks about the pitchers he couldn’t hit.

    “Geoff Zahn was a changeup artist, and he’d throw me slow, slower, slowest,” Piniella said. “When Bob Boone was catching Zahn with the Angels, he’d tell me what was coming – it drove me crazy. He’d say, ‘This one’s going to be even slower.’ And I’d screw myself into the ground trying to hit that pitch.”

    Bruce Kison, one of Zahn’s teammates at the time and now an Orioles scout, remembers those confrontations.

    “Piniella had our dugout rolling,” Kison said. “At one point, before Zahn delivered, Lou would turn his head away from the mound – he’d be looking back at the screen, then turn around as the pitch was coming in and try to pick it up.

    “He figured it would force him to focus more on the pitch if he didn’t see Zahn actually throw it.”

    After kicking around the minor leagues for seven seasons – spending the last three in Class AAA – Piniella was a man willing to adjust. He spent his entire career doing so, between seasons, between games, between at-bats.

    “I was a dead pull hitter in the minors, which is why I stayed in the minors,” Piniella said. “I remade myself as a hitter in Triple-AAA. Changed my swing, hit to all fields, hit line drives.”

    His final three seasons in the minors, Piniella batted .289, .308 and .317. The Seattle Pilots took him from Cleveland in the expansion draft of 1968, then traded him to Kansas City.

    In 1969, his eighth season in professional baseball, Piniella became the American League Rookie of the Year.

    “I played for Earl Weaver one year in the minors and he called me into his office one day and said ‘Son, you’ve got the talent but you’ll never play in the big leagues because of your temper,’” Piniella recalled. “I said, ‘Well, Mr. Weaver – you’re one hell of an example!’ “

  • He was a good boy, his mother remembers. The only times Lou Piniella lost his temper, he was mad at himself.

    In high school, he once averaged 30 points a game in basketball – at the time, the Tampa record.

    “He was fiery, used to compete hard and was very demanding of himself,” said a former teammate from high school days, St. Louis Cardinals’ manager Tony LaRussa. “He was real hard on himself, had very high standards. If he made an out when he didn’t think he should make an out, he’d throw a bat, kick a cooler. It was the way he approached the game.

    “I’ll say this about Lou. He knows how to win.”

    Asked about growing up, Piniella will tell his favorites stories – of the trouble he caused himself in Catholic schools, of his own misadventures.

    A few years ago, when a friend’s daughter was learning to drive and blew a tire out running into a curb, Piniella offered her an encouraging story.

    “Before I had my license, I took the family car and went for a drive,” Piniella said. “I lost control, plowed through a fence and killed a cow. My father made me work on that farm all summer to pay off what I owed on that cow.”

    Margaret Piniella throws a hand to her mouth when the story is passed along.

    “There was no cow!” she gasps, in the way all mothers have of stating disapproval. “And it was my fault. I left the keys in the car and ran in the house for a moment. I looked out the window and there was Lou, backing out the driveway.

    “He backed across the street and right through that fence. But there was no cow! I’ll never forget seeing him go down that driveway, though. Oh!”

    At school, Piniella’s temper on the field or the basketball court – even though always directed at himself – drew the attention of school officials. In the way things were handled back in the ’50s, Piniella was held after class and forced to write “My name is Lou Piniella and I am a jackass” 100 times.

    “When I finished, I realized they were right,” Piniella said. “I was a jackass.”

  • Today, he is a Christian – though it sometimes worries him to be portrayed as such. It is not that he is embarrassed by the faith he has found in the last few years.

    “I’m trying to be a better example, but I’m not the best one around,” Piniella admits. “I mean, I haven’t been thrown out of a game this year, but if you took a poll I’d still be the manager people think has been thrown out of most games.

    “I’m a better person than I was, but I’ve got a long way to go before I’m going to be someone I want anybody else to use as an example of a good Christian. I’m working on it.”

    At 58, Piniella is not the manager he was when the Mariners hired him eight years ago.

    “I used to make it personal. I used to want to beat the other manager in the other dugout every night,” Piniella said. “It took me a while to realize it doesn’t matter how smart you are if you don’t have the right players. You can be a genius and lose with a bad team.”

    The Kingdome tormented Piniella, taking away his natural aggressiveness in the dugout. Steal a base, steal a run, watch the other team hit a two-run home run in the eighth to beat you.

    “We were built around power in a ballpark that demanded it,” Piniella said. “If we needed six runs a night to win there, trying to steal bases with a bunch of power hitters wasn’t going to work.”

    Safeco Field released Piniella. The man who critics said couldn’t handle pitchers – or pitching coaches – was patient with youngsters like Freddy Garcia, Gil Meche, Ryan Franklin, Joel Pineiro.

    The Mariners went from a team of power hitters to a team of hit-and-run specialists, of small-ball fundamentals and daring baserunning. Piniella’s aggressiveness began opening night, and has helped produced the best record in the majors this season.

    “What hasn’t changed is how much he wants to win,” Edgar Martinez said. “He cares about his players, he cares about the team, but he wants to win every night and I think we’re a reflection of that.”

    “We have a lot of guys having great years, and not one of us would tell you Lou hasn’t been part of it,” Bret Boone said. “He keeps you loose around the batting cage, he’ll talk baseball with you, tell stories. But when the game starts, it’s serious. He expects a lot of you, he expects a lot of himself. We all expect a lot of ourselves here, and I think Lou brings that to the team.”

  • The rages come less often. He hasn’t thrown a base since 1990. Hasn’t kicked his hat around the infield in three years, now.

    The warmer, softer side of Piniella that was always there peeks out more often these days. A year ago, when the Mariners won the American League wild card on the last day of the season, Piniella called Anita on the telephone and cried.

    Ask him about his parents, his eyes well up. Talk about his children, his grandchildren – his wife – and Piniella can tear up.

    Piniella has always loved completely, and loved as many things as he could fit into a heart George Steinbrenner once called the biggest in baseball.

    The game was always one of those things.

    He is signed to manage this season and two more in Seattle. By the end of that contract, he will be 60 years old, close to 1,400 career victories.

    “That may be it,” Piniella said. “I don’t want to do this forever.”

    Of course, he said the same in Cincinnati. And after signing his first deal in Seattle, he predicted it would be his last contract.

    He worries, like everyone, about his children. About his health. About his wife, when he’s on the road so much. He’s more concerned now with his players, too, hates having to release anyone.

    He cannot see the end, but he knows it is coming, Piniella insists.

    Anita Piniella knows better. Like Margaret Piniella years earlier, she knows that any time she needs to reach her husband, she has only to call him at the park.

    “What do I know better than baseball?” he asks. “Talking to the media, dealing with players or umpires, that’s all bull bleep. This is a team sport, and the challenge is to find ways to help your team beat somebody else’s.”

    The challenge of managing isn’t all that different from the challenge of playing, and in some ways Piniella at Safeco Field is not so far removed from the young boy in Florida whose mother always knew where to find him.

    “I always knew Lou would be in baseball, because he loved it so much,” Maraget Piniella said. “It was never some passing thing for him. He loved the game. He still loves the game.”

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