Baseball’s heating up again, and I know (if only from ball caps one sees at Tops, etc.) that this region features numerous New York Yankee fans. And many who can doubtless recall the roller coaster vicissitudes that team endured under one George Steinbrenner (a.k.a. “The Boss”).
I know something of that period, too, but please don’t ask me to take an exam asking, for instance, exactly when the bibulous Billy Martin was hired, fired, rehired, etc. Nor why I long underestimated a gent who knew the Bronx Zoo up close, as player, manager, and GM under Steinbrenner’s autocratic sway, Lou Piniella.
In his career Sweet Lou was a baseball guy who despite famed tantrums, also seemed rather laid-back; but in fact, he cared about baseball to the point of obsession, knowing the game’s fine points and potential talent like the back of his hand. (One reason he helped Don Mattingly become a topflight hitter.) Getting out from Steinbrenner’s web was difficult for Piniella; but once he did so he merely helmed the unfavored Cincinnati Reds to a world championship as its manager (1990)!
He then went on to rescue a dying franchise, the Seattle Mariners, who likely would have been sold away but for Sweet Lou becoming its skipper. Piniella played a key role in making the Mariners more of a contender in the ‘90s and into the dawn of a new century than many had thought possible.
Along the way, he nurtured players who arrived as comparative kids and became household names. In interviews, including for Piniella’s fine memoir (“Lou”), they still give him real credit for their development.
We’re talking of types like Ken Griffey Jr., an outfielder rather like Dimadge or Aaron who could do it all. And another guy you may not have heard of, but I’ll give you a hint: think JLo, OK? A fellow known as … A-Rod.
Well this Mr. Rodriguez also started young in Piniella’s Northwest baseball academy; and he, too, had to work on each detail of his game under that manager’s wise prodding, becoming a star during the seven years he played for Lou by Puget Sound.
Of course both he and Griffey Jr. eventually heard the siren song of money, money, money! Let your agents do the talking sort of thing ...
Along with another phenom who blossomed under Piniella, the giant pitcher, Randy Johnson, all decamped to greener pastures after making their fame in Seattle – and I mean greener! Rivers of cash doing the trick…
But all recall Piniella with fondness and gratitude, not only for his great knowledge of baseball and the way he demanded close attention to all the little things that go into winning; but also due to the fact that he was a master psychologist among managers, knowing how to treat each personality to help bring out his best. That psychological acumen came in handy, too, when Piniella reassured an uptight Japanese star who at first worried terribly in Seattle, then became one of the greatest ever on this side of the Pacific, a guy named Ichiro.
Seattle’s fans owe Piniella a debt not only for successes their team had under him; but for the fact that the franchise even persisted there, and the Mariners were able to exit the awful Kingdome for a swanky new stadium provided them in an increasingly wealthy metropolis (buoyed up by Microsoft et al.).
Speaking of the latter, Bill Gates was also a Piniella fan, offering him statistical tips for acquisition of players, and gaining Sweet Lou’s admiration.
In other words, cutting teeth in Steinbrenner’s Bronx Zoo (which drove some to drink and others to lose hair under the strain), and learning how to survive there before moving on led Piniella to real achievements, including in his last significant gig as manager of the Chicago Cubs.
When you think of topflight skippers, names like Weaver, Torre, and yes, Billy M. inevitably make the top of the pile. But they should be joined there by a Yank alum of real distinction, Lou Piniella, who was also a fine, gutsy player, including on two world champion Yankee teams of the late ‘70s. Those around here who know and value baseball history shouldn’t underestimate his impact. As George S. would say, that’s an order!
B.B. Singer has taught at several area colleges including Niagara University.