Card Corner: Lou Piniellaby Bruce Markusen
December 11, 2009
I keep hearing rumors that Lou Piniella will be managing the Cubs for the final time next season. This week’s announcement that former Cubs great Ryne Sandberg will manage the organization’s Triple-A affiliate in Iowa has further fueled such speculation. More than a few folks in the Windy City believe that Sandberg, a popular Hall of Famer, is being groomed to replace Piniella after the 2010 season, when his three-year contract comes to an end.
I have little doubt that Piniella will find managerial work elsewhere, which is only fitting for one of the game’s most passionate and colorful characters. Love him or hate him, Piniella should continue to work somewhere in baseball, prolonging a career that started as a player in the early 1960s.
Piniella is best remembered as a player for his days in Kansas City and New York, but he began his major league travels elsewhere. Who remembers Piniella as a member of the Orioles and Indians? I don’t, but The Baseball Encyclopedia and Baseball Reference tell me otherwise. Lou played fleeting stints in Baltimore and Cleveland and even spent some time in the old Washington Senators’ organization before being taken by the Seattle Pilots in the 1968 expansion draft.
Piniella hit well for the Pilots during spring training in 1969, but his temper and demeanor concerned the hierarchy of the expansion franchise. Just prior to Opening Day, the Pilots dealt Piniella to another expansion team, the Royals, who gave up the unmemorable package of outfielder Steve Whitaker and right-hander John Gelnar. The Pilots should have kept Piniella; as the Royals’ starting left fielder, he hit .282 with 11 home runs and 68 RBIs, good enough to win the American League’s Rookie of the Year in a weak season for first-year ballplayers. (Lou even played four games in center field; that must have been a sight to see.)
Piniella’s reputation as “Sweet Lou” began to form with Jim Bouton’s revealing passages about his days as a Pilot in Ball Four. As is common with many nicknames, the origins of “Sweet Lou” derived from the theory of opposites. Like the 400-pound guy who is called “Tiny,” or the perpetually angry man who is called “Happy,” both friends and detractors of Piniella referred to him as Sweet Lou because of his sour moods, sarcastic sense of humor and his explosive temper tantrums. On the field, his displays of anger, including incidents of throwing helmets and kicking dirt, sometimes reached comic proportions. Always expressive, he sometimes made strange faces at the plate, as evidenced by his 1974 Topps card.
Sweet Lou didn’t actually play the 1974 season in Kansas City. After the 1973 campaign, Yankee general manager Gabe Paul sent aging reliever Lindy McDaniel to the Royals for Piniella, who had slumped to a .250 batting average and a .291 on-base percentage during his final season in Kansas City. Paul figured that Piniella had endured an off year, nothing more. Piniella fit Yankee needs precisely—given their lefty-leaning lineup—providing them a semi-regular outfielder and DH who would play against all left-handers and occasionally against right-handers, too. In three of his first five seasons in pinstripes, Piniella hit .305 or better while filling in day-to-day gaps in left field, right field and at DH. He became a vital complementary piece to the world championship teams of 1977 and ’78, culminating in his miraculous “stop” of Jerry Remy’s sun-screened line drive in the famed tiebreaking playoff game of 1978.
Aside from his one-hop snare of Remy’s drive, I’ll remember two features of Piniella’s game more than others. First, he owned one of the best opposite-field strokes of any hitter I’ve seen. As he took his stance, he kept his hands back, wrapped almost behind his right shoulder. With his left shoulder tucked in and his back visible to the pitcher, Piniella pushed the ball toward right field with the same kind of ease and precision that most players reserve for their pull side. Then there was his reliability in the field. Though he lacked speed and had nothing more than an average throwing arm, Piniella possessed hands of velvet. If he could reach a fly ball, he caught it. And whenever he pounded his fist into his glove—that was his trademark on defense—he was sure to make the play.
Piniella’s line-drive stroke and sure hands represented the best of his talents. But he had his critics—the late Clete Boyer was among them—those who felt that he was vastly overrated. Piniella didn’t hit with much power, rarely drew walks, and ran the bases poorly, sometimes atrociously. (In his book, Ron Luciano wrote about how Piniella once “ran” for the cycle, managing to get thrown at out at all four bases in the same game!) Most of Piniella’s value was tied up in his batting average. If he batted .300 or better, he could help you, but if he hit anything less, he was just wasting at-bats that could have gone to Roy White (a far superior all-around player) or Cliff Johnson (who had much more power).
While with the Yankees, Piniella also enhanced his reputation as Sweet Lou. Yankees broadcasters Bill White and Phil Rizzuto often poked fun at Piniella for his on-field fits of anger and his growing tendency to look and feel irritated. Yet, Piniella fit in well with a turbulent Yankees clubhouse, where he bonded with Thurman Munson, another player known for mood swings that often backslid into general grumpiness.
I first encountered Piniella not as a ballplayer, but three years after his retirement from the playing field. By then, he was the Yankees manager, one of many successors to Billy Martin. In 1987, Piniella’s Yankees played the Braves in the Hall of Fame Game here in Cooperstown. Aside from recalling the hijinx of Rickey Henderson and Claudell Washington at the Sheraton Hotel in Utica (that’s a story that must wait for another day), my strongest memory of that weekend involved Piniella. Covering the event for WIBX Radio in Utica, I had the assignment of doing on-field interviews prior to the game. I targeted Piniella as one of my prime interviews. I made my way in his direction amidst an army of media types that swarmed Doubleday Field; we soon made eye contact with each other. As I drew closer, Piniella’s blank expression became a scowl, followed immediately by a dismissive and angry wave of the hand. He’s telling me to go away, I thought to myself. My goodness, he doesn’t even know who I am. Stopping dead in my tracks, I soon realized that Piniella was gesturing toward someone else, someone he knew. Relieved that he hadn’t dismissed me, I was nonetheless fully intimidated, and gave up my pursuit of Sweet Lou.
Piniella did not return to Cooperstown until 2008, when his Cubs were scheduled to play the Padres in the final Hall of Fame Game. The two teams never actually played, the game was canceled after several downpours of rain. Unfortunately, Piniella provided the other downer of the day. During the pre-game parade that made its way down Main Street, Piniella made it obvious he wanted to be anywhere but Cooperstown, underscoring some earlier negative comments he had made about having to travel to upstate New York with his Cubs in the midst of a pennant race. According to my spies, a number of fans shouted “Lou! Lou,” hoping that Piniella would wave—or even smile. Instead, he continued to frown, maintaining a scowl that reflected his contempt for having to come to Cooperstown in the first place.
In spite of my disappointment in Piniella’s dismissive attitude toward the Hall of Fame Game, I like him as a manager. Except for Tampa Bay, he’s consistently posted winning records, even for teams with a recent history of failure. In 2008, Piniella guided the Cubs into the postseason for a second straight fall (though the team followed up with a second straight early exit from the playoffs). It’s amazing the impact that he continues to have on his teams offensively, whether it was in New York in the '80s, Cincinnati and Seattle in the '90s, or now the Windy City. When Piniella first took over Chicago’s helm, the Cubs found themselves choked by an offense that could only kindly be described as below-average. They didn’t walk, didn’t get on base, and didn’t score runs. By 2008, Piniella’s philosophy had taken hold. Aside from Alfonso Soriano, almost all of Chicago’s hitters worked the count capably that summer. Youngsters such as Geovany Soto thrived under Piniella, as did seemingly past-their-prime veterans like Jim Edmonds. Even the role players, from Mark DeRosa to Mike Fontenot to Reed Johnson, make ample contributions. It’s no wonder that the Cubs scored 855 runs, putting them well ahead of all other teams in the National League. Simply put, runs scored translated into games won for the Cubs, just as it did for Piniella long ago with the Yankees, Reds and Mariners. (Unfortunately, Piniella’s influence seemed lost on the Cubs this past summer, as their offense generally tanked amidst injuries, underperformance and lack of patience.)
So with Piniella, you take the bad—the temper tantrums and the moodiness—with the good. During spring training, Piniella unleashed another one of his legendary tirades, this one directed at the now disgraced Steve Phillips, still working for ESPN at the time. The former Mets general manager had dared to mention that the presence of an impatient manager like Piniella made life more difficult for Kosuke Fukudome, a Japanese player who faced a difficult transition to American culture. I thought it was a fair point by Phillips, but Piniella took it as a personal affront.
There will always be tantrums from Piniella, whether they take the form of public scoldings of the media, angry mound lectures to a wild pitcher or those childish dirt-kicking incidents with umpires. We’ll probably see more of the above from Piniella for at least one more summer. But with Sandberg looming and new team owners in place, Sweet Lou may be feeling like “Lame Duck Lou” in 2010.
Bruce Markusen is the author of seven books on baseball, including the award-winning A Baseball Dynasty: Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s, the recipient of the Seymour Medal from the Society for American Baseball Research. He has also written The Team That Changed Baseball: Roberto Clemente and the 1971 Pittsburgh Pirates, Tales From The Mets Dugout, and The Orlando Cepeda Story.