Blanchette: Fiery nature brands Lou’s career
Lou Piniella walked away from baseball on Sunday, a month earlier than planned and with a tip of the cap instead of a kick of the cap.
The latter would have been a nice touch but, alas, Lou’s fire seems to have gone out. Managing the Chicago Cubs will do that to you.
But it burned hot for a long time. When Jim Bouton was chronicling the single, sorry season of the Seattle Pilots in “Ball Four,” he hinted that Piniella’s time in the game might be short – even as a rookie he could not suffer the game’s fools, slights and daily humiliations.
That was 41 years ago.
It’s to be taken on faith that he won’t be back, except in perhaps some informal role. He’s taken his cuts. In his five managerial jobs, he’s worked for two of baseball’s most bombastic personalities (George Steinbrenner, Marge Schott), history’s most hapless organization (the Cubs), another that would not veer from its painstaking crawl to respectability (Tampa Bay) and, of course, the Seattle Mariners – whose tinhorn execs had to be dragged kicking and screaming into winning and, since Piniella, have been happy to count the money and shrug at the standings.
If Seattle was your team, you loved him for that. If you covered the Mariners, you lived for the afternoons his office door would be open and he’d be holding court – yes, in his skivvies – on topics from starting pitching to the stock market.
One day the subject was the minor leagues – and so with Piniella taking leave of the game, maybe it’s the right time to recall how he came in.
(Remember to insert some gratuitous profanity into his remarks, just for authenticity’s sake.)
He broke in – property of the old Washington Senators – with the Selma Cloverleafs of the Class D Alabama-Florida League in 1962, where there was no drinking fountain in the dugout but instead “a rain barrel with a block of ice and a dipper,” Piniella said. By 1965, he’d been traded to the Balitmore organization and assigned to Double-A Elmira.
Where he remembers “Earl Weaver getting on my ass every other day.”
That’s right. Lou Piniella played for Earl Weaver, and it can only be imagined how combustible that relationship was – from Day 1.
“I had to drive to Valdosta, Ga., for the Double-A camp,” Piniella remembered.
“We stayed in an old Army barracks. I was supposed to get in about 6 o’clock on a Sunday and I got in around 2 or 3 in the morning. They gave me a pillow, an Army blanket and sheets. I do the cot up – I’d been in the Army already so I knew how to do the bed – and I get to sleep.
“Then I wake up because this little guy is shining this big light in my face and yelling, ‘What the hell are you doing?’ ”
It was the Earl Weaver Welcome Wagon.
“Who in the hell do you think you are?” Weaver started in. “Coming down here from big league camp – you’re nobody! Tomorrow, you don’t need a glove or a bat, you’re going to run your ass off!”
And so he did.
“He ran the hell out of me until my tongue dropped,” Piniella said. “I didn’t get off to a very good start with him. And then hitting about .220 the first month of the season didn’t help, either. Later, I understood he’d done this to every guy who came down from major league camp, but I didn’t know. This little fat guy. I thought it was a guard or something.”
Weaver is in the Hall of Fame now for managing the Orioles for 18 seasons – though he could just as well have gone in simply for being a Hall of Fame piece of work.
“We used to play Hearts on the bus,” Piniella said, “and you had to let him play or there was no card game, and if you didn’t let him win the game was over. Same thing with golf. Someone would tell him we’re at the golf course and he’d show up and if he didn’t win, you couldn’t play golf.
“Earl didn’t want to be roasted. He wanted to be toasted.”
Now, there would be those out there who see a lot of Earl Weaver in Lou Piniella, both in temperament and performance. Throw out the Tampa Bay years and Lou’s winning percentage isn’t much lower that Weaver’s, and both won a World Series and a handful of pennants.
“He always stressed winning – that’s how he got himself to the big leagues as a manager, by winning in the minors,” Piniella said. “I remember him telling me, ‘You’re never going to play in the big leagues – you’ve got too much of the red ass.’ Finally, one day I told him, ‘You’re a hell of an example.’
“We didn’t get along too well. But in the end, it was probably the best thing that happened to me.”
Maybe somewhere along the way, one of Lou’s kicks of the cap was for the Earl.