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Sports >  Seattle Mariners

Larry Stone: Could Tony La Russa’s return inspire Mariners Hall of Famer Lou Piniella to come back?

UPDATED: Mon., Nov. 2, 2020

By Larry Stone Seattle Times

SEATTLE – The answer is no. A sympathetic, understanding, but very firm, no.

If you’re like me, the second question you had when you heard that the White Sox had hired 76-year-old Tony La Russa out of retirement to be their manager – right after, “They did what now?” – was: “I wonder if Lou would do that, too?”

So I called Lou Piniella, the most beloved and successful manager in Mariners history, and a mere one year older than La Russa at 77, to get the answer. I tracked him down in northern Georgia, where the extended Piniella family had all convened to view the leaves changing color in the fall.

In the middle of our call, I could hear a lot of young kids suddenly start squealing and cheering. Turns out that the power had been knocked out for a couple of days from a storm, and it suddenly came back on during our conversation.

It also turned out that Lou had just gotten back from a zip-lining excursion with the family, which greatly amused Piniella.

“It looks so easy on television,” he said with a laugh. “But it wasn’t quite so easy when I got up there. I was a little scared, actually. It intimidated me a little bit.”

If this sounds like a contented man who wants no part of the extreme stress of managing, well, bingo. Piniella quit as Cubs manager abruptly in August 2010 when his 90-year-old mother became seriously ill. I wrote a column predicting he’d eventually get the managing bug and take another job.

It didn’t happen, even though Piniella still gets periodic calls from teams to feel out his interest. He won’t name the ballclub, but Piniella said he had an offer to manage as recently as two years ago. Each time, he says, the answer is the same: His heart just isn’t in it anymore.

“You’ve got to be totally committed to be successful in this endeavor,” he said. “And I wouldn’t be totally committed. I don’t think I would be the right person to try a comeback like this. I’m happy with enjoying my retirement with my grandkids and my family in Florida. I still watch baseball, and I enjoy watching it, but as a fan, not as an employee.”

One of the strongest overtures, post-retirement, came from none other than the Mariners. Coming off a 2013 season in which they lost 91 games and parted ways acrimoniously with Eric Wedge, the Mariners reached out to Piniella to see if he was interested in a second act. Piniella left the Mariners in 2003 after 10 years to take over the Tampa Bay Rays, ostensibly to be closer to his aging parents.

The Mariners’ interest in a Piniella reunion has been written about before, but I’m not sure it’s known how hard Seattle brass pushed to make it happen. Piniella, who was 70 at the time, said he received calls from CEO Howard Lincoln and team president Chuck Armstrong to make their case. Then-general manager Jack Zduriencik tried to be the closer, to no avail. The Mariners ended up hiring Lloyd McClendon instead.

“Zduriencik wanted to come down to Tampa and get my name on a contract,” Piniella said. “I told him, ‘Look, you’d be wasting your time. You’d be disappointed.’

“I thought about it, but truthfully, like I said, my commitment would not be 100 percent. And to do that job, that’s basically what you have to do. You have to be 100 percent committed.

“So basically, I don’t think I’d be interested in trying it. I’ve had three or four organizations, believe it or not, call me and talk to me. I thought about it briefly. I was flattered. Then I started looking at the travel and the hotels and the airplane trips and everything else, and I said, ‘No, not for me.’ I miss the clubhouse. And I miss the competition on the field. The rest of it would a little bit too grueling for me.”

That’s where Piniella says he differs from La Russa, with whom he grew up in West Tampa, Florida, Piniella one grade ahead. Though they attended rival high schools, the two played Pony League and American Legion ball together. Piniella can still recite the Legion post – “West Tampa Post 248.”

“Tony was the second hitter in the lineup, and I was the third hitter,” he said.

La Russa, an infielder, signed professionally with the Kansas City Athletics on June 6, 1962. Piniella signed with the Indians three days later. Though Piniella had a vastly more successful playing career, La Russa captured three World Series titles as a manager and won more games than anyone in history except Connie Mack and John McGraw.

Piniella is 16th on that list, and has one World Series title, which came when his Reds swept La Russa’s A’s in 1990 as vast underdogs. La Russa stepped down as Cardinals manager in 2011, a year after Piniella.

Piniella says that while he has dabbled on the peripheries of baseball since retirement, serving as a special consultant to the Giants and Reds as well as broadcasting for the Yankees, La Russa has remained much more closely involved. He had a stint running baseball operations for the Diamondbacks and has been active in the front office of the Red Sox and, most recently, the Angels.

“He’s been much closer to it than I have,” Piniella said. “I know he’s got a tremendous love and passion for the game of baseball. From talking to him, it seems like he’s never been able to shake it entirely. I would think – I haven’t talked to him; I’m going to send him a little note later on today congratulating him and wishing him well – but I think seeing that Dusty Baker (age 71) did a nice job with Houston probably gave him a little more impetus to do this.

“It was a little surprising in that he’s in the Hall of Fame, for him to come back. But I think he’ll do a good job, truthfully. He’s got a good head on his shoulders, and he’s been very successful.”

Ah, about the Hall of Fame. Piniella fell an agonizing one vote short in 2019 when he was under consideration by the Veteran’s Committee, receiving 11 of the 12 necessary votes from the 16-person panel (which included La Russa, as well as Jerry Reinsdorf, the White Sox owner who just lured him out of retirement). They elected Lee Smith and Harold Baines but somehow not Piniella.

Piniella will likely be on the Today’s Game Era ballot again in 2021 for potential induction in 2022. I asked Piniella if returning to the dugout for a shot at one more title, thus enhancing his Hall of Fame credentials, was enticing.

“Well, that’s always a consideration,” he said. “The Hall of Fame would be quite an honor. But I wouldn’t come back for that, put it that way.”

Like many old-timers, Piniella isn’t enamored with the state of modern baseball. He is a big supporter of Rays manager Kevin Cash, whom he believes is getting an unfair rap for his decision to pull Blake Snell in Game 6 of the World Series. But he laughed when I asked what Randy Johnson would have said if Piniella had tried to take him out of a decisive World Series game while working on a two-hit shutout.

“Randy would have said, ‘Get your butt back in the dugout. I’m just getting warmed up,’ ” Piniella replied – and I think he was giving me the PG version.

Here’s what Piniella said about Major League Baseball, 2020 style.

“It’s changed a heck of a lot, it really has. The saber … what do you call it? Sabermetrics? Basically, it rules the sport of baseball now. Scouting has changed completely, the way lineups are put together has changed. The way pitchers are used has radically changed.

“I really don’t like it all that much. Most of your runs are scored via the home-run ball, and most of your outs are easy pop-ups or strikeouts. From an offensive standpoint, you wait for a three-run homer, like Earl Weaver did.”

That’s part of the reason Piniella’s answer will remain no. Another is the mini-stroke he suffered in 2017.

“I’m over it, but it sort of scared me,” he said. “And now with this COVID-19 to add to the problem, I couldn’t handle it.”

Piniella’s life is good. When he’s not fishing, he’s playing golf. Family is always nearby. He never intended to be a baseball lifer. There comes a time and place, Piniella told me, when it’s best to just enjoy your retirement.

Tony La Russa might want to get back in the crucible. His old pal Lou Piniella wants no part of it.

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