Wednesday, February 3, 2010

14 Days Until Spring Training: Lou Piniella

Before he even arrived in the Bronx, Lou Piniella had lived something close to a full life in baseball. He signed with the Cleveland Indians as a soon-to-be nineteen year old in June 1962. Five months later, he was drafted away by the Washington Senators, under the old first year draft system. Nearly two years later, the Senators traded him to Baltimore. That September he made his Major League debut, appearing in four games and going hitless in his only at bat. It would be a long time before Sweet Lou would see the Majors again, but not too long before he'd need his suitcase again.

After spending all of 1965 in the minors, the Orioles shipped him back to Cleveland, the organization with which he originally signed, prior to the 1966 season. He languished in their system for three more years, finally returning to the Bigs with five more hitless at bats in six September 1968 games. By the end of the season Piniella was 25 years old, had spent seven seasons in professional baseball, had changed organizations four times, and had all of seven Major League plate appearances to his credit. And he still wasn't done stamping his passport.

The Seattle Pilots selected him in the expansion draft following the '68 season. With Major League baseball adding four new teams for the 1969 season, the number of Big League jobs available had increased by twenty percent. Yet Piniella couldn't even stick with the Pilots, and on the eve of the season the Pilots flipped him to a fellow expansion club, the Kansas City Royals. Finally given a chance to play, Piniella made good on the opportunity by capturing Rookie of the Year honors. He was a regular with the Royals for five seasons, posting solid if unspectacular numbers, making an All-Star team, and leading the AL in doubles in 1972.

Following his poor 1973 season, the Yankees dealt for the 30 year old outfielder. He spent the next eleven years as a corner outfielder and designated hitter, winning five division titles, four pennants, and two World Series in the process. Though he didn't walk much, and he wasn't much a power threat, Lou could hit. He was totally dedicated to his craft as a hitter, obsessing over his stance and his swing, which produced a .295 batting average over his time in pinstripes. He also batted .305 over his 44 post-season games with the club.

While not noted for his defense, Piniella made a critical play in the 1978 AL East playoff game against the Red Sox. The Yankees clung to a one run lead in the bottom of the ninth. With one out and Rick Burleson on first, Jerry Remy came to the plate with the potent combination of Jim Rice and Carl Yastrzemski waiting behind him. The early autumn sun hung low in the late afternoon sky, bathing right field in a blinding sunlight. Facing Yankee fireman Goose Gossage, Remy lined a single to Piniella in right. Unable to pick up the ball and catch it on the fly, Piniella still managed to successfully deke Burleson, feigning that he had a bead on it. As a result, Burleson held up. By the time it was clear that the ball fell in, Burleson had to hold at second. Piniella managed to keep the tying run from reaching third with less than two outs. When Jim Rice followed by flying out to deep right, Burleson managed only to advance to third, rather than score the tying run. The rest is history.

As Piniella's career wound down, he began to function as an unofficial hitting coach for the club. When he retired two and a half months into the 1984 season, the team officially added him to the coaching staff. He spent the next year and a half learning under managers Yogi Berra and Billy Martin, and took the helm for the 1986 season. He spent the next two seasons as Yankee manager, going 179-145, finishing in second place in 1986 and fourth the following year. Even in those early years, Piniella showed flashes of the temper that has made him a highlight reel favorite over his twenty two seasons managing in the Big Leagues.

Typical of the Yankees during that time, there was a major shake up following the 1987 season. Billy Martin was brought back for a fifth and final go-round as Yankee skipper and Piniella was promoted to General Manager. As GM, Piniella managed to re-sign Dave Righetti and signed free agents Jack Clark and John Candelaria, both of whom were key contributors to the 1988 team. In attempt to bolster the pitching staff he acquired veteran Rich Dotson from the White Sox. Dotson was a disaster in New York, and came at the price of decent young outfielder Dan Pasqua, whose left handed swing was tailor made for Yankee Stadium.

Piniella was not responsible for the disastrous and infamous Jay Buhner for Ken Phelps trade executed that July. By the end of May, unhappy with his role as GM, Piniella resigned, staying on in a scouting and advisory capacity. Less than four weeks later he would be back in the dugout as Martin's self destructive behavior drove him from the job he loved for the final time. Piniella took over a team that was 40-28 and just 2.5 games out of first. They went just 45-48 the rest of the way, finishing only 3.5 games out of first but in fifth place. As was too often the case in the eighties, the Yankees just didn't have enough pitching to get it done. Piniella was let go for the second time in as many seasons.

He spent 1989 as a broadcaster during the team's first season on MSG Network, then took a job as the Cincinnati Reds manager, winning the World Series in his first season. After three years in Cincy, Piniella moved on to Seattle. In his first year he led them to their first winning season in the their seventeen year history. Two years later he led them to their first playoff berth, bouncing the Yankees in the 1995 ALDS and earning Manager of the Year honors. He captured another division title in 1997, the Wild Card berth in 2000, and led his club to a Major League record 116 victories in 2001, snagging him his second Manager of the Year award. His club was eliminated from post-season play by the Yankees in both 2000 and 2001.

After finishing his tenth season as M's manager, it was time for a change. Piniella returned to his native Tampa to manage the Devil Rays. Because he was still under contract to Seattle they were entitled to compensation. As a result the Rays shipped newly minted Yankee Randy Winn to Seattle for a minor leaguer. The nicest that can be said of Lou's tenure in TB was that they didn't finish last in 2004, the first time in franchise history that happened. Unhappy that ownership wasn't investing money in the team as they had promised him, Piniella departed after the 2005 season. He spent the next year working for FOX, then became manager of the Cubs, winning division titles in 2007 and 2008, and earning his third Manager of the Year award.

Lou Piniella has had a full life in the game, with 2010 marking his 49th year in professional baseball. Just as we saw with Gene Michael, Piniella has served the Yankees as a player, coach, manager, general manager, advisor, and announcer. Though its been more than twenty years since he was a part of the organization, his Yankee career may not be over yet. It was rumored that the Yankees chose the Cubs to play Yankee Stadium's initial exhibition games to remind Piniella of his ties to the organization. Hank Steinbrenner has said that he wants to hire Piniella as an advisor when his managerial career wraps. It shouldn't be too long before that happens as Piniella is nearly 67 and under contract only through the end of the 2010 season.

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