Sweet Start For Lou's Crew

May 04, 1986

Lou Piniella, the New York Yankees' rookie manager, was losing his cool for at least the second time Saturday after both he and his club's six-game winning streak had snapped in a 3-2 loss to Cleveland. Reporters packed themselves into Piniella's Yankee Stadium office, pumping him with questions about his first ejection as a manager and about his eco-phobic pitcher, Ed Whitson. Piniella paced, he snarled, he shoved microphones away from his face. That Sweet Lou could turn so sour surprised no one; when he retired as a player in 1984, the fans' farewell gifts included a bashed-in watercooler. "I hated to lose as a player," Piniella has said. "As a manager, I hate it even more."

Perhaps Piniella needed a day like Saturday to vent his Spanish spleen, because the Yanks were off to their best start in 28 years. And even after Sunday's 9-7 loss to the Indians, the 12-6 Yankees led the American League East by 2½ games. Surprisingly, the Yankees' success had come with nary a soul pilloried in the press, with a Murderers' Row that couldn't scare a crossing guard and with pitching rather than bitching. But the key ingredient seems to be the 42-year-old Piniella, who may finally be the perfect manager the Yankees' obstreperous owner has sought for lo, these 13 years.

Piniella inherited a confident club from Billy Martin and now he has made the players feel comfortable. "My philosophy is to treat players the way I wanted to be treated," says Piniella. He's communicative. Says co-captain Willie Randolph, "Lou's the manager, but you don't look at him as just that. He's a friend." He's emotional. Said Butch Wynegar after slugging a three-run homer on Opening Day, "I'd never been hugged by a manager before. Definitely not last year." And he's shrewd. Says Joe Altobelli, one of three former major league managers assisting Piniella, "The big thing with Lou is that he hit .291 over 16 years in the majors. He has knowledge of what their pitchers will do to us and what our pitchers should do to them."

Yankee hurlers did it to "them" fairly convincingly in the six straight victories, accomplished—Bambino forgive us, for we did win—with only one Yankee, Ken Griffey, hitting a home run. A look at the supposedly shaky starters, for starters, in five of those W's goes a few innings toward explaining the Yanks' success.

•Ed Whitson (1-1, 4.91 ERA): The righty ripped off 6‚Öî strong innings in an 8-4 win at Kansas City on April 21. Of course, on the road he can strut his $4.4 million stuff; at home he's at Whit's end. New York fans, remembering his 1-6 start in '85 and taking sadistic delight in exacerbating Whitson's admitted fear of pitching in Yankee Stadium, have taunted him with threats, hate mail and Bronx cheers. His involvement in a barroom brawl with Martin in Baltimore last September didn't help matters. After three-inch nails were driven into his Closter, N.J. driveway behind each of his car's tires late last season, Whitson moved his family to Columbus, Ohio. He wants to be traded, but the Yankees won't oblige, though early in the season Piniella said he would pitch him only on the road. That changed with Whitson's excellent outing against the Royals, after which Piniella scheduled him to pitch in the Stadium Saturday.

Some teammates, inured to New York's vulgarians, question Whitson's guts. "Everyone runs into a rock now and then," says Whitson, 30, looking like a frazzled creature from Rod Serling's imagination. "This is ridiculous." When he leaves the Stadium these days, Whitson first checks under his car's hood, then drives home alone to a New Jersey hotel where he stares at the walls.

When Whitson's rib cage ached and his stomach turned mushy Saturday, he scratched as the starter. As sub Bob Shirley got shelled and the streak ended, fans chanted, "Eddie! Eddie!"

•Bob Tewksberry (2-1, 3.33): The rookie from Penacook, N.H. walked but one in 7‚Öì innings in beating the Royals 5-1 on April 22. A gifted artist, the 25-year-old righty draws baseball cartoons. One example: a coach with a gun trained on a speeding player entitled Holding Up the Runner. But nothing in his collection comes close to the real-life image of Willie Wilson charging the mound after being hit by an 0-2 pitch. "Why would I want to hit you?" yelled the 180-pound Tewksberry. "You're an instant out." Tabloids take your pick: COOL HAND TEWKS or THE TEWKS OF HAZZARD.

•Dennis Rasmussen (2-0, 2.41): The 6'1" lefty allowed only three hits in seven innings to complete the road sweep of the world champs. As a basketball forward at Creighton covering the likes of Larry Bird, Rasmussen, 27, was a self-described "sixth man who could give the starters a blow and not have the team lose anything." As a fifth starter for the Yanks, he does the same thing.

•Ron Guidry (3-0, 1.29): Gator started the home stand Thursday by stopping the Indians on 10 singles, registering the club's first complete-game victory. After likening the current Yankees to the '78 world champs because of their speed, he won 2-1, with both Yankee runs set up by steals. The 35-year-old lefty walked none and fanned only four, thus promoting his new image as the Bayou Baffler in lieu of the old Louisiana Lightning. Says Guidry, "Any time you can get guys to make outs on themselves—pitching a fastball when they're thinking change, or a slider when they're looking fastball—it's just as rewarding as a strikeout. I'll still strike guys out. Because if I don't try to, if I have to, I sometimes can."

•Joe Niekro (2-0, 3.20): The Yanks' eldest statesman, at 41, surrendered no earned runs in six innings on Friday. His older brother, Phil, who won 16 games last year for New York, watched Joe's 10-3 win from the Cleveland dugout. Phil was released by the Yankees 10 days before the season started. "I'm still upset about it," says Joe. But Joe's a true pro, and truly pro-Piniella. "I think Lou was on Phil's side," he says.

Piniella went wide-eyed into baseball's most stressful managing job, where succeeding doesn't necessarily prevent being abruptly succeeded. During his 12 years as a Yankee player and coach, Piniella endured 12 managerial changes. At week's end he had lasted longer than Bob Lemon did in 1982 (14 games) and Yogi Berra did in '85 (16 games). Piniella sampled the hot seat briefly last year in Cleveland, when Martin was hospitalized with a punctured lung. Piniella's two wins and three losses impressed general manager Clyde King. "He was concerned about what happened in a couple of games and he wanted to address certain problems then and there," says King. When Martin earned his fourth pink slip at the end of the season, Piniella was the Yankees' first and only choice to replace him.

Owner George Steinbrenner, an unabashed Piniella fan, is overjoyed. "Lou understands business and detail so he understands the bottom line and he understands me," says Steinbrenner.

Their relationship suggests that the usual madness will be kept to a minimum. After all, they once co-owned a colt sired by a horse named Hold Your Peace. When Steinbrennerian controversies flared up over the years, Piniella usually served as tension breaker. After a female fan boarded the team bus in Chicago in 1979 and had her assets autographed by some Yankees, Steinbrenner called a meeting to plot punishment that would have created more trouble. Piniella headed him off, saying, "If you were there, you would have signed George M. Steinbrenner III, Esquire, and anything else you could think of." Exit Steinbrenner, laughing.

The Yankees feel that more laughers are on the horizon as soon as Don Mattingly (.284, 15 RBIs), Dave Winfield (.284, 9) and Mike Easier (.236, 8) begin to bop. Nearer at hand for new-look New York is a new Steinbrenner, son Hank, who now travels with the team as a front office executive-in-training. Hank had been bugging his dad for years to quit dealing away prospects. Since the club made a commitment to using homegrown talent in mid-'84, the Yanks have forged the best record in baseball. Says Hank Steinbrenner, 29, "I like a strong minor league system. I like some continuity in the roster. I like some continuity in the manager's chair."

So batten down the watercoolers, Yankees. Sweet Lou may be in for a long, sweet haul.

PHOTORONALD C. MODRAThe matured Guidry transformed himself from Louisiana Lightning to the Bayou Baffler. PHOTORONALD C. MODRAUntil Winfield's bat gets cracking, he'll beg, borrow and even steal for his pal Piniella. PHOTORONALD C. MODRAPiniella received his first official thumb on Saturday. PHOTORONALD C. MODRAWhitson scratched his Saturday start but had to fight Indians—and fans—on Sunday.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)