THE EDGE OF RAGE

First place has been a strangely precarious perch for Lou Piniella, Cincinnati's manager, whose baseball career has been fueled by explosive emotion
September 30, 1990

Lou Piniella is the driver, and the trip has seemed to last forever. He has stayed awake through the long nights and the hot afternoons, checking the road map and fiddling with the dials. He has been in charge. The white line began in Houston at the Astrodome on April 9 and will end...where? Somewhere in October. The Cincinnati Reds, if they can hold the road, will be the first team in National League history to lead their division for an entire 162-game season, wire to wire. The driver is tired.

"I'm not doing this job forever," Piniella says softly. "Oh, no. I don't want to be a career manager. I don't want to do this for the rest of my life. A few years. This is the last stop. I'm not jumping around, one place to another."

There has been no rest. None. The games have never ended. On the good nights, he always thinks of some little thing that could have been changed, some little thing that could have been done better, some little thing. On the bad nights? He has been unable to sweep his mind as if it were just another aisle in the deserted ballpark. He cannot let go. That is his term, his phrase: "I cannot let go."

The baseball world marveled as these Reds pulled away at the start and never looked back. But Piniella has felt all along that he and his team were traveling into a headwind. The landscape in front has always looked treacherous. The activity in back has always seemed threatening. Never looked back? What is the warning on the rearview mirror? OBJECTS MAY BE CLOSER THAN THEY APPEAR. Piniella has watched these objects for almost six months. He always knew they were closer than they may have appeared to others.

"My personality profile is that I'm volatile, intense," he says. "I know it. It's not the way to be. I see guys in this business, they're still able to maintain their family life, have outside interests. Go home. Play with the kids. Have a drink. I don't know. I just haven't learned that yet."

His wife, Anita, remembers that when he was a player, 18 years in the major leagues, he sometimes would practice his batting swing in the middle of the night to work his way out of a slump. She awoke one time and screamed. There was a man standing in the bedroom with a baseball bat! Oh hello, Lou. He cannot swing the bat anymore. His worries are carried home now in an attachè case. He can only think about others swinging bats. This somehow is worse. Harder. He has to worry for an entire team. "This should be harder," he says. "You have more responsibility than you did as a player. You should take things harder."

When he took the job this season in this new city in this new league, the first year of a three-year contract, he brought golf clubs with him. The golf clubs have not left the closet. A powerboat man, he has been out on the Ohio River twice during the season. He found he had trouble docking the boat. He was out of practice. The spring has been baseball, and the summer has been baseball, and now the fall is baseball. All baseball.

Anita and the three children have visited his rented condominium for assorted home stands, but much of the time they have been at the house in Allendale, N.J., that the Piniellas bought when he played with the New York Yankees. Reds pitching coach Stan Williams has stayed with him a lot at the condo. They have been baseball bachelors, stopping at an ice-cream store for a double malted on the way home, then watching the late baseball on ESPN and the late baseball scores on ESPN and then talking baseball into the night. At some point they would fall asleep. Sometimes.

"We're a fine couple," Williams says. "We have a refrigerator stocked with all the essentials for modern living. Soda pop and fruit juice. Though I'll admit the expiration date on that fruit juice carton probably was five months ago."

"Grape juice," Piniella says. "I guess we eat out a lot. I guess we eat at the ballpark a lot."

Grape juice. Is this any way for a grown man to live? He shakes his head. He has lost 15 pounds as manager of the Reds. Fifteen pounds of aggravation and distress.

"For doing this job, I cheat myself a lot," he says. "For eight months, it's just fly and go. I'm away from home. I'm...I'm very different from the way I'm perceived to be. I'm sensitive. Very sensitive. Too sensitive. You probably need a thicker skin than I have to enjoy this job. I know you need a thicker skin." Why does he do it? His phrase: He cannot let go.

The single-minded passion for the game has been part of him from the beginning. Where did he get it? From his father? His father, Louis, had it, pitching those amateur league thrillers at Cuscaden Park in Ybor City, Fla., pitching tight and nasty, fighting anyone, even his own catcher if he gave the wrong sign. His mother? His mother, Margaret, had it. She was every bit as athletic as his father. She played Softball, basketball, played hard. The rest of his family? His cousin is Dave Magadan, playing first base for the New York Mets, taking a run at the National League batting title. His family had it. The passion. Piniella got it, an inordinate amount of it.

"Here's the first time I see Lou Piniella," says Fran Healy, former big league catcher, now a broadcaster with the Mets. "I'm playing at the minor league camp of the Kansas City Royals. I hear the manager behind me in the dugout say, 'Hey, who's that guy playing leftfield without any shoes?' I look out there, and there's this guy, playing in his stocking feet. There was something wrong with his shoes. He was getting blisters or something. Lou Piniella. He didn't care. He was out there, playing."

When Piniella played, he was the guy who attacked the game harder than anyone else. That was his reputation. A lot of players played hard, but Piniella played on the edge of rage. What will he do next? Anything. He held the game in the air by the throat, shook it. He shook himself. A special, different, carbonated blood seemed to run through his body. Once shaken, he very well could explode.

"I played a lot of years with a lot of players," Williams says. "He was the hothead of all time. He took a mediocre talent to the highest level, just with his intensity. I guess I shouldn't say mediocre, because he was a good hitter, but he got everything out of himself he could."

"I had the will to do something," Piniella says. "I don't think I had ability. I had a good batting eye, the ability to make contact, but mostly I just had the will."

For 23 years Piniella careened through professional baseball with an aggression he turned mostly on himself. Why couldn't he be better? Why couldn't he? Why couldn't he hit that guy? Why?

Piniella hit .291 in his 18 years with the Royals and the Yankees and played in four World Series with New York. It was not enough. Never. He screamed in the outfield at himself for some failure, ripping at his shirt, buttons popping everywhere. He hit water-coolers, strangled telephones, pulled shower heads out of walls, broke light bulbs, flattened the brand-new coffee maker in the Yankee clubhouse in a one-punch TKO. He mumbled. He grumbled. Once, after striking out at a big moment in a big game, he ran around the ballpark, yelling, "I can't hit. I can't hit."

The stories are lovely. There was the time in Selma, Ala., in 1962, his first year in baseball, when Piniella struck out with the bases loaded and someone tossed him his glove to take the field. He threw the glove into a rain barrel that was being used to store the team's drinking water. The glove sank. Piniella had to reach inside to retrieve the glove. He fell inside and had to be rescued, pulled from the barrel. There was the time in Portland, Ore., when he struck out to end an inning. He ran straight to the outfield and kicked the portable fence. The fence fell on top of him; he was pinned under it. He had to be rescued again.

"The thing to remember, though, is that I was always mad at myself," Piniella says. "I didn't hurt anyone else. I paid for the water coolers. Bought a couple of 'em. I paid for the coffee maker, too. I bought a better one than the one I broke."

The passion was his gift. Other players had special eyesight or special coordination; he had the passion. His second gift was that he could, in his own way, control the passion. Break a water cooler in the fifth inning, hit a single in the seventh. He was able to measure himself on his own wildly fluctuating scale. He outlasted almost everyone else on the Yankees' high-priced team of the late 1970s, playing until he was 40. He was the long-haul ballplayer—who sometimes exploded.

"I was watching a playoff game in New York," says Anita. "I forget which one. Lou was called out at the plate. He just threw himself on the ground and started shaking. I'm sitting with the wives and there's my husband. It looks like he's going into convulsions." She pauses.

"At least he never climbed the screen behind home plate," she says. "Isn't that what Jimmy Piersall did? Climb the screen? Lou never did that."

He does not tell these stories on himself. This is the surprise. He is guarded when he talks, his words emerging as if they have been considered and approved by some federal inspector and stamped in purple on their sides. Piniella is 47 years old now, and he wishes that some word other than volatile would be attached to his name. He knows that he never will escape the word, that he is volatile, but he feels that it somehow demeans what he does. He would like to be known as a good baseball man first. A baseball mind.

His one public outburst this year came on Aug. 21. Cincinnati was in a five-game losing streak, all five losses at home. He had given a pregame speech, a sort of Mister Rogers version of Knute Rockne, a variation on the story of the tortoise and the hare. The Reds had been the hare at the beginning of the season, he told them. Now they had to become the tortoise, grinding their way to the end. In the sixth inning, there was a close call at first on a double play. Piniella went out to argue. He began by throwing his cap on the ground. Ejection quickly followed. Ejection? He looked down at the ground and saw first base. Ejection? He picked up the base and flung it approximately 18 feet. He was not satisfied with the toss. He picked up the base again and flung it 35 more feet into rightfield.

He has spent the rest of the season apologizing. "I shouldn't have done that," he says. "Really. As I've gotten older, I've realized the part we play as role models. My own son, who's 11, said he was embarrassed. I was embarrassed. I was embarrassed when I did it—well, actually, I felt pretty good right after I did it—but when I saw the papers the next day, I was really embarrassed."

He does not see the humor in the sight of a grown man raging across the front page. He wanted no part of the base-throwing competition that was staged two days later in downtown Cincinnati by the Cincinnati Enquirer. He doesn't want the label. He doesn't want to see the pictures. He wishes the incident never happened.

"I know how it goes," he says. "If you're writing a short story about the manager of the 1990 Cincinnati Reds, you're going to begin with the base throwing. Well, it's not fair. It's just not fair."

A search for dignity is one of the reasons he came to Cincinnati. Respect. He managed for the Yankees two seasons and part of a third after he retired as a player. He had good teams in the two full seasons, but they never won a title, and he was part of the made-for-the-tabloids soap opera starring owner George Steinbrenner. Who could find dignity in that situation? The Cincinnati job is a chance to see what he can do. He has taken a pay cut of $50,000 from the $400,000 salary he had in effect with Steinbrenner. He has traveled to a place that he didn't even know was—hey, no kidding—just across the river from Kentucky. He has taken charge of players most of whom he had seen only on TV. He has won.

"I knew I wanted to get back [to managing]," he says. "I was broadcasting last year, and I liked it. It was the most relaxed I've been in my life. But there wasn't any zip. I was itchy. So when this came up, I was interested."

He is dealing with another noisy, publicity-conscious owner in Marge Schott, but she lets him work on his own. She sends Piniella hair from her pet Saint Bernard for luck on the road, but she lets him work. His predecessor was Pete Rose, but Rose has not been a presence in the background—as Billy Martin, the former manager, always was in New York.

The season has been a grand, hard-work success. The Reds started 21-7 and hit .303 and ran away from the field. The rest has been a season of holding on to the lead. Hanging. Piniella has run through about a billion lineups trying to arrange his streaky hitters in proper sequence. He has worked with a patched-up pitching staff. He has ridden the Reds' strengths—a strong bullpen, good defense and overall team speed—as far as possible. The season has been one of experimentation. He has worked with 25 different psyches, learning what clicks with which head under which batting helmet. He has worked with the 26th psyche, his own. He has driven himself into the baseball night. He has driven everyone else with him.

"I told my wife, just the other day, to make reservations for somewhere warm," he says. "When this thing is over, we're going away for a week. Just lie there with some sun, a rum punch, a piña colada and some beach."

He sits in his little office at Riverfront Stadium. A cigarette burns in his right hand. The room is decorated as Rose left it. A poster on one wall shows the 1976 Big Red Machine, Rose's team. A picture on another wall shows Ty Cobb, the man Rose chased for all of those hits. The desk is still where Rose had it. The chair. A plastic cup on the desk holds felt-tipped pens and No. 2 pencils. A piece of tape on the cup has ROSE written across it. Presumably, there has not been time to redecorate. Piniella has been here for only six months. He has been busy.

"You're only going to go away for a week at the end?" a sportswriter asks. "Why not longer?"

"Oh, one week's enough," the man with carbonated blood replies from first place. "Then I'll be ready for something else."

PHOTODAVID KOHL/AP PHOTOCHUCK SOLOMONPiniella, who says he would like to shed his tag as "volatile," was chagrined by his base-throwing tantrum (opposite), which got him tossed from a game and fined $500. PHOTOCHUCK SOLOMONAnita has visited infrequently as Lou has lived most of the season as a baseball bachelor. PHOTOWALTER IOOSS JR.Piniella performed with a passion that elevated his talents. PHOTOCHUCK SOLOMONPiniella says that because of the pressures of the job, he won't be managing for very long.

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)