"Do you mind if I smoke?"
This is an article from the March 19, 2001 issue
"You sure it doesn't bother you?"
Yes, I'm sure.
He lights up, 9:30 in the morning, then lights another one in its
wake, like a three-pack-a-day man. He talks. He lights up. He
Anita, his wife of 34 years, a gorgeous lady who knows him inside
out, is astonished when she hears this. "Lou smoked?" she asks.
"He didn't smoke around the house all winter."
But this is the official start of another season. It all changes
with the Super Bowl. That's the signal that life is going to
flip, that spring training is around the corner. I'm the first
robin--the opening interview. It's time for Lou Piniella to be the
manager of the Seattle Mariners again, to "deal with the media,"
time to start smoking again. "I think I can quit," he says, "but,
truly, I know I can't."
Not as long as you're managing?
He nods, ruefully.
The wintertime is when Anita actually knows Lou. "Really," she
says, "we've only been married 17 years." She means only the
off-seasons count. The rest of the year, the baseball, is
something else again. For a long time Piniella, the singles
hitter, held square nine-to-five jobs in the off-season, like any
working stiff. In Kansas City one winter he sold the municipal
bonds that would fund the baseball park he would play in during
the summer. Other years he was the area rep for Chris Evert's
tennis fashion line. Fans think all the money is what has changed
players. More to the point, it's that they no longer have to work
real jobs in the off-season. Now, all year, they're out of touch
with the daily ebb and flow of reality.
Today managers make nice money too, and the Piniellas' tuition
bills are down to one last year; their son Derek is a senior at
Florida, and their two other children are grown. So when the
season is over, Lou leaves Seattle and comes back home to Tampa,
stops smoking and lollygags about. He and Anita (and an ancient,
nonchalant Lhasa apso bitch named Keisha) live in a gated
community, surrounded by high, vine-covered walls, redolent of
Wrigley, that embrace a golf club and an attractive thicket of
large houses--some Tudor, some traditional redbrick, some more in
the Mediterranean style, so it is rather like a residential
Epcot. The Piniellas' house, the color of evening sunshine, has
columns in the front and the 15th fairway in the back. In fact,
Piniella sighs, sometimes several days pass before "I go outside
Piniella's personal phone line has no answering machine, so the
Mariners are occasionally reduced to sending him FedExes pleading
with him to call them. He made it over to the family beach house
near St. Petersburg only twice all winter. "I'm not a physical
fitness nut," he admits (unnecessarily). "I don't do much. A
little fishing, a little golf--really, the less I do, the better."
He is in good company inside the gates. Over at the clubhouse he
likes to stick his head into the card room and hector its
denizens: "Am I the only one who works around here?" He enjoys
the golf, sure. "But I don't give a damn how I do at it," he
says. "I'm average at everything I do." The couple of Grey Goose
martinis he has at the 19th hole are the best part. It's a fine
off-season Lou Piniella has bought and paid for out of singles
and camaraderie and instinct.
He is going on 58, and he has been a professional in baseball
since he was 18, so the rhythm of the diamond calendar has been
pressed into his DNA. For 14 seasons now he has been smoking as a
manager. Anita says he is, for sure, the best manager in the
game, and there are people outside the family who wouldn't argue
with that. Certainly, Piniella is one of baseball's most popular
managers. He's won 1,110 regular-season games and a World Series,
and last year, for the third time in the last six seasons, he
took the long-shot Mariners into the playoffs, holding them
together down the stretch like a cagey old jockey giving a tired
nag a hand ride.
So, it's time to head off cross-country to the Cactus League and
run a baseball team again. Still, you wonder why he bothers. He
had three of the greatest players of this era on his team: Ken
Griffey Jr., Randy Johnson and Alex Rodriguez. One by one, they
left him. A less secure man might have taken it personally. A
less accomplished man might have taken the blame. Instead, even
as Piniella hugged Rodriguez and cried last fall, no one
associated the manager with the defections. Says Seattle
outfielder Jay Buhner, "Every single guy in the clubhouse loves
playing for Lou. He's a great manager--he's tough, but he's fair
and he's loyal. The thing that really tells you something is how
many of the guys who left say they'd come back and play for Lou
in a heartbeat."
So, it's back to the cigarettes again. "Look," Piniella says, "I
still truly enjoy what I do, and I've had success at it. Success
at it." (He has a little habit of repeating conclusions to his
sentences, sort of savoring them. And if he says truly, take it
to the bank.) "I mean, I should be better at it. Managing's like
anything else. It's easier the longer you do it. I've finally
started getting paid a lot too. Also, I'm totally different from
when I started. I was a cutup and a red ass. I like myself a
heckuva lot better now. Besides, outside of making pitching
changes, managing is pretty rudimentary. Most guys in the stands
know when to bring in the lefthanded hitter to face the
righthanded pitcher. We're not building rockets to fly to the
"Don't worry, I'll know when to get out. The wins will be less
enjoyable, and the losses won't seem as bad. I'll know. I was
still hitting .300 when I quit playing. Still"--he sips on the
martini and drinks in the scene in the clubhouse--"every year it
gets a little harder to leave the comfortable life. The
The trouble is, however happy life is within the gates, the game
is always without, calling to him.
Truly, Lou Piniella knows himself. The irony is that the one
thing he didn't know about himself was that he should be a
manager. Even after he lost a lot of money in some bad ventures,
he thought he should be a businessman. Of all people, the one who
figured out that Piniella could manage was George Steinbrenner, a
man best known for exterminating managers. As Piniella wryly
observes, "The worst job in baseball has not existed yet. The
worst job in baseball will belong to the guy who takes over the
Yankees after Joe Torre leaves."
But give the devil his due. Steinbrenner saw the potential leader
behind the happy face of the player whose buddies called him
Sweet Lou. Now, for purposes of comparison, Piniella grew up in
Tampa with Tony La Russa, the St. Louis Cardinals skipper, and La
Russa was a guy who, from the get-go, had manager written all
over him. He was like Athena, born wise and full grown from the
brow of Zeus. Tony Freaking La Russa is not going to tell you
that managing baseball is rudimentary. Piniella, in contrast, did
not appear to be a serious young man. Strike one: He enjoyed life
at large very much. On the other hand, strike two: On the diamond
he was a raging competitor who never relaxed. Red ass has been
attached to Piniella's name much as indicators of lineage are
appended to other people's names. King George III. Pope John Paul
II. JFK Jr. Lou Piniella, Red Ass.
Only a few baseball people saw beyond the scarlet derriere. Jim
Bouton might have been the first. In 1969, the year he wrote Ball
Four, he was going to camp with the Seattle Pilots, an expansion
franchise. There was the possibility of a players' strike, and
Bouton, the veteran, was designated by the union to phone some
players. Bouton had already signed with the team and felt he had
to report, but after he called the unknown rookie, Piniella, he
changed his mind.
Piniella had been bouncing around the minors for seven years,
ricocheting five times among four organizations. This was it for
him. If he couldn't make the majors with a rotten expansion team,
he was quitting baseball. Right away, though, he told Bouton he
would stand by any major league strike. "That impressed the hell
out of me," Bouton wrote. "Here's a kid with a lot more at stake
than I, a kid risking a once-in-a-lifetime shot. And suddenly I
felt a moral obligation to the players. I decided not to go
down." As it turned out, the strike threat passed, and Bouton met
the kid in camp. Immediately he also saw, as he would write, "Lou
Piniella has the red ass."
What impressed Steinbrenner was that on a Yankees team riven with
cliques--notably the Reggie Jackson and Thurman Munson
factions--Piniella got along with everybody. "Lou and Catfish
[Hunter] were the only two guys everyone liked," Steinbrenner
says. And, by then, the late '70s, Piniella was the canny
old-timer, living off his wits and hand-eye coordination.
"I didn't hit home runs," he says. "I wasn't a base stealer. I
didn't have a great arm. I mean, I knew why a lot of teams would
look at me and say, We can do better. We can do better."
It is symbolic of Piniella's sneakily distinguished 18-year
career--this guy did hit .291 with 1,705 hits and play in four
World Series--that the play he's most famous for in a positive way
is a fly ball he misplayed. It was in the bottom of the ninth
inning of the Yankees-Boston Red Sox playoff game in 1978. The
Yankees led 5-4, thanks in part to a terrific catch Piniella had
made earlier. But now, late in the afternoon, the autumn sun had
fallen low, slanting into his eyes in rightfield. "It's like a
ball of fire over the roof," Piniella told his manager, Bob
Lemon, after he'd almost lost a pop fly in the eighth.
Then, sure enough, with one out and Rick Burleson on first, Jerry
Remy knocked an easy drive directly at Piniella. He lost it but
somehow had the presence of mind to hold out his arms as if he
had it all the way. Suckered, Burleson held up. The ball finally
materialized, dropping five feet before Piniella. He snared it on
one bounce, and Burleson made it only to second. The next batter,
Jim Rice, flied out deep--which would have scored Burleson and
tied the game if Piniella's acting hadn't worked.
All the big home runs, all the clutch strikeouts, all the
beautiful double plays from deep in the hole--never mind. "That
was the single greatest play a Yankee has made in all my years
with the team," Steinbrenner declares.
It helped that Piniella was a gambler. He lost the ball, but he
calculated perfectly. Piniella has no interest in casino
gambling, but the horses and the stock market have fascinated him
because, he discovered, the payoff is in the satisfaction of
doping out the winner as much as it is in the tangible reward.
Similarly, he credits much of his success as a batter to being a
"guess hitter," which means not so much guessing as having
studied the pitcher's past performance. Deep in a count, most of
the best hitters will sit on a fastball, figuring they can always
adjust if they get a slower breaking pitch. Piniella, though,
would study the patterns of pitchers--and, more often, of the
catchers who called the pitches--survey how the defense arrayed
itself and then bet his swing.
Even then, the larger part of his handicapping was a wager on
himself. Piniella is a sturdy 6'2" and played at around 200
pounds, which, for example, was taller yet no less bulky than
Reggie, his slugging teammate. Piniella drives a golf ball almost
300 yards, triangulating doglegs with ease. He did not lack
power, but he averaged about a half-dozen homers a season. That,
too, was a matter of playing the odds.
"See, I didn't have the temperament to be a power hitter,"
Piniella says. "The home run is the most wonderful instant
gratification there is, but swinging away comes with a penalty.
You strike out more. I'd've broken too many helmets and
watercoolers. Sure, I'd've loved to hit home runs, but you've got
to stay within yourself, which is why"--he drags on the cigarette,
allowing himself a small smile--"I played till I was 40 and a
half. Forty and a half."
Still, Piniella swears that he was 35 before he "truly learned to
hit." That was in 1979, when he came back under the tutelage of
Charley Lau, who had been his batting coach in Kansas City. Lau
taught him how to prepare properly to swing, by moving his feet
like a tennis player getting ready to receive serve. At last,
Piniella's mind, emotions and body were in tune. He would repeat
that pattern as a manager. He batted .312 and finished second to
Rod Carew among American League hitters in 1972, before he
learned how to hit. He won a World Series managing Cincinnati in
1990, before he learned how to manage.
Oh, at that time he thought he knew. Anita remembers so well that
after Lou's Reds swept La Russa's Oakland A's, he could not
resist chortling, "See, George, I can manage"--claiming some
vindication from Steinbrenner, who had removed him as skipper
twice, in 1987 and '88, as he played switcheroo with Billy
If Piniella had demonstrated that he could manage a baseball team
to victory, though, he had achieved that despite an inability to
truly manage the manager. The ass was always red. Every game was
a battle more against his temper than against the other nine. In
1991, as skipper of the Reds, he accused umpire Gary Darling of
bias and was not only fined by the National League but also sued
(a first) by the ump. (They would settle out of court.) In 1992,
as reporters looked on in delight, Piniella wrestled on the
clubhouse floor with one of his relief pitchers, Rob Dibble. ("A
black mark on my career," Piniella says.) On another pyrotechnic
occasion, in Cincinnati in '90, Piniella reacted to what he
deemed a bad call by not only dislodging first base and hurling
it but also chasing it, picking it up and chucking it again.
(That's still the lead-off in every Sweet Lou highlight film.)
It is astounding to contemplate how he and Steinbrenner
coexisted--especially because, as we know, Piniella feels no great
compulsion to answer telephone calls. "Insubordination!"
Steinbrenner screamed when he couldn't get through to Piniella to
scream at him late in the '87 season. "He's a liar! He promised
to talk to me." But Piniella's reluctance to answer was
understandable: Steinbrenner would criticize him even when he was
winning. Once, when Piniella had to take the Boss's call, in the
dugout at Anaheim, Steinbrenner, calling cross-country, began the
conversation, without so much as a hello, "Whose side are you
on?" And, says Piniella, "we're ahead 4-2."
One time, Piniella quit. "Nobody resigns on me!" Steinbrenner
bellowed, reserving the divine right to fire. Another time, when
he was about to dismiss Piniella, and Lou showed up with Anita,
Steinbrenner guiltily peeled off three $100 bills and told a
secretary to take Anita shopping. But this too: As Piniella
neared the end of his playing career, he was looking for a
two-year deal. The Yankees were offering one year. When Piniella
confronted Steinbrenner, the Boss began, "I told you, I'm not
going to give you two years." Pause. "I'm giving you three."
As strange as Steinbrenner's relationships with his many managers
have been, the one with Piniella was touched even more by fond
contradiction and mixed emotions. "I don't know if I've had
another player who cared so much," Steinbrenner says. "Such
instinct and desire!" However, after two stints as Yankees
manager, and one each as player, coach, general manager and
broadcaster, Piniella knew he had to move on to a more
emotionally stable venue. He left Steinbrenner in New York to
work for Marge Schott in Cincinnati.
"I always wondered, Why does George hire the same guys over and
over?" Piniella muses. "I think I finally figured it out. Each
new guy who comes in he treats easy for a while--I guess he feels
he has to--before he gets on him. But, you see, if you hire a guy
again, you don't have to break him in with kindness."
The Piniella circus didn't confine itself to sojourns with
Steinbrenner and Schott. Lou is sort of an Everywhereman. He owns
the distinction of having had both Billy Martin and Earl Weaver
as managers, and he played on a team for which Cal Ripken Jr. was
the batboy. And there he was, the rookie star of Ball Four,
recipient of perhaps the best you've-been-traded line in history.
When the expansion Pilots sent him to the expansion Kansas City
Royals--for whom he would become Rookie of the Year at 26, in
1969--Joe Schultz, the Seattle manager, informed him of his
departure thusly: "Lou, you're gonna have to pound Bud somewhere
This too: Once when Piniella was arguing with Yankees general
manager Gabe Paul over salary, they went to a Chinese restaurant
to take a break from negotiating. Piniella opened a fortune
cookie that read, "Be satisfied with what you get." He showed it
to Paul. So they split the difference on the spot, and Piniella
signed the contract. Life, too, can be pretty rudimentary.
Both Lou and Anita are of Spanish descent, with grandparents from
the province of Asturias. The cigar trade brought their families
to Tampa. She was a Garcia, so everybody figured Anita must be
Hispanic, although she never encountered a taco till the
Piniellas were living in that great Latin American citadel,
Kansas City. Lou grew up speaking Castilian Spanish and didn't
learn English till the nuns in kindergarten taught him.
While they shared the same heritage, Anita was at first leery of
Lou, the ballplayer. When she had been Miss Tampa, a suave major
leaguer had courted her till she found out he was married, with
children. But once she gave Piniella a chance, she fell quickly
for the handsome busher, and they were married in six months.
Already, though, he was drifting through the horse latitudes of
the minors. It wasn't easy, especially for a red ass, even more
especially for a charming fellow who'd "always been used to being
successful." He hadn't just been a baseball star; he had gloried
even more in basketball: "I was a 6'2" guard who could shoot."
Pause. "And I shot a lot." Pause. Smile. "I shot a lot." Sweet
Lou Piniella is not altogether unfamiliar with instant
"Athletes are so self-centered," he says. "We're pampered, and we
have tunnel vision. We must be impossible to be married to. In
baseball the mother basically raises the children. But God's been
a big influence in our lives. And Anita and I have been able to
roll with the punches."
Anita agrees. "Lou's less volatile now, more patient," she says.
"And his faith has developed." Before, his fury always stood in
the way. "Lou's temper embarrassed him," she says. "It
embarrassed the children. 'Why does Daddy do that?' He had to
find an opposite way. But perhaps it wasn't all that difficult.
Lou, you know, has always been the first one to cry."
There's no crying in baseball? Piniella cries when he's happy. He
cries when he's sad. Alex Rodriguez leaving him? John McLaren,
one of Piniella's coaches since 1992, remembers last spring,
after Piniella had cut a journeyman outfielder named Brian L.
Hunter. Piniella went to his office and bawled like a baby. "All
the Piniella-isms, throwing the bases, all that crap--the real
thing that stands out about Lou is his compassion," says Lee
Elia, a former manager who has known him for more than 30 years.
"The son of a gun is really sensitive."
"The biggest part of this job isn't on the field," Piniella says.
"It's in the clubhouse. The clubhouse. How to make it fun. How to
make it positive."
So much of baseball is the gruel of the everyday. It's like Edna
St. Vincent Millay's simple summation of our lives: "It's not
true that life is one damn thing after another. It's one damn
thing over and over."
Or, Lou Piniella on the baseball life: "I'll tell you what--it can
truly wear you out."
So now, he naps before some game nights. He cuts down on time
spent brooding at the park before games. He delegates more
authority to his coaches and even has them formally critique his
performance two or three times a season. After a loss, if he
fears he's going to blow a gasket, he seethes alone before he
admits the ladies and gentlemen of the fourth estate. Then,
afterward, he sits with a glass of port--There's no port in
baseball!--and studies the game. He examines the options he had,
not second-guessing ("Lou never second-guesses himself," Anita
says), but trying to better understand in case those choices
present themselves again.
However, if strategy wins games, temperament wins seasons. Pat
Gillick, the Seattle general manager, believes that managing
players has become markedly different in just the last decade.
Piniella agrees. "Society has changed," he says. "Managing is a
He lets the players make their own rules. They decide, for
example, what fines to levy for missing the cutoff man or failing
to run out a pop fly. McLaren advises players to confront
Piniella directly if they have a gripe. "Remember when Earl
Weaver came back?" Piniella asks of his old manager's return to
the Orioles in 1985. "He'd been gone only a few years, but the
game had passed him by. No, not the game; the way players were.
His style had become too intense. A manager has to keep his
intensity about where the team's is. Maybe even a little below
the players' level. Oh sure, you hope to raise it, but you can't
get too much ahead of your team."
Seattle creates a particularly tricky emotional situation for
Piniella, and the players, too, because it is so remote. "We
travel as much by the All-Star break as other teams do all year,"
Buhner says. Piniella has had to learn to baby his roster more.
Now, with the two big guns, Griffey and Rodriguez, gone, he has
had to change the team's style, emphasizing speed, bunting and
stealing. "Lou's a running manager," McLaren says. "The one thing
you know about legs is that they don't go into slumps. He was a
little frustrated with the homer-hitting teams we had because
homers are so streaky." Swinging away comes with a penalty.
Against the Chicago White Sox last year in the American League
Division Series, Piniella ordered a squeeze play that brought in
the winning run from third base in the last game. If Yogi Berra
was the model who taught Piniella not to take himself too
seriously as a manager, then Billy Martin gave him the most
strategic inspiration. "Sometimes Lou's so much like Billy, it's
scary," says Buhner, citing Piniella's ability to anticipate and
It's worth considering, too, that Piniella's decision not to
shoot for the fences as a player may have prepared him to be a
manager. It's often been noted that pitchers rarely make good
managers, but perhaps home run hitters, with their boom-or-bust
mentality, are likewise emotionally unequipped to guide teams
through the twists of a serpentine season. In the history of the
game, Torre, with a relatively modest 252 home runs, is the
slugger who has been most successful as a manager. In life,
Piniella is large; in baseball he is Big Little Man.
Also, in the starkest terms, his sweetness has surpassed his
redness. "My wife has been a big influence on my managing, too,"
Piniella says. "I don't mean like when to take the pitcher out,
but she taught me how to manage myself better. Be spontaneous.
Don't let things fester because, truly, problems are not gonna go
away. And you don't have to act hard-ass. Weakness can be
strength. I don't know if weakness is the right word. Maybe
meekness is better. What I mean is, All you really need is the
presumption of strength. If players know that you truly can get
tough, that's enough. That's enough."
So if the fire is still there, ever smoldering, Piniella has
learned to accept and accommodate. "He was too impetuous when I
first hired him," Steinbrenner says, "but the problem is now he's
just too good. Lou almost took us to the cleaners in the playoffs
Imagine losing three of the best players of a generation--maybe
the game's best pitcher, best outfielder and best infielder. Did
any coach in any sport ever take a hit like that? But it's time
to play ball again, so he's back, blowing smoke. "Sure, it hurts
to lose players like that," Sweet Lou says, "but here's what you
find out: Baseball truly, truly is a team game."
And he is still there with his team in the clubhouse. In the
As a teenager in Tampa, Lou Piniella (above, in 1981) would spend
lunch hours in the spring watching the Cincinnati Reds train at
Al Lopez Field, named after the Tampa-born Hall of Fame catcher
and manager. Forty years later Piniella and Lopez are two of only
10 men in the modern era to have reached 1,500 hits as players
and 1,000 wins as managers.
PLAYING HITS MANAGERIAL VICTORIES
CAREER CAREER (WINNING PCT.)
Al Lopez 1928, 1,547 1951-65, 1,410 (.584)
Jimmy Dykes 1918-39 2,256 1934-46, 1,406 (.477)
Joe Torre 1960-77 2,342 1977-84, 1,381 (.510)
Charlie Grimm 1916, 2,299 1932-38, 1,287 (.547)
Joe Cronin 1926-45 2,285 1933-47 1,236 (.540)
Lou Boudreau 1938-52 1,779 1942-50, 1,162 (.487)
Frankie Frisch 1919-37 2,880 1933-38, 1,138 (.514)
Lou Piniella 1964, 1,705 1986-88,
'68-84 '90-present 1,110 (.521)
Red Schoendienst 1945-63 2,449 1965-76,
'80, '90 1,041 (.522)
Jim Fregosi 1961-78 1,726 1978-81,
'99-2000 1,028 (.484)
fishing, a little golf--really, the less I do, the better."
enjoyed life at large very much.
as a manager. "I like myself better now."
A less secure man might have taken it personally.
difficult. Lou has always been the first to cry."