Safe At Home Why would Lou Piniella leave a winner in Seattle to manage the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, the worst team in baseball? To be with his family

March 03, 2003

Louis Piniella has given up on his namesake, his oldest son, the
baseball man, the big shot, the multimillionaire. Louis, 84,
calls his son's friends instead. ¶ "Hola," he says, shouting, in
Spanish, into the kitchen phone of his tidy West Tampa house.
"This is Piniella." Peen-YAY-ah. "The grapefruits in my yard,
they are so filled with juice, they are falling off the tree. My
son goes to the supermarket for his grapefruits. They are dry
there, expensive. They are terrible. He thinks he knows good
grapefruits. Come by and take my sweet grapefruits." ¶ It's been
this way forever between the two Lous, but now it's more this way
than ever before. After 41 years in professional baseball, the
prodigal son, the firstborn of Louis and Margaret Piniella of West
Cordelia Street, has come home, not just for the off-season but
for the season, too.

Lou Piniella earned World Series rings as a player with the New
York Yankees in 1977 and '78 and as the manager of the Cincinnati
Reds in 1990. He managed the Seattle Mariners in 2001 when they
won an American League--record 116 regular-season games and last
year when they won 93. Things seemed good. Yet he decided to head
home, to become the new skipper of the lowliest team in baseball,
the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. Piniella, who turns 60 in August,
signed a four-year deal worth $13 million. The contract survives
even if the team does not.

He knows that throughout West Tampa and Ybor City and in all the
other Tampa neighborhoods where old people listen to Spanish
stations on AM radio, there's only one real question being asked
about the upcoming baseball season: What will Peen-YAY-ah's boy
do with this lousy club?

Suddenly, with the Buccaneers having won the Super Bowl, Tampa is
a sports town. No, a sports area. There's the old port city of
Tampa, to which generations of Spaniards, the Piniellas among
them, made their way to find work in cigar factories. Fifteen or
so miles from downtown Tampa and across Old Tampa Bay, there's
the Gulf Coast city of St. Petersburg, filled with kindly
pensioners in freshly laundered sneakers and white pants. The
Bucs play in Tampa, just down the road from where the New York
Yankees have their spring training complex, but the Devil Rays
play in St. Petersburg, at Tropicana Field, sealed by a dome and
with a shaggy plastic rug for a playing surface. They play their
spring training games less than a mile away, at Florida Power
Park.

"I wanted to come home, but I didn't come home to retire,"
Piniella says. He's sitting in his shiny Mediterranean house in
Avila, a gated development in North Tampa. The great, black
shaggy mane he had in the last days of disco is now silver and
neat. He has the paunch of a rich man, a man who eats steaks for
lunch. He's cheerful and open--excellent company.

"The Reds had a losing record in '89; I took over in '90, and we
won the World Series," Piniella says. "But here we're going to
need three or four years to turn this thing around." He's smoking
a cigar. There are books on his shelves. His wife of 35 years,
Anita, is making white-bean-and-potato soup in the kitchen. He's
home. "Jon Gruden's success with the Bucs, that raises
expectations. I've got myself a challenge, is what I got. Tony La
Russa, he grew up around the corner from me, but I couldn't see
him making this move. He has a good thing in St. Louis, like I
had a good thing in Seattle. But that's what motivates me: I'm
from here. The people I grew up with are here. My mother, my
father, my brother, a lot of my friends, my childhood friends,
they're all still here. My three kids, three grandchildren. I
didn't come here to lose in front of all these people."

Still, he expects to lose more than he wins, at least in the
first year. After all, the Devil Rays were 55--106 last season.
"If we can win 75 games this year, that's a start," he says. "If
we can play .500 ball next year, that's an important step. Then
you go from there."

Within days after the Devil Rays' season ends on Sept. 28,
Piniella and his wife will take a vacation in Spain, the
ancestral homeland for Anita Garcia Piniella as well. Traveling
in northern Spain in October, before the cold sets in there, is a
trip the Piniellas have wanted to make for years, for decades,
but never could. There was always the hope that Lou would be
working in October. This year, such a hope is beyond imagination
for the Devil Rays.

This season the manager will finally get to use his beach house
on the Gulf, a few miles north of St. Pete Beach, 18 minutes by
car, the way Piniella drives, from Tropicana Field. He has spent
fewer than 100 nights in the house even though he's had it for
more than a decade. But he didn't leave Seattle with a year
remaining on his contract so he could sleep nights in his beach
house. He left the Mariners because it was time to come home. The
events--important and minor, merry and sad--in the lives of the
people closest to him were unfolding while Piniella was in a
rented house 3,000 miles and three time zones away. He was
missing too much.

First, his father-in-law, Frank Garcia--the owner of Gulf Tile
Distributors, a prominent Tampa business that employs Piniella's
oldest child, 33-year-old Lou Jr.--was stricken with Lou Gehrig's
disease. For the first months of the 2001 season Anita stayed in
Tampa, watching as her indomitable father was robbed cruelly of
his body. Though her husband made it home once, he was often
unreachable. Frank Garcia died at 77 on June 3, 2001. Lou came
home for the funeral.

Then last year, during spring training, Piniella's father
developed pneumonia. It turned life-threatening. Piniella
received a call from his mother. "Come home," she said, and
Piniella was on the next flight from Phoenix to Tampa, preparing
himself for the final goodbye. But his father, crusty and
stubborn, fought through the illness.

The missed birthdays, the missed graduations--all baseball
lifers, Piniella included, learn to live with them. But last
season Piniella felt a deeper loneliness. He found himself rising
in the middle of some Seattle nights, looking at family pictures,
laughing sometimes, crying others. His youngest son, Derek, a
two-time letterman as a defensive end for Virginia Tech, had
transferred to Florida, where he was in his final semester.
Piniella's daughter, Kristi, had separated from her husband and
moved into her parents' home in Avila with her daughter, Kassidy.
Anita stayed in Tampa for the season to be with her daughter and
granddaughter. Piniella came to a realization: He was too far
from home.

In September, Piniella went to his Mariners bosses and told them
he would not be able to return in 2003 for the final year of his
three-year contract. He was prepared to sit out the season, if
need be. Then several managing jobs opened up, including the one
in Tampa Bay. The Mariners allowed Piniella to negotiate with the
inept Devil Rays--while rejecting his request to talk to the New
York Mets, a playoff-caliber club--but demanded compensation,
which they received in the form of outfielder Randy Winn, Tampa
Bay's best player, after Piniella and the Devil Rays came to
terms. As part of the deal Seattle sent infield prospect Antonio
Perez to Tampa Bay.

This off-season Piniella made midday drives in his big black
Mercedes all over his hometown, some days going to business
luncheons to build support for his new team; some days picking up
Cuban sandwiches at a shop where he bought sodas as a boy; some
days lunching at Malio's Steakhouse, owned by an old friend; many
days dropping in on his parents on West Cordelia Street, at the
house where he lived from the sixth grade until the day he signed
his first pro contract, in 1962, after a year at the University
of Tampa.

One day shortly before spring training began, Piniella and a
childhood friend, Mondy Flores, met up at Malio's for lunch. The
restaurant is a Tampa hangout for businessmen and local pols and
other notable figures. Piniella is treated like a king there. On
this particular day the booth one down from Piniella's is
reserved for George Steinbrenner. He lives in Tampa, and he's a
regular at Malio's.

When the Boss comes in, he and Piniella hug. Steinbrenner has a
soft spot for the Piniellas, husband and wife. In all his years
of owning the Yankees, only once has the wife of a ballplayer
thanked him for a contract, and that was Anita Piniella, for her
husband's final deal as a player in 1982. Piniella retired in
'84, and Steinbrenner hired him to manage the Yankees in '86. No
bus trips in the bush leagues for Sweet Lou. Steinbrenner gave
Piniella his start, and it was in the big leagues. But Piniella
is unlikely to return to New York and finish in Yankees
pinstripes. "I'm pretty sure that when I'm done here," he says
out of Steinbrenner's earshot, "I'll be done with baseball."

After lunch Piniella and Flores go for a drive. They pass Legends
Field, where the Yankees play each March. They pass their old
school, Jesuit High. They speak of big leaguers who grew up in
Tampa: La Russa, Dwight Gooden, Al Lopez and Piniella's cousin
Dave Magadan. They drive by a neighborhood park where Piniella's
father pitched in an amateur league 65 years ago and where
Piniella played outfield 45 years ago. "Remember when you caught
that fly ball with that sandwich in your glove?" Flores says,
looking through a chain-link fence at a dirt field.

"And the lettuce went flying?" says Piniella.

They drive past a dozen large brick buildings where cigars were
once made, an industry that died with Castro's rise and the U.S.
ban on Cuban tobacco. They stop in front of Piniella's first
home, on St. Conrad Street in West Tampa, a street that in
Piniella's boyhood, the sweet Tampa of the '50s, was filled with
kids playing games. The old Piniella house, a typical Florida
bungalow, is now sagging and abandoned.

"Remember how big it was?" Piniella says to Flores. The driveway
is covered by weeds.

"Everything was then," says Flores.

Before long Piniella is cruising down Dale Mabry Highway, the
eastern border of West Tampa, driving past a giant billboard
featuring an image of himself, bigger than life, his nose two
feet long at least, wearing a Tampa Bay baseball cap, trying to
sell tickets for the home team with the line it's a whole new
ballgame.

The new manager drives right by without looking up. He didn't
come home to see himself. He came home to see everyone else.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BILL FRAKES KID STUFF Piniella's new job keeps him close to Anita and grandchildren (from left) Sophia, 3; Anica, 18 months; and Kassidy, 6. COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BILL FRAKES COLOR PHOTO: CHUCK SOLOMON EYE FOR SUCCESS For now Piniella's goals are modest: 75 wins this season and a .500 record next year. FOUR COLOR PHOTOS: CHUCK SOLOMON

THE FUTURE IS NOW
Last year the Devil Rays were the youngest team in baseball and
lost 106 games. This year they're even greener. Good luck, Lou

After unloading four of their most experienced pitchers (Wilson
Alvarez, Ryan Rupe, Tanyon Sturtze and Paul Wilson) and their
best position player (centerfielder Randy Winn) in the
off-season, the Devil Rays will turn over Tropicana Field to a
Brat Pack's worth of young talent, another greening for what was
the majors' youngest team in 2002. With 73 players in camp, the
door is open for anybody, no matter how little seasoning, to
claim a roster spot.

Two choice prospects can't yet contribute. Injuries limited
outfielder Josh Hamilton, the top pick in the '99 draft, to 83
minor league games in the last two years, and last July he
underwent arthroscopic surgeries on his left elbow and left
shoulder; he'll likely spend most of this season in the minors.
Shortstop B.J. Upton, the second pick in last year's draft,
signed late last season and will open in low-A ball. Here's a
scout's look at four other young Rays whose help Piniella will
need this year.

DEWON BRAZELTON, RHP, 22

2002 STATS (WITH DOUBLE A ORLANDO): 26 STARTS, 5--9, 3.33 ERA,
146 INNINGS PITCHED, 109 STRIKEOUTS, 67 WALKS

"Long arm, a power arm. Throws what looks like a splitter, but
it's not--it's a real hard circle-change with good life on it,
good tumble. He's got velocity and another breaking pitch that
he's developing. He may benefit from at least beginning the
season in Triple A, but these guys are in a bind."

JOE KENNEDY, LHP, 23

2002 STATS (WITH TAMPA BAY): 30 STARTS, 8--11, 4.53 ERA, 19621/43
INNINGS PITCHED, 109 STRIKEOUTS, 55 WALKS

"He's certainly no ace, but for Tampa Bay he has to be. He
commands the strike zone well. He doesn't have an outstanding
pitch--you can't say he throws 95 or has a dominant curve--but
he's a package guy, can locate well in the strike zone, uses both
sides of the plate."

ROCCO BALDELLI, CF, 21

2002 STATS (WITH CLASS A BAKERSFIELD, DOUBLE A ORLANDO AND TRIPLE
A DURHAM): 117 GAMES, .331, 19 HOME RUNS, 71 RBIS, 26 STOLEN
BASES

"I don't want to say he has a chance to become a superstar yet,
but all the qualities and skills are there. His athleticism is
Number 1. He'll go after pitches early in the count, and that's
good, because he can hit them out of the park."

CARL CRAWFORD, LF, 21

2002 STATS (WITH TAMPA BAY): 63 GAMES, .259, TWO HOME RUNS, 30
RBIS, NINE STOLEN BASES

"He can run and run like hell. He'll bunt for base hits, just a
time or two to let the corner infielders know he can and move
them in a step or two. I don't see a 30-homer guy, but he's got
enough power to keep them happy in the leadoff spot. He has good
discipline at the plate."

"That's what motivates me: I'M FROM HERE. I didn't come here to
lose in front of all these people."

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)