The Topps Company produced 11 different cards of Lou Piniella as a Yankee, ranging from a capless 1974 traded card to his final 1984 card, but the one shown here is my favorite. Part of the wondrous 1980 set, the card shows Piniella near the completion of one of his typically sweet swings. Looking at the position of his bat, it appears that Piniella has just used his patented opposite field swing to drop a line drive (or a bloop) into right field. Action cards are always the most desirable to have, but especially when they give you a snapshot of a player doing something for which he is best known. And I’ll always remember Piniella best for that flat, line-drive swing that often seemed pointed directly toward right field.
I feel a little bit sad now that Piniella has retired from the game, a game that he has served for 50 years, in a decision that was expedited last month. We had all expected that “Sweet Lou” would finish out the season with the Cubs before stepping aside, but his elderly mother’s illness mandated that he retire immediately. Family comes first, a decision made easier when the Cubs are hopelessly lost in the National League Central. It’s not as if Piniella was abandoning a team in the midst of a pennant race; if anything, he may have given the franchise a lift by allowing the Cubs to evaluate their interim manager, the unusually pronounced Mike Quade, as a potential fulltime replacement for 2011.
In some ways, Piniella was one of the last of a breed: the colorful and fiery manager. He spoke bluntly with the press–often too bluntly–and argued fervently with umpires–sometimes too much so. But with those qualities, he brought some old-fashioned personality to the table, a mix of John McGraw and Billy Martin, with a little Fred Hutchinson tossed in for good measure. (Hutchinson was simultaneously loved and feared by his players. After giving up a game-ending home run, one of Hutchinson’s pitchers refused to walk back to the dugout to face his manager. He instead walked toward the center field exit.) So many of today’s new managers are cut out of the same mold; they engage in politically correct managerspeak, afraid to ever criticize their players for poor play, and they stand motionless, even emotionless, in the dugout, while passively observing the game in front of them. I have trouble telling many of the new breed managers apart from one another: Manny Acta, Bob Geren, Ken Macha, Brad Mills. I know that they’re all intelligent baseball men, but they’re also so bland, so indistinct, so seemingly interchangeable.
I guess maybe they have to be that way, especially if they don’t have strong major league playing resumes to fall back on, like Piniella. Managers have never had it more difficult than they have it today. The salaries of the players dwarf their pay so many times over that they have been rendered virtually powerless. They can’t publicly scold their players, whose egos simply will not permit it. And they’re afraid to say anything minutely controversial in their interviews with the press, out of the fear that their words could be misconstrued or twisted into the latest installment of a never-ending soap opera.
Piniella was different; he just didn’t care about repercussions. As a longtime player, he had a body of work to fall back on, 18 seasons as a big league outfielder, in case his players sassed him. Unlike previous targets like John Boles and Fredi Gonzalez, he had played the game at the highest level, with a couple of world championship rings as proof. Piniella didn’t worry about becoming embroiled in controversies; if anything, he seemed to embrace the excitement brought about by the conflict.
Now sometimes Piniella went too far. He picked fights with reporters when they posed legitimate questions. He kicked dirt on umpires, something that no arbiter, no matter how incompetent, should have to endure. He could come across as a spoiled, petulant child, like he did two years ago when he carried on about the “suffering” the Cubs had to endure having to play in the Hall of Fame Game in mid-June while in the midst of a pennant race. So yes, Piniella could take his act of fire and brimstone too far, sometimes making himself smaller in the process.
Yet, on the whole, Lou Piniella as a manager was good for baseball. He taught hitters like few others I’ve ever seen, with his prized students including Don Mattingly and Edgar Martinez. Though he often lacked patience with his pitchers, he motivated most of his players, through his energy and his constant call for professionalism. He won a ton of games along the way, culminating in an unlikely world championship for the 1990 Reds. He had a degree of success everywhere, with the one exception being Tampa Bay, where only Joe Maddon has found the way. And let’s not forget that he brought some much-desired verve and allure to the dugout, where the manager is still the boss, even if some want the players to be.
Good-bye, Lou. Enjoy that retirement. But don’t lose that personality.
Bruce Markusen writes “Cooperstown Confidential” for The Hardball Times.