Wednesday, August 28, 2013
Top 10 Lou Piniella Moments: A 70th Birthday Appreciation
I'm pretty sure this picture was taken a few weeks ago, on Old-Timers' Day -- and I'm also sure that it's Derek Jeter with him in the picture.
Lou was American League Rookie of the Year with the 1969 Kansas City Royals – after being dumped by the expansion Seattle Pilots, as documented in Jim Bouton’s book Ball Four. Mistakes like that are what led the Pilots to have to be bailed out of bankruptcy, and moved to become the Milwaukee Brewers after just one season.
On December 7, 1973, the 40th Anniversary of which is coming up, the Royals traded Lou to the Yankees for Lyndall "Lindy" McDaniel. This was a rarity in baseball: A great trade for both teams. With Sparky Lyle now the main man out of the Yankee bullpen, McDaniel, then approaching his 38th birthday, had become surplus to requirements in Pinstripedom. In Kansas City, he only pitched 2 more seasons, but he mentored their young pitchers, including Dennis Leonard, Paul Splittorff, Doug Bird and Steve Mingori. Without that tutelage, the Royals never would have made the postseason 6 times in 10 years between 1976 and 1985.
As for Lou: When he reported to spring training at Fort Lauderdale, Florida in March 1974, he was met by team owner George Steinbrenner. George didn't have a crewcut himself, but he hated long hair. And Lou had long hair. George told him to get a haircut.
Lou was no dummy: He told George that many great figures in history had long hair, including Jesus. George said, “Come with me.” They walked over to the hotel pool, and George pointed: “Walk across that pool. If you can, you can keep your long hair.”
Lou got a haircut. Well, he may have cited the central figure in the Bible (other than God Himself), but he didn't lose his strength like Samson. For the next 11 seasons, Lou batted .295 as a Yankee -- .291 overall for his career. He peaked at .330 in 1977. He was never a big home run hitter, but 7 times he had at least 68 RBIs in a season.
He always seemed to step up his game late in the season, terrorizing the Boston Red Sox (especially in the comeback year of 1978), the Royals (batting .305 in 5 ALCS) and the Los Angeles Dodgers (batting .319 in 4 World Series). In his 10 full seasons, the Yankees reached the postseason 5 times and nearly did so 2 others; without him, they didn’t make it between 1964 and 1995.
He is now best known as a manager. Although he couldn’t get the Yankees into the postseason despite close calls in 1986, ’87 and ’88, he managed the Cincinnati Reds to the 1990 World Championship, the Seattle Mariners to their first 4 postseason appearances (1995, ’97, 2000 & ’01), and is the only living human to lead the Chicago Cubs to back-to-back postseasons (2007-08 – exactly 100 years after the only other Cub manager to do it, Frank Chance).
He now does analysis for Yankee games on the YES Network. And, since he is no longer working for another team, and is thus available to do so, he can return for Old-Timers' Day.
Top 10 Lou Piniella Moments
These are in chronological order.
1. Sometime in March 1974, Fort Lauderdale. The aforementioned haircut incident.
2. May 20, 1976, Yankee Stadium, New York. Bottom of the 6th. Lou comes around to score, but Red Sox catcher Carlton Fisk gets the ball. Sweet Lou barrels into Pudge, but it's no use, he's out. Fisk shoves Piniella, and a brawl results, one that is sometimes credited with restarting the old rivalry.
This one was even nastier than the Yanks-Sox brawls of '67 at The Stadium and '73 at Fenway. The combatants are separated, but Sox reliever Bill Lee -- who may have hated the Yankees more than any Red Sock ever, at least until the Roid Sox of 2003-present -- starts yelling at Yank 3rd baseman Graig Nettles, claiming that Nettles had hurt his shoulder. Spewing obscenities like a typical drunken lout Sox fan, "the Spaceman" calls Nettles out. Lee was a pretty good pitcher up until this point, but this may have been the effect of drugs on his brain. (Lee has frequently expressed his liking of marijuana.) If you call Graig Nettles out, he's going to clobber you. He did. Yes, it was a sucker punch, but then, Lee was a sucker.
The Sox won the game, 8-2, but lost the fight, only split that 4-game series, and were well back of the Yankees, who went on to win the Pennant. The fight may not have sparked the Yankees to win the game, but it did galvanize them for the rest of the year.
3. October 15, 1977, Dodger Stadium, Los Angeles. Game 4 of the World Series. Lou robs Dodger 3rd baseman Ron Cey of a 4th inning home run with a leaping catch at the left field fence. The Yankees were only up 3-2 at the time, and a homer would have tied the game. Yankees win, 4-2.
4. September 7-10, 1978, Fenway Park, Boston. Did I mention that Lou stepped up his game against the Sox? During the "Boston Massacre" series, he went 10-for-17, including 2 walks, 2 doubles, a triple and a homer. This included a misplayed popup that allowed 2 runs, after the Sox walked Nettles intentionally to get to Lou -- big mistake, even if only based on what Lou had already done against them.
Of the 42 runs the Yankees scored in that series, Lou scored 8 himself and drove in 5 of them (1, on a homer, accounting for 1 of each).
5. October 2, 1978, Fenway Park. Lou makes 2 key plays in the AL East Playoff, a.k.a. the Bucky Dent Game, the game I like to call the Boston Tie Party.
In the bottom of the 6th, with the Sox up 2-0 and men on 1st & 2nd, the dangerous Fred Lynn hit a ball toward the right-field corner. (By this point, Lou was usually playing right, with Roy White and Gary Thomasson platooning in left and Reggie Jackson DH'ing.) But Lou knew of Lynn's tendency to pull the ball, and was shifted well over, and was able to get what could well have been a double that made it 4-0 Sox -- possibly cinching the game for them. Instead, it remained 2-0.
In the very next inning, Dent hit that home run. Lou -- moved up to 3rd in the order from his usual 5th, due to an injury to regular 2nd-place hitter Willie Randolph, and Thurman Munson moved up from 3rd to 2nd -- ironically flied to right to end the inning.
But in the bottom of the 9th, with 1 out, the Sox had Rick Burleson on 1st base. Goose Gossage, in relief of Ron Guidry -- God only knows how many relievers Joe Torre or Joe Girardi would have burned to get from his ace to Mariano Rivera -- faced Jerry Remy. Remy hit a sharp liner to right, and, as Yankee broadcaster Bill White said on WPIX-Channel 11, "Pinella... can't see the ball!"
What happened was that it was getting late in the day, and it was already autumn, and the sun was getting low in the sky, obscuring his vision. Had this game been played in Fenway Park in its current configuration, this wouldn't have been a problem: The sun would have been blocked by all the luxury boxes added behind home plate and the added seating along the baselines. But back then, as Yogi Berra used to say of left field at the pre-renovation original Yankee Stadium, "It gets late early out there."
Lou had to think of something, and fast. He did: He stuck out his arms, like a hockey goaltender with his gloves, hoping that, maybe, just maybe, the ball would hit some part of his body. It worked: The ball took one bounce in front of him, and moved to his left, just in time for him to see it. He moved a little to his left, snared the ball, and threw it back to the infield. Since Burleson didn't know if Lou was going to catch the ball, he had to hold up between 1st & 2nd.
Jim Rice then hit the ball to Lou, who caught it for the 2nd out, and instead of scoring like he should have, Burleson could only go to 3rd. The Goose then popped the great Carl Yastrzemski up for the final out.
6. October 6, 1978, Yankee Stadium. Game 3 of the American League Championship Series. Lou singles home a run to give the Yankees a 3-2 lead. Then he advances to 3rd on an error. Nettles comes up next, and flies to left. Clint Hurdle -- later to manage the Colorado Rockies to the 2007 National League Pennant, and now managing the Pittsburgh Pirates -- throws home to stop Lou from scoring on the sacrifice fly. He's out by a mile.
Lou begs to differ. He puts on an argument, jumping up and down, pounding the dirt, and then just sits there for a minute, swearing away. In his 1979 book about the Yankees, This Date In New York Yankees History, Nathan Salant called it "his Wild Man of Borneo act." Sparky Lyle would later say such explosions of Lou's personality were known as "The Eruptions of Mount Lou."
The Yankees won the game anyway, 6-5, thanks to Thurman's 8th-inning blast into Monument Park, despite 3 homers from Royals star George Brett. George Brett, I still hate that guy.
7. October 14, 1978, Yankee Stadium. Again, in Game 4 of a World Series, Lou bedevils the Dodgers, only this time, he only starts the insanity, and isn't even really involved much. In the bottom of the 6th inning, with the Dodgers up 3-0, the Yanks make it 3-1 on a Reggie single. Lou is up, with Reggie on 1st and Thurman on 2nd. He hits a line drive toward Dodger shortstop Bill Russell, and it's so sharp and quick that the umpires don't have time to invoke the infield fly rule. Now, if Russell had caught it, everything would have been normal: Thurman would have gotten back to 2nd, and Reggie back to 1st, no big deal.
Russell tries to catch it, and drops it. He picks it up, runs over to 2nd, and thus eliminates Reggie on a force play for the 2nd out. Thurman goes to 3rd. Russell throws to 1st, to eliminate Lou... except Reggie either can't quite figure out what was going on (which is what you believe if you're a Yankee Fan), or stood there on purpose and interfered with the throw (which is what you believe if you're a Yankee Hater). The ball hits Reggie on the leg -- the play is known as the Sacrifice Thigh -- and ricochets into right field. Lou gets to 1st safely, and Thurman sees what's happened and rounds 3rd and scores. Dodgers 3, Yankees 2.
Dodger manager Tommy Lasorda goes ballistic. He remembers that he's miked up for the official World Series highlight film, and somehow manages to watch his famously naughty mouth, but he vociferously argued with 1st base umpire Frank Pulli -- who, despite being a National League umpire, made the play stand, and ruled that Reggie did not intentionally interfere.
Dodger fans and other Yankee Haters can complain all they want, but the fact remains that the Dodgers were still ahead in the game, 3-2 -- and were also still ahead, 2 games to 1. They only needed 10 more outs to go up 3-1. But in the bottom of the 8th, Thurman doubled home Paul Blair to tie the game.
In the 10th, Lou struck again, and this time he was a bit more than an observer, stroking an opposite-field hit that brought Roy White around to score the winning run. Yankees 4, Dodgers 3. The Yanks won Games 5 and 6 and took the Series.
8. October 20, 1990, Oakland Coliseum. The Reds beat the Oakland Athletics, 2-1, and complete a 4-game sweep of the World Series. This in a Series that many observers predicted would go the other way, the A's sweeping the Reds.
Lou had assumed the Reds' pilot job a year earlier, after Pete Rose, who'd gotten them to 4 straight 2nd-place finishes in the NL West (no Central Division or Wild Card in those days), was banned from the sport for betting on games. Showing a lot more class as a manager than he did as a player, Lou refused to wear his usual Number 14, because it had been Pete's number, so he reversed the digits to 41. He was a superb influence on such young talents as Barry Larkin, Chris Sabo, and a man Yankee Fans would see plenty more of, whose own playing style (despite being lefthanded) so resembled Lou's: Paul O'Neill.
9. October 21, 2001, Yankee Stadium. In spite of the achievement of the Mariners' 1995 season, which saved Major League Baseball in the Pacific Northwest -- had they not beaten the Yankees in that series, local voters might have voted down a bond issue that got Safeco Field built, and today the Mariners would almost certainly, ironically, be in Lou's home area, Tampa Bay -- I choose to mention the M's 2001 season. They won 116 games, breaking the AL record set by the 1998 Yankees and tying the major league record set by the 1906 Cubs.
But the Yankees took a 3-games-to-1 lead in the ALCS when Alfonso Soriano hit a walkoff home run. After the game, reporters asked Lou if the M's glorious season was going down the drain. He was having none of it: He very boldly said, "Lemme tell you something: We're going back home for Game 6." Translation: The Mariners were going to win Game 5 and push the series to a Game 6, the M's were going to win Game 6, and then they were going to win Game 7 and win the Pennant that seemed a sure thing all season long.
You know Gordon Lightfoot's song about a great 1975 seafaring tragedy, "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald"? "The Gales of November"? Well, the Yankees have the Ghosts of October. And Lou should have known better, because he is one of those ghosts. The Yankees pounded the M's the next night, 12-3, as fans chanted "O-ver-RA-ted!" and "One-sixteen!" and, as a nod to "rookie" star Ichiro Suzuki, "SAY-o-NA-ra!" (They now feel a little differently about Ichiro.)
Yeah, Lou looked like a fool that night. But he redeemed himself:
10. September 28, 2007, Great American Ballpark, Cincinnati. I suppose it was fitting that this achievement came in Cincy, where he had managed the local team's only Pennant since 1976. The Cubs beat the Reds, 6-0, on a shutout by Carlos Zambrano. (Yes, he was a great pitcher for a little while.) This clinched the NL Central Division title.
To paraphrase Tony Kornheiser of The Washington Post, "He took the Cubs to the Playoffs! Nobody takes the Cubs to the Playoffs!" And then, the next year, he did it again. Again, through the Division title, not the Wild Card. True, he went 0-6 in Playoff games as Cub manager, but then, the Cubs have only won 9 postseason games in the last 68 years, and only 18 in the last 105 years. On the other hand, they've reached the postseason 7 times in 68 years (as many as the Chicago White Sox have in that time), and Lou's gotten them there in 2 of them.
Lou Piniella was a very good player. Does he deserve to be elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame as a manager?
There are 19 men who have been elected to the Hall of Fame mainly on the basis of their managing. First of all, let's remove from the list Rube Foster, who managed only in the Negro Leagues; and Ned Hanlon and Frank Selee, who managed before 1900, when there were a lot of rule differences.
That leaves the following 16 men, in (roughly) chronological order: John McGraw, Connie Mack, Wilbert Robinson, Miller Huggins, Bucky Harris, Bill McKechnie, Joe McCarthy, Casey Stengel, Leo Durocher, Al Lopez, Walter Alston, Dick Williams, Earl Weaver, Sparky Anderson, Whitey Herzog and Tommy Lasorda. (Herzog and Lasorda are the only ones still alive as of this writing.) Joe Torre, Bobby Cox and Tony La Russa, all of them also still living, will almost certainly be elected as managers, but are not yet eligible. Nor have Jim Leyland, Dusty Baker, Bruce Bochy, Davey Johnson and Mike Scioscia, all still active and with a chance.
Lou won 1,835 games as a manager. For the moment, this is 14th all-time, behind Mack, McGraw, La Russa, Cox, Torre, Anderson, Harris, McCarthy, Alston, Durocher, Stengel, Gene Mauch (who is not in the Hall) and McKechnie. But it's ahead of Lasorda, Williams, Weaver, Huggins, Robinson, Hanlon, Herzog, and, for the moment, all active managers. (Leyland is closing fast, though, and if he returns next season, he will almost certainly surpass it.)
Lou's winning percentage is just .517: 1,835 games won, 1,713 games lost. But Harris has a losing record lifetime (.493). So does Mack (.486). Robinson is just 1 game over .500 (1,399-1,398). Even Casey, for all those years he managed lousy teams with the Boston Braves, the Brooklyn Dodgers and the Mets, is only at .508. Williams isn't all that far ahead of Lou, either, at .520. Leyland, still active, has, as of this writing, a career winning percentage of .506. So Lou is comparable to them on that score.
Lou has won only 1 Pennant as a manager, but then, he has reached the postseason 7 times. That's as many as Alston and Anderson (though Alston had 1 more if you count the 1962 NL Playoff his Dodgers lost to San Francisco), more than Huggins (6), Herzog (6), Lasorda (6 -- 7 if you count the 1980 NL West Playoff he lost to Houston), Williams (5), Weaver (5), McKechnie (4), Harris (3), Durocher (3), Robinson (2) and Lopez (2).
True, he had more rounds of Playoffs than any of those. But compare him to the others in the 3-division-and-wild-card era: While Leyland's Tigers will probably make this year's Playoffs, for the moment, he has exactly as many postseason trips as Lou, 7. Even with last year's Washington Nationals winning the NL East, Johnson has 6. So does Scioscia. So does Bochy. So does Baker, although his Reds have a good shot of giving him a 7th. You gotta figure Lou was at least as good a manager as Johnson and Scioscia, and better than Baker.
And Lou took 3 different teams to the postseason. Of the managers previously mentioned, how many have done that, even in the multi-division era? Williams did it with Boston, Oakland and San Diego; La Russa with the White Sox, Oakland and St. Louis; Leyland with Pittsburgh, Miami and Detroit. Johnson has done it with 4: The Mets, Baltimore, Cincinnati and now Washington.
Lou managed contending teams in the era of the 4-man pitching rotation, and in the era of the 5-man pitching rotation. He managed contending teams that featured guys who played in the 1960s, and contendings teams that featured guys who will still be playing in the 2020s, maybe even in the 2030s. He managed teams that had players from all over the world. And, despite all his tantrums as a player and a manager, he never did anything that got him a multi-game suspension. Nor has he ever disgraced himself off the field. People as different in disposition as Don Mattingly and Paul O'Neill have played for him and swear by him -- and, except for guys like Bill Lee and maybe Tommy Lasorda, hardly anybody swears at him. Even the umpires he argued with respect him.
I think Lou Piniella does belong in the Baseball Hall of Fame as a manager. Happy Birthday, Sweet Lou. May there be many more.