Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Cub Fans Bid Lou Adieu

LOU PINIELLA BASEBALL CARD, 1970
     It was an aging and weary Lou Piniella who retired Sunday after nearly four years as manager of the Cubs. Piniella's experience with the Cubs was bittersweet, which is more than many of his forerunners (whose experiences were only bitter) can say.
     On the plus side, Piniella became the first skipper to lead the Cubs to back-to-back postseason appearances (in 2007 and 2008) since the immortal Frank Chance did so in 1906, 1907, and 1908. And he tried, at least, to establish a general atmosphere of accountability that was often lacking for the "lovable losers" of seasons past.
     Alas, like his immediate predecessor Dusty Baker, whose tenure also began with a bang, Piniella's stay with the Cubs ended with a whimper. Or maybe it was a yawn, given the almost incredibly dismal performance of this year's club. Piniella was clearly sorry to be taking off his uniform for the last time, but he must also have been relieved to be escaping what had become an awful mess.

     Forty-one years ago, it was a different story. Then Piniella was coming, not going. After getting one at-bat for Baltimore in 1965 and five for Cleveland in 1968, Piniella found himself in 1969 with the Seattle Pilots, a first-year expansion club that soon flew to Milwaukee and became the Brewers. This period of Piniella's career is colorfully recalled in Jim Bouton's famous book Ball Four.
     Bouton's first interaction with Piniella took place when he phoned the latter to enlist him in a player strike that was being planned. "I reached Lou in Florida," Bouton wrote, "and he said that his impulse was to report, that he was scared it would count against him if he didn't, that he was just a rookie looking to make the big leagues and didn't want anybody to get angry at him. But also that he'd thought it over carefully and thought he should support the other players and the strike. So he was not reporting.
     "That impressed the hell out of me. 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 [to spring training]."
     The work stoppage was soon averted, and the players duly reported to spring training. There, Piniella was not called "Sweet Lou," as he was in later years. He was "Red-Ass Lou," as fired up as they come. Pilots manager Joe Schultz took an instant and intense dislike to him. "[Piniella] says he knows they don't want him," Bouton wrote, "and that he's going to quit baseball rather than go back to Triple-A."
     Piniella was indeed sent to the minor-league camp, but he didn't quit. Just days after being farmed out, he was traded to the Kansas City Royals, the American League's other first-year expansion club, where he not only earned a starting job but won the Rookie of the Year award to boot. He played five seasons for the Royals and 11 more for the Yankees before embarking on a 23-year managerial career.
     Piniella won two World Series as a player and another as a manager. He spent four decades doing something he was deeply passionate about, making a very comfortable living in the process. He will most likely be elected to the Hall of Fame some day. It is certainly true of Piniella, as is said of so many baseball lifers, that he loved and respected the game. But what set Piniella apart from many of the others was that he so obviously enjoyed it as well.

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