‘Sweet Lou’ tried charm and temper; nothing worked on hapless Cubs

By Jim Litke, AP
Monday, August 23, 2010

Piniella: Good day to remember … and forget

Lou Piniella is one of those guys you hate to see go. Sadder still is the way he went out.

An ailing mother back home in Tampa tugged at his heartstrings, changing the date of his previously announced retirement from the end of the season to Sunday. But that was only one reason Piniella looked so worn out.

Last week a local TV station ran footage from the day he arrived in Chicago four years ago, then cut to a shot of Piniella in the dugout that day. It was like one of those before-and-after comparisons we see every time a president leaves office — paler, grayer, with more furrows in the forehead and bags under the eyes — and Piniella had served the equivalent of only one term. But the Cubs have that effect on a lot of people.

“It’s a good day to remember,” he said after they got clobbered 16-5 by the Atlanta Braves, continuing their NL Central nosedive, “and also it’s a good day to forget.”

It wasn’t the losing that got to Piniella in the end, so much as the how. Don’t forget — he was 316-293 during his stay in Chicago, including consecutive division titles in 2007-08, and he came over soon after a stint managing in Tampa Bay, when the Rays were still a running joke.

But he was touted as the last piece of the Cubs’ puzzle, an old hand used to winning with enough vinegar left to nudge a veteran squad across a line the franchise hadn’t crossed in almost a century. He tried being mellow and wound up almost coming to blows with a few of those vets. He tried exploding, but the only guy Piniella seemed capable of rousing was himself.

One of the last things he said before leaving Wrigley Field for good made clear how much Piniella felt he was leaving a job unfinished.

“I cried a little bit after the game. You get emotional. I’m sorry, I’m not trying to be,” he said.

Piniella was struggling to hold back tears, and soon enough he lost that fight, too.

“This will be the last time I put on my uniform,” he said.

If so, there’s already enough material from the four teams Piniella played for and the five he managed for more than one highlight reel. Most people could assemble a Top 10 of his equipment-busting, base-throwing, umpire-baiting tantrums from memory. Those who saw him play could make up another using only clutch hits from his postseason performances with the Yankees.

But while those reels reflect how motivated and competitive Piniella was as both player and manager, what rarely came through was how much joy he squeezed out of just hanging around the game.

Piniella could seem mad, but was more often funny, maybe because he had few regrets. At the end of a 23-year managerial career, he could say he had wrung every ounce of success from his modest gifts. The late George Steinbrenner loved Piniella’s fire and his clutch-hitting, but it was probably a self-deprecating humor that kept him employed in New York for so long — as coach, field manager, general manager, field manager (again) special adviser and broadcaster — after his playing days were done.

On the eve of his 1990 World Series win in Cincinnati, reporters were poking through Piniella’s background looking for a different angle.

“Is it true you spoke Spanish growing up?” one asked.

“Until I was 6 years old,” Piniella replied. “The nuns in elementary school taught me to speak English.”

Hoping to shift the conversation to Piniella’s deft handling of perpetually grumpy Reds owner Marge Schott, another cut in, “Is that where you learned the word ‘yardstick,’ like the one you get your knuckles rapped with?”

“That,” Piniella answered without missing a beat, “is where I first learned the word ’second-guess.’”

Over the past four years, neither the charm nor the temper made a big enough dent in the culture of a franchise whose unofficial motto is “Wait ’til next year!” Piniella was exasperated, then outraged and dispirited by turns. By the time this season headed inexorably for the tank, he was mostly mailing it in, increasingly burdened by the feeling that he was no longer in the one place he could still make a difference — back home.

“I’ve enjoyed it here,” Piniella said. “In four wonderful years I’ve made a lot of friends and had some success here, this year has been a little bit of a struggle. But, look. Family is important, it comes first.”

What he said a few moments later, though, was less convincing.

“It’s a tough job. But, look. I mean. They’re going to win here.”

Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org

will not be displayed