BrooklynFans Of Books: Lou On George, Billy, And A Life In Baseball

LOU: Fifty Years of Kicking Dirt, Playing Hard, and Winning Big in the Sweet Spot of Baseball

By Lou Piniella, With Bill Madden

Harper Collins

Lou Piniella’s career is defined by the indispensable role he played in the Yankees championship teams in 1977 and 1978, but that is just part of a historic baseball life that lasted almost 50 years.

Piniella was an accomplished manager, with his greatest achievement coming in 1990, when he led the Cincinnati Reds to an unexpected championship. He then went to the Seattle Mariners, where he had a great run as their manager. He led the Mariners to their first-ever playoff series win in the 1995 Division Series over the Yankees and to the most wins in a regular season in 2001. He then managed the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, where he could not get the expansion franchise going, and the Chicago Cubs, where he won a couple of division titles.

This book is a must for any baseball fan, and it is a quick, entertaining read as he recounts classic stories about such baseball legends and characters, such as George Steinbrenner, Billy Martin, and Marge Schott (no relation to the author).

Martin was one of the characters that made up the Bronx Zoo that was the Yankees of the 1970s. Piniella tells vivid stories about the raucous personalities of Reggie Jackson, who repeatedly battled with Martin, even once in the dugout at Fenway Park; and his close friendship with Thurman Munson.

Lou recalls the last night together in Chicago with Bobby Murcer and Munson in Chicago in August 1979, two days before Munson crashed his plane, when they all vowed to make a determined effort to repeat their great comeback to the pennant the year before.

Piniella writes of Martin, “Billy could be difficult for a lot of players. But between the lines, in the dugout, he was a great manager in my opinion. I learned more from him than any other manager I played for. His problem was he wanted to be the headliner. He liked teams he could manager, teams that played fundamentally sound baseball with not a lot of egos, which we were. Unfortunately, Reggie had to be the headliner. They were two volatile personalities who didn’t like each other. Mr. Steinbrenner always maintained that in New York you do need stars, and I agree with that. In Reggie he got the biggest star in the game when he signed him as a free agent after the 1976 season, and Reggie helped us, no question. His heroics in the 1977 World Series stand for themselves. But the constant clashes with Billy made it hard on all of us. The manager has to get along weith his star players – I made a point of that when I was managing. But Billy didn’t care, and that was why he kept getting fired.”

One of the biggest games that ’70s Yankees team would play was the 1978 American League East playoff game at Fenway Park against the Red Sox. The Yankees came back from 14 games down to tie the Red Sox at the end of the season, and the teams met in a one-game playoff.

It turned out Piniella made the play of the game, as he recounts here, “In the bottom of the eighth, with (Goose) Gossage now pitching for us, the Red Sox closed to within 5-4 on RBI singles by (Carl) Yastrzemski and (Fred) Lynn, and just like that, it was a nail-biter again. The first two Red Sox batters in that inning hit fly balls to me in right, one by Jerry Remy that went for a double and the other by Jim Rice that I was able to catch. But as I came back to the dugout after the inning, I told (Yankees Manager Bob) Lemon that, with the sun now high over the grandstand roof, I just couldn’t see balls hit to right on a line drive trajectory. My private hope was I wouldn’t have to deal with that in the ninth.

“But with one out, and (Rick) Burleson on first via a walk from Goose (Gossage), my worst fears were realized when Remy hit a soft liner over the infield right at me – and right in the sun. I saw the ball when it left Remy’s bat, then lost it as it was going over the infield. But I didn’t panic and didn’t let Burleson know I’d lost it. I took a couple steps backward to give myself a little more time to recover when the ball came out of that sun, and hopefully to keep it from getting past me. As it was, it dropped a few feet to my left. I lunged to cut it off and was able to pick it up on one hop and fire a throw over to Nettles at third. Again, the key was not to show panic, and because he wasn’t sure whether I was going to catch the ball, Burleson hesitated and stopped at second. I’ll say this, my throw to Nettles was one of the best throws of my career.

“The play, of course, loomed ever larger when (Jim) Rice, up next, flied out to me in right center – this time the ball was in the air and not blocked by the sun- for what would’ve been a game-tying sac fly had Burleson advanced to third. Now it came down to one final moment of intense drama – Goose, tiring himself after facing thirteen batters in relief, versus Yaz, the Red Sox icon who’d been the hero and the American League MVP in the Sox’s 1967 “Impossible Dream” pennant season. It was only fitting, and I can only imagine how absolutely shocked – and immediately deflated – the Fenway fans were when Yaz, who’d already knocked in two of the Red Sox’s runs with his homer in the second and an RBI single off Goose the inning before, hit this sky-high pop-up to third. Watching from right field, I felt as if time stood still, waiting indefinitely for the ball to come down into (Graig) Nettles’s glove.

“Looking back, I find it amazing to see how fragile that was was, and my play ended up counting for a lot more than I realized at the time. As Goose later recalled, ‘Our entire season was decided on that one play Lou made on Remy. It’s as simple as that.’

“There’s nothing more fun than playing in a game like that, in which you can cut the tension with a butter knife. That’s how you’re supposed to respond. Don’t let the situation overwhelm you. When it was over, we knew we had just beaten the second-best team in baseball. No challenge would be greater than this one.”

Piniella focuses a lot on Steinbrenner, as any book from this era would. What makes this different is Lou played for, managed, and was General Manager for The Boss.

When it didn’t go that well managing the Yankees in 1987, he became the team’s general manager in 1988.

Piniella recounts Steinbrenner’s plan, “‘I’d like you to move upstairs and take over as GM and I’m gonna bring Billy back as manager.’

“I thought about that for a couple of minutes, a lot of mixed emotions running through my head. Billy V? I thought. This man is absolutely crazy. At the same time, however, I knew I didn’t want to manage for him.”

It wasn’t a dream, as Piniella soon found out when trying to acquire Rafael Santana from the Mets.

Lou writes, “Billy had asked me to try to find a veteran shortstop, preferably with postseason experience, and it so happened the Mets’ GM, Joe McIlvane, had just such a player in Santana who, a thirty, was still in his prime but was being shopped because the Mets wanted to promote their top shortstop prospect, Kevin Elster. Joe and I quickly agreed on a deal – he wasn’t looking to hold me up, and he wanted to do right by the popular Santana by trading him someplace he’d like to be. In return, I agreed to give him three borderline prospects: the outfielder Darren Reed, the catcher Phil Lombardi, and the pitcher Steve Frey. All that was needed was Mr. Steinbrenner’s approval. But I was not prepared for his reaction.

“‘Oh, no, no, no,’ he said. ‘What’s wrong with you? We don’t trade with the Mets!’

“‘But Mr. Steinbrenner,’ I countered, ‘Santana’s an established shortstop who’s got a World Series ring playing in New York. These kinds of guys just aren’t available.’

“‘Well, then why are the Mets looking to get rid of him?’

I tried to explain how they wanted to break in Elster, but he was having none of it.

“‘That McIlvane is taking advantage of you because you’re a rookie general manager,’ he said. ‘You tell him the deal is off.’

“I’d been on the job barely two months, and already I wanted to quit. There was no way I was going to go back to Joe McIlvane and reneging on the trade. I was this close to getting on a plane and leaving (the winter meetings in) Dallas when I called Mr. Steinbrenner one more time and told him we needed to make this trade and it didn’t matter if it was with the Mets.

“‘All right,’ he said. ‘But you tell McIlvane I have to get one more player back if we’re going to give up three.'”…

“McIlvane agreed to throw in an A-ball pitcher names Victor Garcia who never made it to the majors, but I could have cared less. I could see that being Mr. Steinbrenner’s general manager was going to be just as trying as being his manager.”

Lou includes the inside stories of his time with some of the game’s biggest names in Seattle, Ken Griffey, Jr., Randy Johnson, and Alex Rodriguez. He tells details of his emotional conversation with A-Rod after Rodriguez’s second steroid bust.

There is also a look at why Piniella departed Seattle, and the confrontation and philosophical differences with Mariners’ CEO Howard Lincoln.

Piniella does not hold back on his disdain for Marge Schott, whose cheapness, eccentricity, and lack of any sensitivity prompted him to leave the Cincinnati Reds after just three seasons.

Lou writes about Marge after the team won the 1990 World Series, “Only in the insensitive, oblivious, penurious world of Marge Schott could the joy of winning the world championship all but be extinguished in just a couple of hours. I’d like to say we partied into the San Francisco night – as we deserved to do – and woke up Sunday morning with a beautiful hangover, basking as the champions we were. Unfortunately, the only person in the baseball universe on whom the supreme accomplishment of sweeping the winningest team in baseball in the World Series was lost was our owner. At our supposed victory party back at our hotel in San Francisco, Marge neglected to buy any food. It seemed she wasn’t happy that we won the World Series in Oakland and didn’t bring it back to Cincinnati where she could have gotten another gate. We were starving by the time we got back to the hotel and I remember winding up celebrating in a little hamburger joint around the corner with eight or nine players and wives at 3:00 a.m.”

The book closes with a chapter called “Lou-Pinions) in which Lou gives his frank views on all the hot issues in baseball, from steroids, instant replay, sabermetrics, pitch counts, innings limits, and shifts.

This is an indispensable work on what this unique figure experienced in baseball, and will be a great addition to your baseball bookshelf.

 

 

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