Classic Yankees: Lou Piniella

At the recent Old-Timer’s Day, Yankees fans got a true treat in the return of “Sweet” Lou Piniella to the Stadium wearing Yankees’ pinstripes.

Piniella has been around the majors in his career as a player and manager. He has worn many hats. But the colorful, passionate, outspoken, and hotheaded Piniella was a perfect fit for NY.

Part One: The Player

It took Piniella a while to become a regular in the majors, and he bounced around. Drafted by the Indians, he was then lost in another draft to Washington. In 1964 he was sent to Baltimore. He got into four games with the 1964 Orioles, going 0 for 1. In 1966 the Birds dealt him to the Indians, for whom he returned to the majors in 1968, playing six games and going 0 for 5.

The Seattle Pilots (remember them?) drafted Lou in the 1968 expansion draft, but traded him to KC just before the 1969 season began. He was the first player to bat in Royals’ history.

Piniella responded by winning the 1969 ROY award, hitting .282-11-68, OPS+ 107. He finished 35th in MVP voting.
Never a power hitter, Lou was a good contact hitter; a line-drive hitter who would use the whole field. Never fast, he was an aggressive baserunner. He wasn’t known for his defense, but would make some superb plays that I’ll get to later.
What he was, was a good hitter who became a good hitting coach, and a heady player who became a great manager.
Lou hit .301 in 1970, with 11 HR (he never had more than 12) and a career-high 88 RBI. His OPS+ was 112. He slumped a bit in 1971, hitting .279-3-51, OPS+ 93.

In 1972 he rebounded and made his only All-Star team. He led the AL in doubles with 33 while hitting .312-11-72, OPS+ 138. He did this despite leading the majors with 25 GIDP. He finished 32nd in the MVP voting.

Lou primarily played LF, although he did play some RF (and made his most famous play there). He got into a couple of games at CF and 1B.

In 1973, Lou dropped to .250-9-69, OPS+ just 79, and after the season was traded to the Yankees with Ken Wright for aging relieve Lindy McDaniel. It was a steal for the Yankees.

Lou’s fiery personality fit right in, and he became fast friends with Thurman Munson and Bobby Murcer. The Yanks just missed winning the AL East in 1974 (two games out), and Lou’s .305-9-70, OPS+ 116 season was a big reason why. He finished 23rd in the MVP voting.

1975 turned out to be a complete washout for Piniella. He developed an inner-ear infection, and that affects your balance. As a result, Piniella only hit .196-0-22 with an OPS+ of 40 in 1975.

In 1976, Piniella rebounded to hit .281-3-38, OPS+ 110. He went 3 for 11 in the ALCS and 3 for 9 in the WS. Those who saw the brawl in May, 1976 will never forget it. Piniella tried to score from second on a single and barreled into Carlton Fisk. Piniella was out, but a brawl ensued, and P Bill Lee’s shoulder was injured in the brawl. The Yanks lost the game, but it set a tone for the season.

Those who saw The Bronx is Burning series got a reminder of the leadership that Piniella provided during that 1977 season. Lou wasn’t only a Yankee fan’s favorite, he also was a favorite of Billy Martin, who leaned on Captain Munson and Sweet Lou for leadership. It was Munson and Piniella who intervened on Martin’s behalf in the middle of that tumultuous, but eventually triumphant, season. Piniella did his job on the field as well, hitting .330-12-45, OPS+ 138. He was 7 for 21 in the ALCS with 2 RBI, and 6 for 22 with 3 RBI in the WS. What is often forgotten is a HR-robbing catch that Piniella made off of Ron Cey in Game 4 of that World Series.

In 1978, it was Piniella who saved the Yankees in that 163rd game up in Fenway (the Bucky Dent game). Piniella had another solid season with the bat, going .314-6-69, OPS+ 129, and finishing 21st in the MVP balloting. In that game up at Fenway, Piniella was in RF, trying to fight off the glare of the sun. In the bottom of the sixth, with Boston up 2-0, they had two on and two out with Fred Lynn up. Lynn drove one into that right-field belly. It would have been a 3-run HR had the game been played at Yankee Stadium. Piniella fought off the glare to catch the ball in that belly, saving what would have been two runs.

But that wasn’t all.

In the ninth inning, with the Yanks’ clinging to a 5-4 lead, Rick Burleson was on first when Jerry Remy hit a liner to right that Piniella couldn’t see. Lou, acting upon his hunch, raced to where he thought the ball would land and acted as if he had a play. He didn’t, but Burleson didn’t know that. The single dropped, and just as the ball was going to skip past Piniella, Piniella reached out his glove and stabbed the ball. He fired a bullet to third, and Burleson only made it to second. This was huge, because Rice’s flyball later would have tied the game with Burleson on third. Instead, Burleson could only move to third, and we all remember Yaz popping up to Nettles for the final out.
It was the play of the year.

Lou, usually a good postseason performer, hit 4 for 17 in the ALCS, but then went 7 for 25 with 4 RBI in the 1978 World Series. His single in the bottom of the 10th in Game 4 won the game and knotted up the Series at two apiece.
Lou had a good 1979, hitting .297-11-69 with an OPS+ of 101. But on August 2nd of that year, things took a tragic turn when Piniella’s good friend Thurman Munson was killed in a plane crash. Memories of Piniella and Murcer shortly after Munson’s death are still poignant and vivid all these years later.

Piniella hit .287-2-27 in 1980, OPS+ 96. The return of his friend Bobby Murcer the year before basically meant that the two of them were platooning with each other at DH, as well as sharing time being backup outfielders. Maybe that helped the transition into less playing time—that you were losing it to a friend going through the same aging process—it’s just my opinion, there. Lou was 1 for 5 in the ALCS, that one hit being a solo HR.

In 1981, Lou hit .277-5-18, OPS+ 120. He was 2 for 10, HR, 3 rbi in the strike-mandated ALCS of that year, then 3 for 5 with a HR and 3 RBI in the ALCS. He went 7 for 16 with 3 RBI in the WS. Piniella hit .305 in postseason play in 44 games, with 3 HR and 19 RBI. Lou hit .307-6-37 in 1982, OPS+ 121, and .291-2-16 in 1983, OPS+ 110.

In the middle of the 1984 season, he announced his retirement. He stated that his last game would be June 16, 1984, and in that game Piniella went 0 for 5 with an RBI. He GIDP his last time up. He ended 1984 hitting .302-1-6, OPS+ 115.

For his career, Piniella hit .291 with 102 HR, OPS+ 109. His 162 g. average was .291-9-71.

He wore #24 with the Orioles, #23 with Cleveland, #9 with KC and #14 with the Yankees.

Part Two: The Manager

A true, professional “hitter”, Lou would stand in front of mirrors in hotel rooms analyzing his swing and stance. A true student of hitting, Lou became a respected hitting coach upon retirement. Early on, he worked with and helped young Don Mattingly.

As a coach for the Yankees in 1985, it was understood that he was being “groomed to manage” at that time by Billy Martin (Billy IV). Lou then took over the Yanks as their manager in 1986. Here and elsewhere, Lou’s tirades in protesting umpire’s decisions became legendary. Even as a player (see some 1977 WS video highlights) Lou could be quite demonstrative in his protests.

The Yanks won 90 games and finished 2nd in 1986 (no wild cards then), then won 89 and finished 4th in 1987. Although known for his work with hitters, Piniella’s handling of the pitching staff was called into question. As late as August 8, 1987, the Yanks were in first, at 66-45, but they stumbled down the stretch with a 23-28 mark. At the end of the year, Piniella was booted upstairs to GM, and the short-lived Billy V tenure would begin.

Piniella and the GM role didn’t mix. When Billy got into trouble yet again, Piniella came down from the GM role to replace Billy, who was 40-28 at the time. Lou II didn’t take, as the Yanks went just 45-48 under Piniella in 1988. They finished fifth, albeit just 3 ½ out. Piniella was replaced as Yankees’ manager after the season and worked as a broadcaster for MSG in 1989. When Dallas Green was dismissed as Yanks’ manager in mid-season, Piniella refused a Lou III.

He went to the Reds in 1990 and managed them to the WS title, the only one for Cincinnati since 1976, the days of the Big Red Machine. Using his “Nasty Boys” bullpen of Charlton, Myers and Dibble (and he’d famously get into a clubhouse scuffle with Dibble), Piniella shocked the favored A’s in the WS in four straight. It would be the only pennant and WS Lou would win as a manager. He won 91 that year, had an off-year in 1991 (74-88) and finished 2nd with 90 wins in 1992 (no wild card then).

He then went to Seattle to manage the Mariners. There was talk about whether to build a new Stadium for the Mariners or not, and even talk of moving the Mariners. Lou won 82 games in 1993, finishing 4th, then went 49-63 (3rd) in 1994. The comeback of the 1995 Mariners, however, revitalized interest in the team. After August 20th, the M’s were 53-53 and 12 ½ out. They went 26-13 down the stretch, won a one-game playoff over the Angels for the AL West title, then overcame an 0-2 deficit against the Yanks in the ALDS, winning Games 3, 4 and 5 at home. They lost the ALCS to Cleveland. Lou was the AL Mgr. of the Year.

The Mariners finished 2nd in the AL West with 85 wins in 1996, then Lou got them back into the postseason in 1997, as they won 90 and the AL West. They lost to Baltimore in the ALDS.

After finishing below .500 in 1998 and 1999 (76 and 79 wins), Piniella got the M’s back into the ALCS in 2000 (91 wins) and 2001 (116). Both times he lost the ALCS to the Yankees. The 2001 loss was especially painful, as it came after an AL record 116 regular season wins. Lou won the 2001 Mgr. of the Year  for going 116-46. He finished 3rd in the AL West in 2002 despite 93 wins. Seattle hasn’t been in a postseason since he left. He took them to three ALCS’s, losing all three (1995, 2000 and 2001), and all four of their playoff appearances.

Piniella then returned to his hometown of Tampa to manage the (at that time Devil) Rays. He battled management over the payroll (too low in his opinion) and desire to win now vs. building for the future.  In the tough AL East dominated by the Yanks and Red Sox, Piniella won 63, 70 and 67 games, finishing 5th (last), 4th and 5th in the AL East. At least he was the first to get them out of the cellar for one year (2004).

He went back into broadcasting for a year before becoming the manager of the Cubs from 2007 until the middle of 2010.
He won 85 in 2007 but it was enough for the NL Central title. The Cubs were swept in the NLDS however. The next year, Piniella was the NL Manager of the Year, guiding the Cubs to 97 wins and another NL Central title. After 97 wins, expectations were high, but the Cubs being, well—the Cubs—they were swept in the NLDS.

The Cubs won 83 games in 2009, finishing second. In the middle of 2010, Piniella decided to retire at season’s end to care for his ailing mother. A few weeks after that announcement, Piniella decided to make it more immediate, retiring then and there. He was 51-74 and in fifth place when he walked away.

Lou finished his managerial career with 1835 wins and 1713 losses for a .517 winning percentage. That translates to a 84-78 season. He managed 1 WS winner, 1 pennant winner and in seven postseasons. He is 14th all-time for wins by a manager.

At present, Piniella is a special advisor to the Giants.

Piniella turns 68 at the end of August.

Although he doesn’t qualify for the Hall of Fame as a player, Piniella could get in via his 23 years and 1835 wins as a manager, even though he only had one pennant-winner.

Personally, I’m one for granting one Hall of Fame status for long, distinguished and meritorious service to the game. Unfortunately, this is an honor that seems only to go to executives, like commissioners and GMs and to a few owners.
But what of someone like Don Zimmer, who wasn’t a great player, was an ok, if not legendary manager (well, Boston fans may disagree) but not good enough in either category to merit inclusion solely on that? For Zimmer’s what, sixty years in baseball—helping to promote and popularize the game in various roles—should merit him consideration.

Joe Torre wouldn’t make it as a player. His four WS titles probably get him in as a manager. When you combine the two, you have many years of meritorious service. Look at Gil Hodges. Hodges may be borderline as player, and his managerial service isn’t special except for the 1969 Mets. Add the two together, along with his character, and Hodges maybe should be in on the meritorious service clause.

I know it’s a fine line. But I do think that those who may have been borderline in one or two categories, but who when you combine various roles gave some fifty or sixty years to baseball and who overall, performed well, should receive special consideration for the Hall.

I named Zimmer and Hodges. Those are just examples. They may be better examples of meritorious service than some already in the Hall under that category. Lou, if he doesn’t make it on his managing, could be another to be considered in that category.

It’s something I wish the HOF would consider.

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