God only knows how late Yankee owner, George M. Steinbrenner, would feel about the team’s off-season moves, but I’d like to think that The Boss would have given the news that Lou Piniella had returned to the fold the thumbs up. “Sweet Lou” – nicknamed for both his great swing and sarcastically for his fiery on-field persona – who was part of the Bronx Zoo teams that took home the World Series trophies in 1977-78, was brought back to work in the YES television booth this year.
Having had the pleasure of hearing him talk about the game this winter during Spring Training games, I was very happy to hear his voice the last few nights doing the games versus the White Sox. Teamed with Michael Kay and Paul O’Neill, who Piniella managed back in Cincinnati, Lou is a real, old school baseball man and has a lot to offer a broadcast. In the Bronx for Old Timer’s Day (Sunday), Piniella is making his mark in the booth; his banter with O’Neill is some priceless stuff; his insight on hitting, as well as managing, really make him a great addition even if we only get him here and there (I suspect “there” will be his own territory of Tampa)—enjoy it while you can.
For you younger Yankee fans, who maybe only know Sweet Lou as the grumpy manager of the Cubs, picture a guy who was a cross between Nick Swisher and the aforementioned Paul O’Neill. Piniella was a righthanded-hitting corner outfielder and DH who the Yankees and GM Gabe Paul “stole” from the Royals for Lindy McDaniel following the 1973 season. Lou, who was Rookie of the Year in 1969 and actually the very first batter to appear for the new Kansas City team, was about as solid a player as you could find. He was the very first batter I can recall who had been described as sometimes, “throwing the bat at the ball.” When Piniella did it, it often resulted in a base hit.
A lifetime .291 hitter, Piniella hit .330 and .314 respectively in those championship years of 1977-78. Occasionally overlooked in significance to the Bucky Dent three-run homer in Fenway Park on October 2, 1978, Piniella made the most important defensive “play” in that historical one-game playoff. With Bosox shortstop, Rick Burleson, on first base, diminutive secondbaseman, Jerry Remy, hit a line-drive to right. An afternoon game and the sun field left Piniella blinded – he didn’t see the ball coming – but Lou pounded his glove as if he had a bead on it, freezing Burleson. When the ball dropped in front of Number 14, he was able to stick his glove out and snare it—keeping Burleson to second. And yes, while the laws of predictable outcomes can never be assured, the long fly that Jim Rice hit next surely would have scored the tying run as a sacrifice fly. Following Piniella’s heads up play, it was just a can of corn.
Most likely the only guy to play, manage, perform the duties of General Manager and now (again) broadcaster for the New York Yankees, he is also a tie to some additional great Yankee history. Not only did he play for famed manager Billy Martin, he even replaced him as skipper in 1988. Piniella, much like Billy, was famed for his eruptions at umpires; I am sure YouTube can probably bring some of his fiery tirades to your screen.
Known to be outspoken, I would have a little trepidation in regard to his job security in the YES booth, but I have a hope, even if it may be ancient history, but the new Bosses may be predisposed in their affection for Sweet Lou. I vividly recall this as a kid as I was collecting the Yankee/Burger King baseball cards that were issued in 1978, but I am going to let Piniella’s former teammate, Sparky Lyle, tell you this anecdote. This comes from what is in my opinion the best baseball book ever, “The Bronx Zoo:”
“George loves Lou and hates it when he doesn’t play. Lou is also George’s son’s idol. Last year when Burger King put out a set of baseball cards with the pictures of the Yankee players on them, they forgot to include Piniella, and George called them up, reamed their ass, and made them print a special Piniella card to add to the set.”
Welcome home Sweet Lou and keep up the great work on the TV broadcasts. I am looking forward to another summer with you back finally as part of the greatest franchise in sports history.