Monday, August 23, 2010

Lou Piniella's Managerial Epitaph

Was Lou Piniella a good manager? A great manager? A mediocre manager?

Did he get the most out of his players? Was he on a strategic level with the upper echelon, future Hall of Famers like Tony La Russa? Or did he have ancillary skills that translated into success similar for Joe Torre? Did he benefit from having a great team as Bobby Cox has?

Let's take a look.

King George's managerial graveyard:

Did Piniella expect to survive where other managers found themselves dismembered and dispatched? Knowing Piniella's ego, he probably felt that he'd be able to survive based on popularity and mutual affinity with George Steinbrenner; but this was the place where Yogi Berra had been fired. Based on that, common sense and history should've been an indication that he was on borrowed time as soon as he took the job.

At age 42, he wasn't ready to manage in the big leagues when he took over for Billy Martin in 1986; he'd only been a coach for a year-and-a-half; had never managed anywhere; and had played with a large chunk of the players in the clubhouse.

Piniella was popular among the group and had the clubhouse conduits Willie Randolph, Ron Guidry, Don Mattingly and Dave Winfield to keep things in order, so there wasn't a discipline/disrespect problem. Back then, disrespecting Piniella would have escalated into a full-scale brawl.

The Yankees teams in 1986-87 were pretty good overall and, had there been a Wild Card option back then, would've made the playoffs. For a new manager who hated pitchers to begin with, Piniella did a solid enough job doling out the innings; his temper flashed as usual (on opening day, he came charging out of the dugout to argue a call at second base); and dealt with the media, the hovering presence of Martin (sweaty and possibly half-drunk in the broadcast booth), and the bloviating George Steinbrenner.

Had those clubs stuck to the program and maintained some stability, they may have had a chance to win in the late 80s. The lineup was relatively young with Mattingly, Mike Pagliarulo, Dan Pasqua, Rickey Henderson and the still productive veterans Randolph and Winfield.

What's most striking is the starting rotation where both Doug Drabek and Bob Tewksbury got their first taste in the big leagues and performed admirably. In 1987, Al Leiter arrived, but by then both Drabek and Tewksbury were gone as was solid reliever turned good starter Brian Fisher. Drabek and Fisher were traded to the Pirates for Rick Rhoden; Tewksbury was traded at mid-season 1987 to the Cubs for the disastrous Steve Trout; and there was the usual revolving door of mediocre veterans such as Claudell Washington. Rickey Henderson's continued problems with his "hammy" (Rickey's term for his troublesome hamstring) took him out of the lineup and deprived Mattingly of his daily RBI opportunities.

After a fourth place finish in 1987, Piniella was kicked upstairs to be the GM----something in which he had little interest and was a window into the lunacy that permeated Yankeeland back then----as Martin was rehired to run the team on the field. Who knows how much Piniella had to do with some awful trades for Richard Dotson (for Pasqua) and Ken Phelps (for Jay Buhner). He resigned as GM in late May.

The 1988 team was not good; not well-constructed and Martin's penchant for self destruction manifested itself. He was fired in late June, replaced by Piniella. The Yankees went 45-48 for the rest of the season and Piniella was fired.

If he'd had the inclination to be the "new" Martin and wait in the wings until the next manager on the assembly line/George's hit list (in this case it was Dallas Green) was dispatched, he could've done that. Instead, Piniella took over the Cincinnati Reds after the 1989 season.

Fortuitous circumstances:

Some scratched their heads as to why Piniella chose to take over the Reds after 1989, but it was a palatable situation for everyone involved.

Longtime Piniella friend and former Yankee executive Pat Gillick had asked Steinbrenner for permission to speak to Piniella about taking over the Blue Jays when Jimy Williams was fired early that year, but was rebuffed. Steinbrenner did not want to have Piniella in the same division running a team that was good enough to be on the verge of title-contending status. In retrospect, he was right. It would've been a recurring nightmare to see Piniella running the Blue Jays as they matured into a championship club----and they would've under Piniella just as they did under Cito Gaston.

Instead, Piniella went to the Reds and Marge Schott, who was seen as an even bigger lunatic than Steinbrenner. It turned out to be a calculated and brilliant step for him. The Reds were a multi-talented team that had stagnated and wilted under Pete Rose and his gambling allegations, shaky managerial skills and eventual suspension. Piniella was the last guy you'd think would arrive and restore sanity, but calm is in the eye of the beholder and with Rose and Schott? Piniella was Gandhi in comparison.

Piniella crafted order with that team; got them off to a blazing hot start; formulated the Nasty Boys relief trio of Norm Charlton, Rob Dibble and Randy Myers; rode a solid starting rotation, and a "more than the sum of the parts" offense all the way to a wire-to-wire division title, pennant and shocking World Series upset over the La Russa Athletics.

The same pitching faltered in 1991 and the Reds fell to 74-88; in 1992, with a loaded club, they were trapped in a division with a dominating Braves team and missed the playoffs with a 90-72 record. Piniella had a clubhouse scuffle with Dibble late in the 1992 season and left the Reds for the Seattle Mariners.

Caught in the dynasty:

The Mariners might have won three or four World Series under Piniella had they not gotten caught up in the Yankees dynasty and been picked off by a young and powerful Cleveland Indians club.

With Hall of Famers Ken Griffey Jr. and Randy Johnson (with whom Piniella repeatedly clashed) and blossoming stars Edgar Martinez, Tino Martinez and Jay Buhner, the Mariners made a heroic run to the playoffs in 1995, overcoming a 13 game deficit on August 2nd to catch the Angels and win a one-game playoff to make it to the post-season for the first time in franchise history, saving baseball in Seattle and leading to a brand new ballpark to replace the decrepit Kingdome.

In the playoffs, they shocked the Yankees on Edgar Martinez's double and Griffey's mad dash to score the winning run in game 5 of the ALDS. In a strange way, this may have cost Piniella in the long run because it was this series victory that hastened Buck Showalter's departure from the Yankees and Joe Torre's hiring. Alternate histories abound.

The Mariners lost to the Indians in the ALCS and, in subsequent years, kept running into and losing to the Yankees. Even the 2001 team which won 116 games couldn't take that final step. The 2002 team won 93 games, but was relegated to third place in the AL West as the Athletics won 103 and the Angels won 99.

After that season, Piniella wanted out of Seattle and had his eye on the Mets. Under contract with the Mariners, they had no intention of: A) letting him go for nothing; and B) giving him the satisfaction of joining the team of his choosing. The price for letting him out of his contract was steep with the Mariners asking the Mets for Jose Reyes. The Mets refused and turned to Art Howe; Piniella was left with the options of sitting out and waiting for another job to open up or taking the thankless job of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, getting paid very well and going home to Tampa.

That's what he did.

Well-paid, but unable to compete:

Promises were made that the Rays were going to spend money on players, but nothing exemplified Piniella's plight in Tampa as much as the inaction when the team was surprisingly hanging around contention at mid-season of 2004 with a record of 42-41 in July. Of course, the team had no playoff shot whatsoever; but it was indicative that they promised Piniella they'd do what needed to be done to improve slightly and they didn't.

The one move they made that season was to sign Randall Simon in late August after he was released by the Pirates.

Randall Simon.


Was Piniella greedy in taking the Devil Rays' money? Was he naive in believing that they'd follow through on those promises and not realize he was being used? Or was he shrugging and taking the job knowing what he was in for to be close to home?

The foundation of the new look Rays was in place under Piniella with Rocco Baldelli, B.J. Upton, Scott Kazmir and Carl Crawford, but Piniella wasn't going to be around to see the team turn things around. With the new Devil Rays ownership doing things differently, Piniella departed.

Almost back in pinstripes:

Had George Steinbrenner been his normal self, Piniella would've replaced Joe Torre after the 2006 ALDS debacle. It wasn't the loss to the Tigers that was the main issue, but Torre's petulant and angry decision to bat Alex Rodriguez eighth in the fourth and final game of that series that, in past years, would've sealed his fate.

But Steinbrenner was resistant to paying Torre a lucrative sum to sit on the side in 2007; was concerned about Torre taking over the Mets; and GM Brian Cashman definitely did not want his power usurped by the charming and still fan and media beloved Piniella. Cashman would have been marginalized completely in the inevitable power struggle with Piniella and it was the last thing he wanted.

In the end, Torre stayed with the Yankees for another year and Piniella signed to manage the Cubs.

Responsibility falls on the manager's desk:

This was Piniella's last and best chance to win another championship. The Cubs were desperate and willing to do what needed to be done financially to scotch-tape a team together with no foresight for the future ramifications that accompany spending tons of money on aging, limited players.

In 2007, the Cubs signed Alfonso Soriano, Mark DeRosa and Ted Lilly. They were not a very good team, but Piniella coaxed them into the playoffs with an 85-77 record and a division title. In the NLDS vs the Diamondbacks, Piniella made an inexplicable decision by pulling a rolling Carlos Zambrano----ostensibly to have him rested for game 4----in a 1-1 game after seven innings and 85 pitches. Carlos Marmol entered the game and immediately allowed a homer to the first batter he faced, Mark Reynolds.

The Cubs lost that game and were swept away before anyone could blink.

2008 was supposed to be the year for the Cubs to break their curse. They were the best team in the National League from start to finish; they led the league in runs scored, had an excellent starting rotation and good bullpen.

But it was Piniella's call to start Ryan Dempster over Zambrano in game 1 of the NLDS. While it's true that Dempster had been their best overall pitcher that season, Zambrano had pitched brilliantly the year before in his lone playoff start and should've gotten the nod over Dempster. Rich Harden had been dominant after coming over from the Athletics; and Ted Lilly----who never pitched in the series----is known as a gutty and fearless competitor.

Dempster got shelled and again, things fell apart for the Cubs as the Dodgers swept them in three straight. This series loss fell squarely on the shoulders of Piniella.

In 2009, cracks started to show. Soriano was terrible and injured; the decision to use Kevin Gregg as the closer caused a rift and led to Marmol's horrible year. While this was an easily explainable move----let Gregg get the easy outs in the ninth inning while Marmol did the heavy lifting as the set-up man----it didn't work in practice. The clubhouse was damaged with the departure of DeRosa (whom Piniella did not want traded); and he was unable to corral Milton Bradley. They were an also-ran at 83-78.

Now in 2010, the Zambrano situation exploded; the bullpen has been atrocious; the starting pitching average at best; and the lineup bad. With new ownership taking over, it's clear that the Cubs are starting over again after the year and GM Jim Hendry will be out; Piniella saw the writing on the wall with his contract expiring and his fire greatly diminished at age 67.

It was better for him to leave immediately.

The final analysis of Lou Piniella:

Piniella was not a great strategist, but his persona led to players believing in him and listening to his instruction. His successful teams always played the game the right way; he made odd bullpen calls, but many times it's about luck with selecting the right reliever; charming, multi-lingual and handsome, there was a method to the madness of a well-timed, base-throwing on-field detonation designed to wake up slumbering teams.

Every manager has faults. Piniella was a sharp judge of young players and if there wasn't evident skills or they were slow in developing, his patience wore thin. He didn't think much of Mike Hampton with the Mariners and butted heads with Paul O'Neill in Cincinnati leading to the trade of O'Neill to the Yankees for Roberto Kelly. O'Neill and Piniella are essentially mirror images of one another; no wonder they clashed. The Rays youngsters were frightened of and/or intimidated by him. It's hard to play baseball when afraid of the manager.

Overall, he benefited from his reputation and was undone by some glaring mistakes and having been stopped short by a dominating Yankee team during their dynasty. He could've been a Hall of Famer as a manager had he won another World Series. Instead, he was respected, well-paid and successful; but he got stuck in the quagmire of his own mistakes and circumstances.

With other managers, I'd say there's a chance he could be back on the field, but I get the impression that Piniella has truly had enough. He'll be remembered, but not as honored as he could've been. He just missed.

I was a guest last Thursday with Sal at SportsFan Buzz. You can click the link to Sal's site to download the Podcast or listen directly here. Also, check Sal's Facebook page here.

My book is still available on Amazon, I-Universe and Barnes and It's available for download as an E-book here. You can also now get it for less that five bucks on BN via download here.


She-Fan said...

It sounds like Lou really means it when he says he's retiring, but it wouldn't shock me to see him un-retire at some point, when family issues settle down and he gets bored fishing or playing golf.

Gabriel said...

Excellent piece of writing. I agree with Jane, he may come back, but to a team ready to win some championships.

Jeff said...

Agreed. Totally.

I was one who thought his retirement was just a ploy to get out of the Chi with some respect; but after watching yesterday's press conference it looks like this is really the end.

I tip my cap.

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