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