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