Rough '10 doesn't mar Lou's career
Piniella's widespread respect, success puts him among elite
Lou Piniella will not, in all likelihood, be going out on top. But he ought to be able to retire with his managerial reputation intact.
The Cubs' skipper issued a statement Tuesday saying that he will retire at the end of this season. He will be 67 then, with four years in as Chicago's manager. That's a combination of circumstances that indicates retirement is a truly plausible alternative.
Piniella has been taking more than his share of abuse this season because the Cubs are wandering about in the sub-.500 wilderness. Piniella didn't put together this roster, didn't choose to pay these salaries and hasn't suddenly turned into, as he put it, "a dummy."
Piniella took the Cubs from the depths to consecutive National League Central titles in his first two years. In 2008, his second season, the Cubs had an NL-best 97 victories and Piniella was named NL Manager of the Year.
The team's two postseason appearances were stunningly similar; being swept in a Division Series twice, scoring the same total of six runs each time. The same hitters, the same failures, the same everything. Piniella brought renewed order, clear direction and high expectations to this operation. What he couldn't do was go up to the plate and deliver in the clutch for each of his hitters.
And that has been the same story this season as the Cubs' offense struggles. Another Cubs team coming up light years short of expectations has led to a surplus of blame. Large amounts of that blame have fallen on Piniella, which is a day at the office, a portion of the landscape in this job. But the Cubs' current malaise is not primarily his fault. And in any case, it should not obscure what has been one of the leading managerial careers of this generation.
Piniella never had to go hat-in-hand looking for a managerial job. He was always in a buyer's market. There was always a job seeking him. Such was his reputation. He managed the Yankees under George Steinbrenner's ownership but did not lose his perspective on the game nor his sense of humor.
He managed the 1990 Cincinnati Reds to a World Series championship in a sweep over the heavily-favored Oakland Athletics.
Piniella moved on to a truly impressive decade with the Seattle Mariners that included the 2001 season, in which the club won a record 116 regular-season games. He won the American League Manager of the Year award in both 1995 and '01.
He made a move for home in 2003 to manage Tampa Bay. But it was a move made too early, before a change in ownership and the fruits of a developing farm system turned the operation from a perennial loser into a pennant-winning franchise.
Along the way, Piniella earned the reputation as a no-nonsense leader of men and a shrewd baseball man. He did not tolerate shoddy performances. He was candid, straightforward and perceptive regarding his teams and their chances.
Were there controversies, arguments and confrontations along the way? Oh, yes. But that was a part of the package with Piniella. He managed with a passion for the game. It is ironic that now, as the years might have worked to mellow the man, Piniella has been criticized for not showing enough emotion. At some point in life, a man determines that throwing bases is no longer a worthwhile activity. This is not a sign of a lack of caring or commitment. It is more likely a sign of maturity.
In any case, Lou Piniella, the manager, should be judged on the totality of his career, not this one season in Chicago. The Cubs' managing job -- Dusty Baker's and Jim Riggleman's experiences aside -- has turned into more of a dead end than a stepping stone.
This may be a year of sea change in the managerial ranks, with staples of the managerial industry leaving their posts. Bobby Cox has already announced his retirement from the Braves. The Dodgers' Joe Torre may also call it a career. These are two Hall of Fame managing careers.
Piniella does not have Cox's 14 straight division titles with one club, but neither does anyone else. Piniella does not have Torre's four World Series championships, but again, that is a shortcoming common to all other current managers.
Piniella, with more than 1,800 victories as a Major League manager, deserves to be mentioned among the leading managers of the past 25 years. If he does not have the achievements of Cox and Torre, he has earned widespread respect throughout the game. What he deserves this season is to have his tenure as Cubs manager end with his club making a run of superior play.
But his worth as a manager should not be held hostage by that standard. Piniella's overall record says that what has happened so far this season on the North Side is an exception, not a rule, and should not cast a cloud over what, on balance, has been a very successful managerial career.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.