07/20/10 11:59 PM ET
Lou the character will be missed
Piniella an example of a vanishing breed of manager
By / MLB.com
But there is something bright, happy and promising on the Old Timers horizon, a guy with a sense of humor, a sense of self and a sense of the Yankees who can attend next summer for the first time in a while. Next year, Lou Piniella will be free to return to The Stadium. Someone tell Moose Skowron he'll have to share his No. 14.
To me, Piniella's pending freedom in 2011 is the singular benefit connected to the announcement he made Tuesday, that 2010 will be his final season managing. Retirement is good for him, and I wish him well down in Tampa. But for us, those around the game every day from Valentine's Day to Halloween (and now to Election Day), the absence of Piniella will be a blow. First Vin Scully, then Bobby Cox and now Piniella.
The game will be diminished. Scully's and Sheppard's voices remain tied for first among my personal preferences. My tympanic membrane favors them. Cox is an enduring pleasure. And Piniella is one of the last characters in the game. How are we to keep our character quotient up with him hanging up his lineup card and temper?
Earl Weaver, Sparky Anderson and Whitey Herzog have earned Hall of Fame status and taken their stories and strong personalities to retirement. Zim, Lasorda, Dallas Green and Trader Jack McKeon aren't around enough to spread the seeds of the game as they all did. And now Piniella has a foot close to the door adjacent to Wrigley's ivy. To lose Piniella is to make the game more vanilla. His plan to retire come October makes me think a four-letter word and an exclamation point ought to appear here.
How 'bout "Don't!"
But I guess it's time for Lou to spend more time with his wife, Anita. Quite understandable, even though I'd prefer him to be at the park every afternoon about 4:30 to share tales of Guidry, Goose and Catfish; Marge, Schottzie and the Nasty Boys; Reggie, George and Billy; Junior, Edgar and The Unit; and Zambrano, Wood and Milton Bradley.
They all know the stories. But Piniella tells them better. They sound better, coming from him, just as words and phrases spoken by Sheppard sounded better than the same words spoken by someone less precise and not so well-schooled.
Piniella shares a story as comedian David Brenner tells a joke -- he starts to laugh in the middle of the punch line, and he carries his audience to full belly laughter.
I recall Piniella holding court on consecutive nights at the bar at the wonderful Pfister Hotel in Milwaukee. It was 1970 (or 80) something. Murcer was there. Piniella told us a series of entertaining Steinbrenner Stories with perfect timing and touch. And his timing and touch were equally good the following night when he repeated the stories. Entertaining again.
I recall an afternoon at Yankee Stadium when Piniella was managing the Mariners. Baseball constable Bob Watson was in the third-base dugout, waiting for his former teammate, ostensibly to collect on some fine he had imposed on Piniella. The three of us were joined by my colleagues Steve Jacobson and Jack O'Connell. If I ever had spent 40, more enjoyable minutes working, I can't recall. When we broke it up, our sides were split.
Piniella shared an anecdote about Steinbrenner calling the Yankees' dugout in Anaheim when Piniella was managing. The Yankees were winning, 4-2, and Don Sutton was pitching for the Angels. The game was televised nationally, affording The Boss opportunity for long-distance second-guessing.
Steinbrenner strongly suggested his manager confront the umpires because he believed Sutton was defacing balls with sandpaper as he was widely and frequently accused of doing. The Boss told Piniella that the announcers were openly discussing that probability and then he wanted him to make an accusation.
Piniella finished his story with this: "I said 'George, look at the scoreboard. Who's winning?' But he still wanted me to talk to the crew chief. So I said 'George, Sutton may be cheating. But we have Tommy John pitching and he probably taught Sutton how to cheat.' "
I'd enjoy the story again today if Piniella told it again.
Sadly, the game no longer seems to be a stage for that kind of inside-stuff humor. Managers are more inhibited than they were then, and if not inhibited, they're too busy with the business of the day -- scheduled media sessions, TV time, phone calls from upstairs, closed-door meetings with the boss and preparing postgame alibis.
Potential characters may exist in the game, but they seemingly lack the time and freedom to age properly as Weaver and Whitey did. Ozzie Guillen and Ron Gardenhire already have qualified for "character" status. John Gibbons and Clint Hurdle had, too, but they are among the dugout-unemployed. And Wally Backman will qualify the moment some club with vision gives him the chance to manage.
Torre and Leyland have the DNA of "characters," but they're relatively low key. The game needs another Sparky Anderson, Jim Frey, Stump Merrill, Trader Jack or, goodness knows, another Casey if there ever could be another.
Or as they say on the USA Network, "Characters welcome."
Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.