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Piniella's passion, pride took root in Tampa

On local fields and courts, the next Rays manager learned to hate losing.

By BRUCE LOWITT, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published October 27, 2002

Ken Whitten was sorting through the memories. Very private ones of contemplation and redemption. Very public ones of dirt-kicking and base-throwing.

The pastor of Idlewild First Baptist Church in Tampa was reflecting on a congregant, Lou Piniella. "Never mistake the man for the moment," Whitten said. "The Bible is full of people that, if we look at one moment, one episode, that's not who they are."

The high-profile manager expected to take over the Devil Rays is an amalgam of contradictions.

"He's a warrior who's aggressive, and yet he's also sentimental," said John McLaren, Piniella's bench coach in Seattle since 1995. "He's got a big heart. You know, there's a sensitive side of Lou that people don't get to see. I've seen tears in his eyes."

It all began in Tampa, and it began early. Long before he managed the Mariners, and the Reds and the Yankees before that. Long before 18 years as a major-league outfielder with the Orioles, Indians, Royals and Yankees.

Long before the University of Tampa, Jesuit High and American Legion Post 248, before Colt League, Pony League and St. Joseph's Catholic School.

Probably around the time he attended Mother Goose Day Care.

Margaret Piniella recalled the first baseball bat her son ever swung: a cut-down broom handle. He swung it at what passed for a ball, a cork surrounded by layers of tape. "Lou was just 3 years old," she said, "but you should have seen the way he hit that ball."

When he was 5, the family moved to a new home across from the West Tampa Heights playground. It became Lou's second home. "There were times I had to drag him off the field," his mother said. "He would come home from school, do his homework and then go to the playground and play baseball. He always wanted to be a baseball player."

His cousin, former big-leaguer Dave Magadan, played there years later. So did Cardinals manager Tony La Russa and Diamondbacks outfielder Luis Gonzalez and Cardinals first baseman Tino Martinez -- teammates or opponents or following in one another's footsteps along some of baseball's most fertile breeding grounds.

Four strikeouts

Piniella played baseball at St. Joseph's Catholic School, and on Colt League and American Legion teams, and at Jesuit High and at the University of Tampa. He was an NCAA College Division All-American his one year as a Spartan outfielder.

He played basketball, too, for a while and was a high school All-American at Jesuit. He averaged 30 points and once scored 57 against Brandon High.

That was about the time he was playing in the 1961 Colt League World Series in California.

"We'd taken a trip up to one of the mountains and we were walking along a ledge toward a waterfall," said Paul Ferlita, a boyhood friend. "He and La Russa rolled a log down the side and my father held them back from the group and lectured them while the rest of us walked ahead.

"They tried to catch up and ran along the edge of the mountain and Lou fell and tumbled for quite a while before he hit a big boulder. It was the only thing between him and a 2,000-foot drop. If he hadn't hit the boulder he'd probably have been killed."

Piniella hurt his ankle, missed one game, then played after that. When he got home, the X-rays showed he'd broken his ankle.

"Same trip," Ferlita said, "after we got beat for the championship, his temper came out. The other team was celebrating on the infield and he got a baseball and threw it up and it landed in the middle of them."

The persistent ankle injury ended his basketball career, but baseball was Piniella's first love. And 1961 was when Tampa's American Legion Post 248 team made the state championships.

By then, his reputation was well into its formative stage. "Lou takes after me more than his father," Margaret Piniella said. "I have a temper, too."

One game in Gulfport, with about 25 scouts in attendance, Piniella struck out four times. "The first time was okay," Roy Carrasco, another childhood friend, once said. "The second time was okay. The third time we started to worry. The fourth time we just ran to the other end of the dugout. We knew he was going to explode and tear the dugout apart."

Wind sprints

Then there was the game at Tampa's Cuscaden Park when the Spartans were playing Miami. Coach Sam Bailey had Piniella in left. "Lou's grandfather pulls up behind the fence and starts talking to him," Mondy Flores, another longtime friend, said, "and he says, "Did you have any lunch?' and Lou says, "No, I didn't have a chance.' So he hands him a Cuban sandwich through the fence.

"So Lou peels down the paper it's wrapped in and starts eating the sandwich during a lull in the game. He gets it about half eaten and a batter hits a line shot out to left and Lou has the sandwich hidden in his glove. So with no time to react he puts his glove up and catches the ball and tomato goes one way, meat goes another way, lettuce goes another way, bread goes another way. And it's the third out and Lou comes running in and Coach Bailey says, "What the hell happened to your glove?' "

Piniella loved to hit. "That was Lou's best attribute," Bailey said. "I never interfered with his hitting. He was a better hitter than I was a coach. And he was his own worst enemy. He'd come back mad, infuriated, if he made out, even if he hit it to the fence."

Bailey tried to work on Piniella's fielding, baserunning and, most often, conditioning. That was well down on Piniella's to-do list.

"So during batting practice I'd tell him, "Okay, Lou, get in the outfield. I'll call you when I want you to come in,' " Bailey said. "Then in a little while I'd call him and he'd run in and I'd say, "Lou, I want you to do this in the outfield; go work on it,' and send him out again. I'd do that two or three times before the game. That's how I got his wind sprints in."

Billy Martin, mentor

Cleveland signed Piniella in June 1962 and traded him in 1963 to Washington, which traded him to Baltimore late in the '64 season. After three seasons in the low minors he played four games with the Orioles and was traded back to Cleveland in 1966. Four more minor-league seasons later he played six games for the Indians.

The story goes that after turning pro he turned his attention to Anita Garcia, who likewise has roots that go deep into Tampa. Twice he asked her for a date; twice she said no. When he called once more he told her she had two strikes; one more and she'd be out. She went out with him. They were were married in 1967, shortly before he reported to Triple-A Portland. The next year he made the majors for good.

The Seattle Pilots (now the Milwaukee Brewers) picked Piniella in the 1968 expansion draft and traded him to the Royals. AL Rookie of the Year in 1969, All-Star three years later. And on Dec. 7, 1973, he was shipped to the Bronx Zoo. That's what they called George Steinbrenner's tumultuous Yankees then.

For 11 seasons he was their rightfielder and occasional designated hitter. And in 11 seasons he played for 13 managers, some more than once. Piniella played under Billy Martin in four of Martin's five stints with the Yankees.

Martin was the template for fiery managers, hired and fired by the Twins, Tigers, Rangers and Athletics as well as the Yankees.

There were fights with his players, one with a marshmallow salesman and a classic nationally televised shouting match with outfielder Reggie Jackson in the dugout in Boston. Kicking dirt, particularly on umpires, was his forte.

Later, as a manager, some of Piniella's dealings with Steinbrenner were confrontational. That, too, was partly Martin's doing.

"Remember, Billy was my mentor," Piniella said at the start of this season. "He was my mentor and I played for him at the end of my playing career, so he was the one who had the most influence on me. Basically everything I learned from Billy was good: what not to do and a lot of good things, too."

Sore losers

Piniella, too, would be dismissed by Steinbrenner, twice. After managing the Yankees in 1986-87, he was kicked upstairs to general manager and replaced by Martin. When Martin was fired in 1988 for the final time, Piniella finished the season as interim manager, then was gone.

"The two biggest things we have in common," Piniella once said of Steinbrenner, "is we both like to win and we're both very sore losers."

In 1990, the first of his three years managing Cincinnati, the Reds swept Oakland in the World Series. In 1993 he began the first of his 10 years managing the Mariners. They made the postseason in 1995, '97 and last season, when they matched the 1906 Cubs' major-league record of 116 victories.

Piniella has mellowed, to a point. He still is the master of kicked dirt, flung bases and vein-bulging discussions with umpires. But he has survived. His 1,319 wins are fourth among active managers As times have changed, Piniella has adapted.

"You look at the whole picture and the whole picture presents a positive tone to it," he told the Seattle Times. "And this business is no different than any other job; the more exposure you have to it, the better you become at it. You start weeding out some of the problem areas and your chances of success become greater. The biggest problem I've had as a player and a manager is my temper."

True, Margaret Piniella said, but what people don't realize "is that the anger is always directed at himself, never at other people. He demands so much from himself."

-- Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report, which used information from other news organizations.

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