Piniella's welcome home
© St. Petersburg Times
published October 30, 2002
The Devil Rays aren't paying Lou Piniella $3-million a year to throw his hat, rip up bases and kick dirt on home plate. But that passion is part of the Tampa baseball tradition that produced Piniella and so many other big leaguers. No doubt, the Rays are hoping thousands of new fans will cross the bridge when the 2003 season comes around, if only to see Ol' Lou blow a gasket.
Anyone raised in Tampa's rich baseball history knows the level of competitiveness we're talking about. The kids who moved through West Tampa, and through legendary high school teams, were steeped in a sort of hyper-pride. Intensity and winning were everything. This is what Piniella brings as the Rays' new manager, and he plans to spend his first season boosting the mental energy of the club.
Piniella already has created a buzz at a critical time in the team's history. Until baseball's recent labor agreement deferred commissioner Bud Selig's contraction efforts, there was no guarantee a Tampa Bay team would still be here for Piniella or anyone else to manage next year.
His hiring raises fans' and players' expectations, but Piniella's homecoming also has the broader value of making the Devil Rays genuinely a bay area team. Piniella's star value and Tampa ties should draw more fans from Hillsborough, and that should help stabilize the club and improve performance on the field. Piniella is uniquely suited, given his old Tampa ties, to break down the parochialism that still divides Tampa Bay. Piniella never really left his hometown, and his fondness for South Tampa restaurants and the Pinellas beaches, even as he played and managed thousands of miles away, reflects the nature of a city that values lifelong friends and local roots.
Of course, even the best manager can do only so much. The team he takes over still lacks talent and experience. The frustration of managing the Rays this first year should provide some classic Piniella moments. Just to prime the pump, the Rays may want to add some dirt around home plate or loosen the ties on first base. This is entertainment, after all, and suffering fans want color and character along with as many wins as possible. So welcome home, Sweet Lou -- we look forward to your firing up the Trop.
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