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How much losing can a winner take?

Not much more, Rays manager Lou Piniella says, and players and coaches have seen changes in him.

By MARC TOPKIN, Times Staff Writer
Published May 9, 2004

[Times photo: Michael Rondou]
Lou Piniella hates losing, really hates losing, and the Devil Rays' poor start again this season has the manager wondering how, and when, it will end.

ANAHEIM, Calif. - Ever since Lou Piniella joined the Devil Rays, the focus has been on building a brighter future. He knew there would be some long nights and lopsided scores that would test his patience and sour his stomach, but even at the worst times he was buoyed by knowing better days were ahead.

But the team's horrible start this season seems to have obscured that view.

There are days when Piniella still talks confidently about the plan, about step-by-step improvement to get the Rays into playoff contention by next season or the one after.

But there are other days, more frequent recently, when he acknowledges the reality of the situation, admitting how the job has worn on him and there isn't much else he can do. Last week he raised the question of how long he will stay with the Rays, who have him under contract through the 2006 season.

"I think with me, we're just going to see what happens as far as turning this thing around," Piniella said.

"Losing just beats you. I mean it really does. It just beats you, like somebody hitting you with a damn sledgehammer. You can say to yourself and rationalize, "Well, it's only a game.' That's what my wife always tells me, "It's only a game,' and she's basically right. But it's more than a game. This is what you take pride in."

Few in the game take as much pride in winning as Piniella. And even fewer take losing as hard.

In the 16 full seasons Piniella played, he was on 12 teams that finished with winning records and he went to the playoffs fives times. In his first 16 seasons as a manager he finished under .500 only five times and never lost more than 88 games in a season, compiling a winning percentage of .528 and taking five teams to the postseason.

So far in Tampa Bay he has a .379 percentage and (through Friday) a 72-118 record, already losing more games in one season and one month here than he did his last two years in Seattle. At this rate the Rays are going to make him a .500 manager by the end of his contract.

"It's different," he said. "It's different for me. It really is. I've been fortunate. Everywhere I've been I've won, and when I played I won. I was talking to Coach (Bill) Parcells the other day in Dallas and he said, "If I can't win I've got to get out of this thing.' You know? When you're used to winning, this is difficult. It's not easy."

It's obvious to those who are around the team every day how losing has worn on Piniella.

Last season, he knew losing, albeit distasteful, was part of the growing process. But he expected better this season, and that has made it worse.

He has been down a lot of days, moody, irritable, uncharacteristically short and occasionally loud - angry words and, one night last month, a crash coming from his office.

"He's not used to losing, I can tell you that," said bench coach John McLaren, a 13-year associate. "He'll run in moods, then come out swinging. That's just the way he is. Lou will be fine."

The players are aware of how tough it has been on Piniella.

"We understand he expects more out of us," said veteran Tino Martinez, who played for Piniella in Seattle too. "We all know in here we have a better team than what we've shown, and it's frustrating to all of us. If we didn't have a good team, it really wouldn't affect Lou so much. ... We all understand his frustration."

After Thursday's loss Piniella declined to meet with the media and stayed at the stadium until after midnight with several of the coaches, venting. But after Friday's loss he was downright affable with reporters, acknowledging there wasn't much else he could do and joking about writing a poem about scoring runs.

"I can't figure him out," Robert Fick said. "One night he's furious when we lose; the next night, I don't want to say he doesn't care, but it's different."

Realistically, Piniella has exhausted just about all options with the current group of Rays. If they don't start winning soon, the next step would be to ask general manager Chuck LaMar to get him some new players.

But the biggest acquisition may be Stuart Sternberg, the New York investor whose purchase of 48 percent of the team is expected to be finalized this week.

If the Rays are going to improve enough to be competitive (or even respectable), it is becoming increasingly obvious they must spend more money, at least doubling their $22-million payroll, which would still leave them in the bottom third of the 30 teams.

If not, the losing may go on. And Piniella may not see those better days.

The Wednesday afternoon chat with Parcells, who has walked away from the NFL several times only to come back refreshed with another team, seemed to give Piniella, who turns 61 in August, reason to reflect.

He said his exit from managing would be different.

"I think when I walk away from it I'll keep walking," Piniella said. "There comes a time and place for everybody. When I walk away from it, or I get walked away from it, shoved away from it, that will be enough."

Last year Piniella said the Rays would be the last team he would manage. Last week, as the losses piled up, he acknowledged the end could be coming.

"When I'm done with this contract here, I'll be almost 20 years managing - with no time off," he said. "It'll be 20 consecutive years. That's a long time."

Even longer in Devil Ray years.

[Last modified May 9, 2004, 01:41:11]

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