tampabay.com

Words to the whys: It was never to be

By JOHN ROMANO
Published October 1, 2005


ST. PETERSBURG - It should have ended with champagne.

Streamers falling from the ceiling and fans screaming from the rafters. There should have been laughter, hugs and more than a few tears of joy. It should have ended some years from now with a championship at Tropicana Field.

Instead, the end came quietly in the manager's office Friday evening. In front of Lou Piniella was a sheet of paper with a list of hand-written talking points. At the very top of the page was one underlined word.

Why?

It is not merely the question of the day, but the riddle of this franchise.

Why did Piniella want to leave? And why did the Devil Rays let him go? Why did Piniella, on the verge of freedom, seem so melancholy and why is it that we feel exactly the same way?

Above all else, why did the best move in Rays history have to end three years later with everyone shaking their heads and shrugging their shoulders?

Oh, there are explanations. Some might even make sense. To hear the principals explain it, this was the only rational solution.

Yet it had the feel of two parents explaining to their children why it was best that Mommy and Daddy no longer live in the same house.

It may be best, but it doesn't make it right.

Look, I understand the arguments. Piniella wants to win today. I get that. New owner Stuart Sternberg is still planning for tomorrow. I get that, too.

It just would have been nice if they could have booked a room somewhere between haste and patience. Maybe found some common ground near sensible.

The problem is Piniella has grown tired of waiting. And far too tired of losing. Let's face it, he's never had to go through anything like this. The last time he had lived through a 90-loss season was 1970 as a young Royals outfielder. He's had three consecutive seasons of 90 or more losses here.

By now, there is no question he was brought here under false pretenses. The previous ownership regime made promises that were never delivered.

Piniella knew there would be a rough year or two, but he did not expect to be working with the game's lowest payroll every season.

"I don't know what he was promised," catcher Toby Hall said, "but obviously you can see he didn't get it."

Sitting in his office before a recent game, Piniella talked with conviction about how much he has grown as a manager in Tampa Bay. He's learned much, he said, about working with young players. He's learned the value of patience. He's learned there are other ways to approach the game.

Then a grin began to spread across his face.

"But, damn, I didn't need to learn this much."

He laughed at times, but the losing was getting harder to take. And, at age 62, it was more than he was willing to bear.

He told Sternberg as much in one of their earliest meetings. Sternberg, to his credit, had not tried to placate Piniella with false promises. He explained his vision included a more gradual increase in payroll.

Piniella, who is among the highest-paid managers in the game, eventually came to the conclusion that the salary wasn't worth the losing.

In the end, it was Piniella who initiated his departure. First, by publicly criticizing Sternberg's vision and, later, by having his agent inquire about the possibility of buying out the final year of his contract.

Does that mean Piniella is at fault? No. He has every right to feel as if the Rays misled him in 2002. So does that mean Sternberg is the villain? No. Sternberg was merely granting Piniella's request.

You could blame it on Vince Naimoli, or you could chalk it up as fate. The only thing we know with any certainty is that it's a darn shame.

Who do you suppose is the best manager in baseball? Bobby Cox? Tony La Russa? Joe Torre? Piniella? You could make an argument for any of them. The point is that it's a very short list and Piniella is near the top.

And who else among this franchise could you honestly say is among the very best in the game?

Piniella, over the past few months, has been torn. At times, he talked of wanting to get out. At other times, he talked of how badly he wanted this to work. Sometimes, he would argue both sides simultaneously.

"I'm glad I came. I really am," Piniella said Friday. "But the way I'm leaving is disappointing. I'm disappointed we didn't take it further.

"If I had known it would turn out this way, I might have made a different decision three years ago. I feel good about what we accomplished here, I think the ballclub is in better shape, but I recognize it's the right time to go."

So there you have it. Piniella says it's the right time and Sternberg obviously agrees.

Crazy, isn't it?

We had to get to the final chapter before Piniella and the Rays finally got on the same page.