Piniella always ready to take up a worthy cause

With less than five weeks until the start of spring training, Lou Piniella is getting more and more excited about getting back in uniform.

Published January 14, 2007

With less than five weeks until the start of spring training, Lou Piniella is getting more and more excited about getting back in uniform. He goes to Chicago this week to pick out an apartment, make some appearances and attend his first Cubs Convention, the annual soldout fan extravaganza that reflects the city's affection for the team.

The Cubs' new manager likes what the team has done in the offseason, hopes it can fill its last major hole by acquiring a centerfielder, and thinks it can contend - and win - in the NL Central.

"Our division has produced the National League champion the last couple years," he said. "Why not the Cubs?"

But before he leaves, Piniella has something important to do in Tampa. He is hosting a golf tournament Monday at his Avila club to raise awareness about a brutal and obscure disease known as Epidermolysis Bullosa, a so-far incurable genetic condition that leaves children covered with blisters and open wounds and forced to be bandaged from the neck down.

Piniella hadn't heard about EB until family friends told him how it affects their daughter, and he was touched and determined to help.

"It just breaks your heart," he said. "It's something not too many people know about. But it affects 100,000 children in the United States. They get blisters, which need to be lanced, and infections. These kids live in bandages their entire lives. It's just a terrible disease."

The tournament sold out quickly, though a few $100 tickets for tonight's pre-golf party and silent auction are available call Marybeth Sheridan in Tampa at 813-325-1955. But Piniella hopes that spreading the word will raise interest and money, especially since the cost of care and bandages for each kid can approach $50,000 a year. Sheridan is a founder of the EB Action Network, and information on the cause, and helping, can be found at ebanusa.org.

RAYS RUMBLINGS: Talks with the three arbitration-eligible players - Seth McClung, Josh Paul and Ty Wigginton - will continue until Tuesday's exchange of figures, but if there is no deal by then under a new team policy the cases will go to a hearing. ... Scott Kazmir changed his uniform number from 26 to Aubrey Huff's old 19; Delmon Young will take 26, which he wore in the minors. Among others, Jae Seo changed to No. 40, Shawn Camp to 22 and Don Zimmer to 59, marking his 59th season. ... There have been talks with right-hander Victor Zambrano about a minor-league contract, but he may have better offers. ... A new edition of FieldTurf, similar in color but less shiny on TV, will be installed at the Trop in the same dirt-basepaths configuration. ... Three days of meetings with baseball operations staffers was "tremendously valuable" in terms of "spirited" conversations and concepts, executive vice president Andrew Friedman said. ... The annual winter caravan is planned for Feb. 6-9; the fanfest and launch of single-game ticket sales is Feb. 24.

ALMOST FAMOUS: Goose Gossage came within 21 votes of being elected to the Hall of Fame, making the early forecast for election next year somewhat promising. The same goes for Jim Rice, and perhaps Andre Dawson and Bert Blyleven, too. The top candidate joining the ballot next year is Tim Raines. He is far from a lock to get in, meaning more consideration for the holdover candidates. The same in 2009, when Rickey Henderson is the best of an otherwise mediocre class. But it will be interesting in 2010, as Roberto Alomar, Barry Larkin, Edgar Martinez and Tampa's own Fred McGriff join the ballot.

MAC STILL MUM: In his first public comments since the Hall of Fame voting announcement, Mark McGwire had little to say about being left out of Cooperstown. The former slugger, dogged by questions about steroid use, spoke to the Daily Titan, the Cal State Fullerton newspaper, Friday at a charity event: "I had an absolutely wonderful career that I am very proud of. I'm not in control of what happens - I was in control of hitting the ball."

MISCELLANY: Among the still-unsigned free agents is ex-Ray first baseman/outfielder/DH Eduardo Perez, who had a strong 2006 half-season with Cleveland (.303 average, .979 on-base plus slugging percentage) before irregular playing time after a trade to Seattle led to a dropoff (.195, .545) ... The Mets and pitcher Jorge Sosa were close to agreement on a one-year contract worth about $1.25-million.

Information from Times wires contributed to this report. Marc Topkin can be reached at topkin@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8801.