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For their own good
Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
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Sweet days again
Back in the big city, his sad-sack Cubs in first, Lou Piniella has been reborn.
By MARC TOPKIN, Times Staff Writer
Published September 2, 2007
Managing again after a year in the booth, Lou Piniella has a front office committed to spending money to improve. He also has his old fire back. "This is a better situation. At this time of my life, this is the situation for me."
[Times file photo (2004)]
Lou Pinella didn't have much to smile about in Tampa Bay. The Rays finished fourth once, last twice and averaged 67 wins in his three seasons. He said he appreciated the opportunity to work at home, enjoyed everything but the losing and learned things about handling young players that help him now.
CHICAGO -- He says a lot of the same things, talking about swagger and winning "baseball games" and how his team needs more offense, stammering and pausing and offering a few of those looks, sharing his thoughts without worrying about whose feelings may be hurt. ¶ And he says he does a lot of the same things, managing the Cubs as he managed the Devil Rays, and the Mariners and Reds and Yankees before that, which is to say that every game is the most vital to win, and he'll do whatever's necessary to make it happen. ¶ But it's obvious Lou Piniella is in a better place. ¶ And it's not only because he has the Cubs in first place.
Piniella looks healthier, the hollowness in his eyes replaced by the once-familiar fire, and noticeably happier, reveling in the big-city spotlight and big-game environment.
"It's been fun, it really has. I've enjoyed it," Piniella said, sitting in the Cubs dugout in his No. 41 jersey. "This is a better situation. At this time of my life, this is the situation for me."
As when hired by the Rays, Piniella, now 64, was put in charge of a salvage project, taking over a Cubs team that lost 96 games last season and eager to make him the face of a new direction.
But that's where the similarities diminish, as the Cubs followed his signing by committing $300-million to free agents and, at Piniella's urging, continuing to improve a team with a $100-million payroll.
The result can be seen in the standings, as the Cubs (at 69-65 in an admittedly mediocre division) lead the NL Central by two games with 28 to play. And the payoff could be spectacular come October should Piniella lead the once-lovable losers to their first World Series win since 1908. The Rays finished fourth once, last twice and averaged 67 wins in his three seasons.
Is the difference better players, or is Piniella a better manager?
"Better manager?" he says slowly, with his typical chuckle. "I thought I did a pretty good job in Tampa Bay. I really did. It was a tough division and the competition was very tough. I did the best I could.
"Look, I didn't manage any different in Tampa Bay than when I managed anywhere else. ... If given the opportunity I'd have won there. I enjoyed the kids that we had there, our teams played hard and we got after it. We were just short in areas."
"I don't know that he can be judged on what happened in Tampa," said Larry Rothschild, offering the perspective of the Rays' first manager, the Cubs' pitching coach and an offseason Tampa resident. "I think baseball people knew and felt like he did a tremendous job there, really. Look at the way the team was evolving when he left. They had taken some nice strides. He probably left prematurely. Who knows what would have happened if he stayed."
Piniella split after the 2005 season, with a year remaining on his contract, in somewhat mutual agreement with Stuart Sternberg's incoming ownership group. He said he appreciated the opportunity to work at home, enjoyed everything but the losing and learned things about handling young players that help him now.
He spent last season doing TV work, waiting for what he insists is his last managing job, signing a three-year deal for a chance to win again before he walks away.
And from all accounts - won-over players, adoring fans, front office suits and even the irascible Chicago media, which initially portrayed him as a doddering codger and made fun of his misstatements, such as a sacrilegious reference to the White Sox winning on the "north side" and calling the curse-causing goat a horse - he has done a heck of a job, especially after a rough start - a rock-bottom 22-31 on June 2.
"He's been everything I hoped for," Dunedin-born GM Jim Hendry said. "We got off to that tough start, things were kind of going bad, and that's when you find out whether you've got the right guy or not. I give Lou a lot of credit. When things have to be righted in the middle of a season it's not the general manager, it's the guy on the top step of the dugout. He did a terrific job. We became a whole different ballclub over a short period of time."
Piniella did what he does best: manage.
Tweaking, tinkering, shuffling and forever searching for something better, he made changes at every position but first and third, plus the rotation and bullpen. He moved Alfonso Soriano from centerfield to left (and he immediately got hot), installed Ryan Theriot at shortstop, gave pesky infielder Mike Fontenot and hard-throwing reliever Carlos Marmol more opportunities. The team traded away two opening day starters, catcher Michael Barrett and shortstop Cesar Izturis, and acquired an All-Star, catcher Jason Kendall.
He has made a series of successful moves in the dugout, employing an aggressive offense to offset an unexpected lack of power and key injuries, and some unconventional pitching decisions. But it's the day he went onto the field that stands out as the moment he may have literally kick-started the team's turnaround.
It's June 2, the day after a caught-on-camera dugout fistfight between ace Carlos Zambrano and Barrett, and the Cubs had just fallen behind the Braves on the way to what would be their sixth straight loss, and 31st in 53 games.
Piniella had, finally, seen enough. He raced from the dugout and, with the Wrigley Field faithful finally having something to cheer for, launched a face-reddening, venom-spewing, hat-kicking tirade at umpire Mark Wegner reminiscent of, well, the old Lou Piniella.
Cubs players still discuss whether it was a calculated move ("If he did that, he's a genius," reliever Scott Eyre said) to take the focus off the dugout dustup and the distractions it could cause, or simply the result of utter frustration. ("I think he was letting us know he wasn't going to sit on the bench and watch us play like that anymore," infielder Mark DeRosa said.)
But there is no debate the Cubs became a tighter, more intense and better team since, having gone 47-34.
"He got kicked out of that game and we realized that he's going to fight for us and we started to get that energy," Soriano said.
There has been noticeably more liveliness in the clubhouse since, more resolve and more of that "Cubbies swagger" Piniella asked for. "Players kind of chuckled about it when it was in the paper, but all he meant by that was walk around like you guys are good," Eyre said. "The way he spoke about the team and winning and everything else, you wanted to do better for him and make his words come true."
Piniella downplays his contributions, saying, "We turned it around when we started playing better."
But with Piniella in charge, it's little surprise they managed to do that.