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If Rothschild goes, look out for Piniella

By HUBERT MIZELL

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 28, 2000


ST. PETERSBURG -- It's a holiday weekend. Time for pride, picnics and parading our heroes. In a mood to celebrate were 24,373 at Tropicana Field, but good money would be spent on a little more bad Devil Rays baseball.

Why us?

My community, so tormented by yesterday's Bucs and today's Lightning, deserves better than this embarrassing Tampa Bay franchise of summer, an evolving $63-million memorial to misfortune now serving its sentence as America's worst.

Historically, when baseball players disappoint, their manager takes the fall. Gets fired. Larry Rothschild knows how it works. Every loss dilutes his job security. They've won three of the past 14. If the Rays don't soon succeed, buzzards may circle.

After two seasons and two months, my grade on Rothschild is "incomplete." With expectations rising, along with payroll, injuries dismantled Rays. Vinny Castilla struggled. Kevin Stocker disintegrated. Jose Canseco went into a power brownout. Roberto Hernandez sunk from dependable closer to clobbered clunker.

With such failings of health and ability, neither Joe Torre nor Casey Stengel would've been a winner managing this team. Even if, with savvy, they might've saved a few more games. Whatever, if the world keeps on beating the devil out of the Rays, the bouncing of Rothschild is predictable.

Suppose it happens. Larry paying for shortfalls of Wilson Alvarez, Juan Guzman, Castilla, Stocker, Hernandez and others. Whom might Rays czar Vince Naimoli and general manager Chuck LaMar, who is stacking some expensive failures of his own, seek as manager?

Lou Piniella would make sense.

In his eighth season with Seattle, the 56-year-old Tampa native is deeply and eternally tied to Devil Rays country. But there is no way Piniella, this Memorial Day, would -- or could -- address any idea of replacing Rothschild.

"My utmost hope is that it works out for Larry," said Lou, who as Cincinnati manager gave Rothschild his first major-league job as bullpen coach in 1990. "He's a good baseball man. As for me, all energies are being poured into making this is an outstanding season for the Mariners."

That said

This is a certainty, not an if: Should the Rays make a managerial change, Piniella absolutely would be interested. Easy to figure, really. His three children live here along with both of Anita and Lou's grandkids.

His contract with the Mariners runs out in October. After living for years in New Jersey, off-seasons for the 14-year manager have since 1991 been spent in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties. He owns two homes here, on the Gulf of Mexico at Redington Beach and at Avila Country Club north of Tampa.

Lou's alma maters are Jesuit High and the University of Tampa. He is as local as cigars and Gasparilla. A fiery outfielder with a consistent bat, Piniella hit .291 over 16 seasons with the Royals and Yankees.

He managed the Yanks and Reds three seasons apiece before moving to the Mariners. Piniella managed a world title at Cincinnati (1990) and has twice led AL West champs (1995, '97) at Seattle.

Lou Piniella Jr., 31, is in the tile business in Hillsborough. Kristi, a 28-year-old daughter, also lives in Tampa. Grandchildren are Kassidy, 4, and Sophie, 4 months. Youngest of the Piniella children, 21-year-old Derek, played football for Virginia Tech in last season's national championship loss to Florida State. With two years eligibility remaining, he is giving up college athletics to concentrate on academics and will transfer to Florida.

"After spring training with the Hokies, he was a third-string defensive end," papa Lou said. "Derek said, "Dad, I'm going to be living in Florida so I've decided to put all efforts into getting my degree.' He plans to enroll June 9 in the School of Communications at Gainesville."

So that's the deal. Lou is pulling hard for Rothschild to turn the Devil Rays into winners. To remain Rays manager. If that isn't to be, Naimoli and LaMar can count on Piniella being interested.

Me talking, not Lou.

Last week, when the Rays were playing at Texas, former Seattle first baseman David Segui, now with the Rangers, told a Tampa Bay guy, "You're going to love playing for Piniella next year."

Just guessing, of course.

With the Rays, there has been no hint of positive momentum. Haven't won three in a row all season. It would be fun to see, if Tampa Bay became a winner, surging attendance into the mid-30s and 40s, what fun is reachable at the Trop. In such an atmosphere, scoreboard promos get funnier, concessions taste better, smiles broaden and entertainment value zooms.

It happened in Seattle, a city that almost lost its Mariners. They're winners, despite losing Randy Johnson and Junior Griffey, with this season's crowds averaging 37,000.

Just win a few, Rays.

Piniella's efforts are unquestionably for Seattle, but Lou's heart undoubtedly belongs to Tampa Bay.

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