The Sweet Background Music of Lou Piniella

Cubs manager Lou Piniella is in the last year of his three year contract. It is not clear what Piniella will do if the Cubs do not decide to keep him for another year, raising the possibility of Piniella not being involved with Major League Baseball for the first time since the tail end of the Johnson administration. Piniella has been a player, coach, executive or manager since 1968, although he made his big league debut in 1964 before returning to the minor leagues for a few more years.

Piniella is a baseball lifer who was a good, but not great player and a great, if controversial, manager, who has been associated with an impressive range of baseball moments and people. He played alongside Harvey Haddix a few years after his 12 inning perfect game loss, and Don Mattingly as he was becoming one of baseball’s top hitters. Piniella, who later earned a reputation for being a fiery and excitable manager himself, played for Billy Martin during his first three stints as Yankee manager. Sweet Lou made a cameo in one of the best baseball books ever written, Jim Bouton’s Ball Four, and made a game saving, of often overlooked, play in the outfield preserving a Yankee victory in one of the most famous baseball games ever played, the one game playoff between the Yankees and Red Sox in 1978. He played for two expansion teams in the same year, including one that does not exist anymore, and two World Series winners.

Piniella was never a big star during a playing career most associated with his time as a second tier star on those great Yankee teams of the late 1970s and early 1980s, but he remained a Yankee after Catfish Hunter, Ed Figueroa, Goose Gossage, Thurman Munson, Chris Chambliss, Graig Nettles, Bucky Dent, Roy White, Mickey Rivers and Reggie Jackson were gone, even going on to manage the team between Billy Martin fourth and fifth go around as manager.

Piniella’s first years as a manager are part of the story of the underachieving dysfunctional Yankee teams of the late 1980s, but he has grown from there to become a manager of historic significance. Currently the 14th winningest manager in history, he is only about three decent seasons short of being in the top ten. He is one of four managers to win manager of the year in each league. His work with the 1990 Reds stands out as a tremendous managerial accomplishment not only winning a world championship that nobody expected, but upsetting an heavily favored Oakland A’s team in the World Series.

While he has been a more high profile manager than many, Piniella has never really earned a national reputation as a manager like, for example, Tony LaRussa, Joe Torre or even Bobby Cox. Instead, throughout his playing and managing career he has been something like a form of background music to many fans, always being around, contributing something, but never becoming the main story and often easy to forget-although less easy to ignore.

I have never known baseball without Lou Piniella-first encountering him as a solid if unspectacular member of Yankee teams that were always in the playoffs, later learning that he had been Rookie of the Year for the Royals, who were the team the Yankees were always playing against in those playoffs, and still later reading about him as a hot-headed rookie in Ball Four. By the end of his career, Piniella became something of an elder statesman on the Yankees and, along with Ron Guidry and Willie Randolph, links to happier times. After leaving the Yankees to manage elsewhere, Piniella often seemed to pop up in October, managing some other team, and on one occasion even beating the Yankees in the playoffs.

Piniella started in the big leagues earlier and has been in the big leagues, one capacity or another, more continuously than another celebrated manager-one who has made his plans to retire after 2010 defiinte-Bobby Cox. If Piniella also decides to retire after this year, baseball will, of course, continue, but the background music of the game won’t be the same without Sweet Lou in a big league uniform somewhere hitting a line drive, as he did for many years, or arguing with an umpire as he has done for the last four decades.