‘Sweet Lou’ concludes brilliant pro baseball career
We first ran across him as a minor leaguer in Aberdeen, S.D. in 1964 during the infancy of a brilliant professional baseball career which ended Sunday as the manager of the Chicago Cubs for Louis Victor Piniella less than a week short of his 67th birthday.
He was nicknamed “Sweet Lou” both for his swing as a major league hitter and, facetiously, to describe his demeanor as a player and manager.
We played against each other in the Northern League in 1964, Piniella with the Aberdeen Pheasants, which was minor league affiliate of the Baltimore Orioles, while we toiled as a pitcher with the St. Cloud (Minn.) Rox, a minor league team of the Chicago Cubs.
There was no comparison with the talent level of the two teams as Piniella’s teammates included pitchers Jim Palmer, whose 18-wheelers full of men’s underwear run up and down IH 10, Dave Leonhard and Eddie Watt, who all pitched for the Orioles soon after the 1964 season.
Also playing for Aberdeen that year were shortstop Mark Belanger, who won several Golden Gloves with Baltimore and second baseman Davey Johnson, who went on to play and manage many years in the major leagues. And to top it off, the team which won the Northern League by a landslide was managed by Cal Ripken, Sr., who was a long-time coach for the Orioles.
All five of those players finished the 1964 season with the Baltimore Orioles, with Palmer being the only former Pheasant to be named to the Baseball Hall of Fame while Belanger was the American League All-Star shortstop in 1976 and Piniella was named to the AL All-Star team in 1972.
Our paths crossed again in 1979 when Piniella was the keynote speaker at a banquet in Schenectady, N.Y. honoring the 25th anniversary of the 1954 Little League World Championship team on which I played.
As busy as he was, Piniella found time to pose for a photo with my mother and nephew Joe Wechter, who was just a tyke then. The enlarged photo sits proudly on my dresser today.
Piniella was born in Tampa, Fla. Aug. 28, 1943 and attended Jesuit High School of Tampa where he was an All-American in basketball. He attended the University of Tampa where he was an All-American in baseball. He played his first major league game in 1964 with the Orioles at the age of 21.
Prior to the 1966 season Piniella was traded by Baltimore to the Cleveland Indians. He was selected by the Seattle Pilots in the 1968 Major League Baseball expansion draft, but was traded at the end of spring training to the Kansas City Royals.
He played for the Royals from 1969-73 and was the American League Rookie of the Year in 1969. While playing for the Royals, Piniella became the first player in major league history to be thrown out at first, second, third and home in a single game.
After the 1973 season, Piniella was traded by the Royals to the New York Yankees for reliever Lindy McDaniel. He played with the Yankees for 11 seasons, winning five AL East titles, four AL pennants and two World Series championships.
When his playing days were over, Piniella joined the Yankees coaching staff as batting coach. He managed the Yankees from 1986-1987 and was promoted to general manager to start 1988 and took over as manager again after George Steinbrenner fired Billy Martin on June 23.
Piniella managed the Cincinnati Reds from 1990-1992 and won the World Series in 1990 against the heavily-favored Oakland Athletics. He took over managing the Seattle Mariners from 1993-2002, winning the Manager of the Year in 1995 and 2001, when he led the Mariners to a record-tying 116 wins.
In the Mariners’ 33-year season history, they had 11 winning seasons and reached the playoffs four times, with seven of those winning seasons and all of the playoff appearances occurring during Piniella’s 10 years at Seattle.
Following the 2002 season Piniella left Seattle to manage his hometown Tampa Bay Devil Rays. In his first two seasons he was able to improve the team somewhat and won a franchise-record 70 games in 2004.
Piniella was critical of the Devil Rays’ front office for focusing too much on the future and not enough for immediate results and stepped down as manager Sept. 21, 2005.
On Oct. 16, 2006 Piniella agreed to a three-year contract to manage the Chicago Cubs for $10 million with a $5 million option for a fourth year. After a poor start in 2007, he led the Cubs to the National League Central Division title
Piniella led the Cubs to their second straight divisional title in 2008. It was the first time the franchise made it to consecutive postseasons since winning the National League pennant three years in a row from 1906-1908.
On July 20, Piniella announced his intention to retire as manager of the Cubs at the end of the season and had every intention of finishing the season. But the failing health of his aging mother forced him to make Sunday’s 16-5 loss against Atlanta at Wrigley Field his final game.
My mother hasn’t gotten better,” he announced Sunday. “In fact there have been a couple of other complications. The best thing is to step down and go home and take care of her.”
Piniella finished with a .291 career batting average and an overall record of 1,835-1713 as a major league manager, trailing only his hometown buddy Tony LaRussa, Bobby Cox and Joe Torre in wins among active managers. His record with the Cubs was 316-293.
Third base coach Mike Quade will manage the Cubs the remainder of the season and will be considered along with Triple-A manager Ryne Sandberg and a host of other candidates for the full-time job after the season.
KWICKIES…A tip of the Korner Kap to the Pearland, Texas team for being the ONLY undefeated American team in the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pa. after walloping New England champ Fairfield, Conn. 14-1 in four innings Sunday night. They played against the winner of Fairfield and Auburn, Wash. Tuesday night.
Neither of the two Lone Star State’s NFL franchises is setting the world on fire in their preseason exhibition games with the Dallas Cowboys weak on offense while the Houston Texans’ defense appears to be quite porous. The Pokes squeaked out a 16-14 victory on a late safety, while the Texans were trounced 38-20 by the World Champion New Orleans Saints. The two Texas teams will face off against each other Saturday at 7 p.m. in Reliant Stadium in what both coaches term the most important game before the regular season begins.
And while on the subject of NFL preseason games, Orange’s Earl Thomas had a decent game Saturday night playing with the starting defense the entire first half although his Seattle Seahawks were edged 27-24 by the Green Bay Packers. Seattle’s other first-round draft pick Russell Okung suffered a sprained ankle and could be out for as long as two months.
Roy Oswalt is beginning to fit in real well with the Philadelphia Phillies and is helping in their bid to make the National League playoffs. But his former teammate Lance Berkman can’t seem to do anything right with the New York Yankees. The Puma is not hitting the size of his hat, he bopped A-Rod with a line drive in batting practice and now is on the disabled list when he stepped on a pitcher’s foot and sprained his ankle when he grounded out to first base.
JUST BETWEEN US…It’s difficult to understand how a federal grand jury can indict Roger Clemens for allegedly lying to Congress when it’s merely his word against that of his personal trainer Brian McNamee. The Rocket has maintained his innocence since Day One of the steroid scandal and testified even though he was told he didn’t have to. This Korner believes his “pal” Andy Pettitte did him in with his testimony and now Roger is trying to buy his way out by maintaining his innocence and paying millions in lawyer fees. Whether or not Clemens does any jail time remains to be seen but it’s a sure bet he can kiss goodbye the idea of ever being inducted into Baseball’s Hall of Fame at Cooperstown.