Thursday, April 1, 1993 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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The Pride And The Passion -- M's Manager Lou Piniella Brings Emotion And A Fierce Will To Win To Seattle Baseball

Lou Piniella's brown eyes provide not just a window into his soul but a glimpse into his engine room.

They delight in humor, narrow with rage and display an ardent mix of passion and compassion.

"Yes, I prefer to call it passion rather than temper," said Anita Piniella, his wife of 25 seasons.

A former boss of Piniella's used that same word. "Passion. That's how I would describe it," said New York Yankee owner George Steinbrenner, who twice hired, twice fired and since has twice tried to re-hire Piniella as Yankee manager.

Passion alone was not the reason the Mariners last fall gave Piniella a three-year, $2.5 million contract to be their manager. He may have a singleness of purpose, but he isn't one-dimensional. People who know him cite his feel for the game, intelligence, ability to adapt and motivate.

Still, it is passion that connects those qualities, like the string in a pearl necklace. It produces his overpowering drive and well-known tantrums, but also contributes to a softness that might surprise even those who have played with and for him.

It made him a legend as a player who attacked water coolers, fences and fastballs with equal ferocity. And it drove him through an exhausting championship season as manager of the Reds in 1990, after he had been fired for the second time by Steinbrenner and arrived in Cincinnati on a mission to prove himself.

It's what moved him to sponsor an annual charity roast in Tampa for the retired nuns who been his elementary school teachers in West Tampa. And what led to his clubhouse fight with Reds pitcher Rob Dibble last season and an embrace on the mound the next night after Dibble got the last out.

"That's what I really love about this man," his wife said. "He may blow up at times, but a minute later he forgets it. And if he's wrong, he's not ashamed to say he's sorry. That's the way he's been for 25 years. That's maybe why the excitement has stayed in our lives."

The tantrums "cloud his integrity, his honesty and his intelligence," said Tony Gonzales, a Tampa lawyer and a childhood friend of Piniella who is also the uncle of Mariner first baseman Tino Martinez.

"It's the only negative he has, and it's really not so bad," said Steinbrenner. "Maybe it's what made him the player he was and got him to the big show. Whether he likes to admit it or not, he's a lot like Billy."

"Billy" is Billy Martin, with whom Piniella shares more than just a spot on Steinbrenner's list of hired and fired.

Said Piniella: "We have the same blood in us."

He has had those traits all his life.

Before he was known as a baseball star, Piniella was a basketball star. A high-school all-American at Tampa's Jesuit High School in 1961, he received hundreds of scholarship offers.

A persistent ankle injury ended his basketball career, so he went to the University of Tampa and became an all-American in baseball his freshman year. He was drafted by Cleveland in 1962, whereupon he focused his intensity on baseball and Anita Garcia. He met her through friends, but she had brushed aside a couple of requests for a date.

Finally, he called her and said, "you have two strikes. Three strikes and you're out." So she agreed to go out with him, and before long they were married, just before he went to join his Class AAA Portland team in 1967.

What a wild ride the couple shared through the minors and 14 years in the big leagues. In Portland, Anita got some early signs of her husband's personality. In one game, he struck out to kill a rally. When he went to his outfield position, he kicked the fence, only to have it fall on top of him. He had to be pulled from under it.

"He was the hothead of all time," said Stan Williams, a former Portland teammate and his Reds pitching coach.

He made it to the 1969 training camp with the Seattle Pilots, and then to a big-league spot that same season with the American League's other expansion team, the Kansas City Royals. At age 26, he became the oldest player ever to be named Rookie of the Year, batting .281 with 11 home runs and 68 runs batted in.

He also broke his first water cooler in K.C., costing him $200. Another time, after striking out, he lay down and screamed, "Lord, please let this stadium fall on me. Don't let it hurt anyone else, just me."

On Dec. 7, 1973, Piniella was traded to the Yankees for pitcher Lindy McDaniel. He played 11 seasons in New York, hit .319 in four World Series, won two world championships and, like other Yankees in the days of the Bronx Zoo, went toe-to-toe with Steinbrenner.

"If I hit a home run, George would say it wasn't long enough," Piniella said.

Steinbrenner would get on Piniella for his weight, once fining him $1,000 a pound, $7,000 overall.

Piniella did not suffer in silence. He called Steinbrenner "Colonel Klink." Once, when Steinbrenner walked into the Yankee clubhouse, Piniella jabbed at the Boss' own weight, yelling "hide the Hershey bars!"

Piniella was loved by New York fans for his hustle and smart play, and pursued by the media for his honesty. "If I can't put my name to it, I won't say it," he said.

He was, ironically, appreciated the most by Steinbrenner, who demanded just two things, winning and, well, winning.

"The two biggest things we have in common," Piniella said, "is we both like to win and we're both very sore losers."

"A perfectionist," his high-school yearbook calls him.

Anita said, "He could go 2 for 4 and come home and say `I should have been 3 for 4.' "

She remembers waking up in the middle of the night and seeing the shadow of a man swinging a club. "I screamed, `Lou!' It was him, swinging the bat. He was always doing that, always working on his batting stance."

You don't have to tell that to Catfish Hunter, his roommate and teammate for five seasons.

"I remember it was 3 a.m., the lights were on and he's swinging his bat in front of a mirror," Hunter said. "He's says, `I'm going to get 'em today. I'm going to get 'em.' I said, `Lou, can't you get 'em later?' "

Hunter and Piniella were part of an irreverent core of Yankees - along with Thurman Munson, Bobby Murcer, Mickey Rivers and Graig Nettles - who essentially ran the clubhouse, if not the team.

"I remember in 1974 Bill Virdon was our manager and we decided we were better managers than he was," Murcer said. "So we designed our own steal signs and ran on our own.

"Virdon was so mad one game that he came up to us and said, `When will you guys ever be smart enough to learn our signs?' Can you imagine if someone did that same thing on Lou's team now?"

Despite their antics, the Yankees won. In Piniella's playing years in New York, they averaged 92 victories and finished lower than third only once.

The drive to the 1978 pennant was one of the most memorable times in the Yankees' storied history. Piniella was in the middle.

"I was with the team in Milwaukee in August and we were 13 or 14 games behind Boston," Steinbrenner said. "Lou and Thurman came up to my room to talk about the team."

At the time Martin was involved in a nasty controversy with Reggie Jackson, whom he refused to bat cleanup.

"We just asked him (Steinbrenner) to talk to the manager, see if this guy can hit fourth and let's go forward," Piniella said.

Martin, who had been in the bar, found out about the meeting and didn't like it that the two players were talking to the owner.

"Billy had been drinking and he came to the room," Steinbrenner said. "He was ready to punch everyone. It was quite a scene. But we settled down and decided what we had to do. We played .750 ball the rest of the way and won it."

They won it in the famous one-game playoff at Fenway Park. Bucky Dent hit the unexpected three-run home run, and in the ninth inning Piniella made what Steinbrenner called "the greatest defensive play I've ever seen," bluffing baserunner Rick Burleson into thinking he would catch a line drive he had lost in the sun, then throwing his glove out to his side at the last second and somehow grabbing the ball on one bounce. Burleson stopped at second. Had he gone to third, he would have scored the tying run on Jim Rice's long fly ball.

The Yankees won their second consecutive World Series that year. It seemed the dynasty was once again taking hold.

But it unraveled in 1979. By the end of July, New York was in fourth place, 14 games behind first-place Baltimore.

"We were on the road in Chicago and I still had my house there," Murcer said. "I invited Lou and Thurman to stay over. At 4 in the morning, I woke up because those two were in my living room arguing on what it takes to hit .300 in the big leagues. They were going back and forth all night."

The Yankees played that afternoon then flew home for an off-day. Munson flew his small plane home to Ohio to see his and children. The next day, while practicing takeoffs and landings at Akron-Canton Airport, he crashed and died.

Piniella learned about it during a birthday party for Anita that afternoon.

"Lou was so angry," Anita said. "I said, `how do you react this way?' He said, `He took a chance in that plane. I warned him not to take that chance.'

"I was angry, in my initial reaction, when you lose a friend like that," Piniella said. "I tried to convince him to sell that plane. And you know, if it hadn't happened, I know he would have sold it."

Piniella said the loss of Munson tore the heart out of the Yankees. They continued to win a lot of games, but never another World Series. In June 1984, two months short of his 41st birthday, Piniella retired to become full-time coach.

He had had no idea he would last that long. Two decades before, he had begun planning for it. While in the minors, he would return to college in Tampa in the offseason.

"I never got a degree and I should have," Piniella said. "I'm a semester short. I would have had a dual major, business and phys ed."

Later, he became part owner of three restaurants in Kansas City, then two more in New Jersey. He bought into a an Ossining, N.Y., auto dealership, and educated himself in the nuances of the stock market.

"He's a self-made person. He learned so much by reading," Anita said. "He was always prepared for his time after baseball. He used to say, `it's so hard to go up and it's so hard to get out.' "

He was named Yankee manager in 1986 and led the club to 90 wins and second place. They won 89 in 1987 but Steinbrenner replaced him with Martin, naming Piniella general manager.

"I understand why Steinbrenner did it," Piniella said. "When I was there he signed a $50 million cable TV deal. There was tremendous pressure to win at all costs."

Piniella returned as manager to replace Martin on June of 1988, but the Yankees went 45-48 under him and again, Steinbrenner replaced him.

"It was almost betrayal," Anita said. "When Lou went in to be fired, he literally had to hold me back from giving George a piece of my mind."

But it turned out well for Piniella and not so well for the Yankees. He spent a year as a broadcaster then accepted the Reds job. "The reason I left was to prove something, but I also didn't want to be another Billy Martin, fired five or six times," he said.

Steinbrenner says of the Pienella firing, "We made a mistake. When I say we, I mean me."

In Cincinnati, the title came immediately. The Reds won on the first day and held first place all the way, the first wire-to-wire run in a 162-game season.

But what a toll it took. Anita said there wasn't a day when he didn't come home without thinking about the previous game, nor a morning when he didn't think about the next one.

Mariner reliever Norm Charlton, then a Red, credited Piniella for the team's ability to withstand the heat.

"When we were eight up, we lost four in a row and 100 writers were in his office asking if we were going to lose it," he said. "But he brought us together. He had the capability to take the pressure off of us."

In doing so, he put it on himself.

"I tend to blame myself when things don't go right," he said. "I don't blame the club, the coaches. I blame me. I'm the one who is ultimately responsible In a way it's good because it takes away the focus from the team, but it's awfully demanding on a manager, too."

That stress manifests itself in his chain-smoking. (He wore a nicotine patch this spring but after watching the Mariner relief corps a few times ripped the patch off and got the pack out).

At other times, of course, the pressure hisses out of him as out of a released balloon. In the most notorious incident, in Cincinnati, he made his point to an umpire by ripping a base out of the ground and flinging it.

"I called and told him I could understand why he threw the bag once," Hunter said. "But twice?"

Anita said she understands his occasional rages. "We talk about it, but sometimes he just loses it for a minute. He'd feel bad later. He'd say, `why'd I do that?' It's an implusive thing."

Piniella said he has changed in his six seasons as a manager. He's embarrassed by his on-field tantrums. "I'm 49 years old, a father of three children. I shouldn't be doing that."

When Piniella quit after three years of Schott's rubbing dog hair on him for good luck, Anita believed that would be it for Piniella as a manager.

"I was kind of hoping that he had enough. I did try to discourage him (going to Seattle). I'll confess to that," Anita said. "But he wanted the challenge, and he kept telling me how good the organization was."

If he can succeed here, where everyone else has failed, Piniella will solidify his reputation as a smart manager, and perhaps become better known for his intelligence than his emotion.

"He comes on as casual and he might let you think you're getting away with something," Charlton said. "But he knows everything that's going on. You watch him look around. He's aware of everything. If you came to the park with car trouble, somehow he'd know it."

Piniella himself doesn't mind trying to set the record straight.

"People have heard it so often, they must think my first name is `Volatile,' he once told Sports Illustrated. "But it's not `Volatile' Lou Piniella."

And speaking to The New York Times, he said, "I'm very different from the way I'm perceived to be. I'm sensitive. Very sensitive. Too sensitive."

But don't expect him to allow sensitivity to get in the way of victories.

"What I'm getting paid to do is bring a winner here," he said. "I'm fully aware of that and we're going to do something about it."

Copyright (c) 1993 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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