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Sports

Sour Sunset For Sweet Lou

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According to the Chicago Tribune, Lou Piniella is considering retirement as manager of the Cubs after this season. “I do know this will be my last managing job,” Piniella told the Tribune. “I do know that for a fact.”

What we, the public, don’t know is what to make of Piniella or his career. Is he a mad scientist or a madman? Was he a great player and manager or overrated as both?

There’s a Bill Parcells element to Lou Piniella in that he has lived on reputation for so long that we find it hard to parse truth from myth. Parcells last won a Super Bowl in 1990 – the same year Lou last won the World Series. Both men made bad teams good with foul tempers and fouler mouths, their players generally loving or loathing them.

Yet we brand these men geniuses despite the growing bottleneck of years between achievements. Perhaps they are brilliant. Perhaps they are a shade darker. But they are important to us, regardless.

Why?

Even with the terse tone and thorny persona, there’s a resonant charm to these men. They are lifers, built by and adhering to maxims and disciplines of the World War II generation. No crying in baseball, if you will.

Piniella is proof that coaching and managing is often more infection than profession. Indeed, long after these men carry enough commas in their checkbooks to put their family tree through college, they persist.

In 1988, he was fired as manager of the Yankees. You could argue he was fired just for being the manager of the Yankees. He won 90 games in 1986 and 89 games in 1987. In essence, he took a spin through the Steinbrenner turnstile during an epoch when managers were fired for contrived crimes – the Boss being his surly worst in the 1980s.

In 1990 Piniella won the World Series in his first year as manager of the Cincinnati Reds, shocking and sweeping the dynastic Oakland Athletics. It symbolized the executive obtuseness of George Steinbrenner, who let Piniella, Al Leiter, Jose Rijo, and a phalanx of talented baseball men walk to kinder, calmer, and more fruitful climes.

Piniella had the infamous locker room wrestling match with Rob Dibble in 1992, extending the cuddly, theatrical narrative of the avuncular tough guy in the Billy Martin vein. Scrappy. A smoker between innings. Kicks dirt and leaves umps knee deep in dust. Throws a chair or a hook when prodded at the wrong moment.

After three years with the Reds Piniella left for Seattle, suffering some lean years before building the Mariners into a powerhouse, with an apex of 116 wins in 2001 before losing to the Yankees in the playoffs. Then he left for Tampa. Then he left for Chicago.

Like so many of his peers, Piniella was comfy between gigs, downright garrulous and hilarious in the broadcast booth or the golf course, clad in Hawaiian shirts and shorts. Then comes the itch, the vocational rash that can’t be reached with a rake.

Piniella says he’s glad he accepted the Cubs challenge, no matter the result – a euphemism and circuitous admission of a woeful move. He left a juggernaut in Seattle to manage the Tampa Devil Rays under the guise of being close to his family.

Retirement is the way to spend time with your family, not to lose 95 games a season while enduring the same grueling grind of spring training and air travel and 81 road games. Once he realized what the world knew the day he signed (that he would lose a lot), he bolted for Chicago and a team that hadn’t won in 100 years.

Whether you believe in Bartmen or goat curses or karma, the end will be sour for Sweet Lou, a man who followed his heart more than his mind. He is fascinating because he blurs the line between guts and glory, equal helpings of sucker and savant.

Piniella hit over .300 seven times in his career with a sweet swing and the grit that italicized the Bronx Zoo of the late 1970s. He retired with a .291 lifetime average and won two World Series titles as a player. He won’t get Hall of Fame consideration for his bat. But with nearly 1900 managerial wins he may get some love for his brain.

So who and what is Louis Victor Piniella? It’s a question I cannot answer. But it’s worth pondering. He deserves that much.

Feel free to email me: Jakster1@mac.com