Retiring Cubs manager Lou Piniella was truly one of a kind
My favorite Piniella story occured in a bathroom during an unforgettable interview
Piniella handled the toughest players and was always respected and loyal
He was intensely competitive, but Piniella never took himself too seriously
This is my 16th year as a professional journalist, which means I've seen some amazing things.
I was there when Barry Bonds hit his 73rd home run. There when Robin Ventura hit his grand slam single. There when Cal Ripken Jr. played in his final All-Star Game and there when Luis Gonzalez's blooper up the middle beat the Yankees in the 2001 World Series. I've strolled through the bowels of an arena with Allen Iverson, spent a week traveling with the Oakland A's, drove through the darkness of Ada, Okla., with a pair of rodeo brothers and watched as the world's craziest sneaker collector begged Michael Jordan for his Nikes.
I went on an undercover prostitution sting with Nashville's police department, jumped 13,000 feet from an airplane and interviewed both Minnesota Fats and Rodney Dangerfield shortly before their deaths.
It has been a career of memories. Great, wonderful, unforgettable memories.
Yet one moment reigns over all others.
In May 2001, I was in to Seattle to write a profile of Ichiro Suzuki, at the time a rookie phenom with the Mariners. After sitting down with Ichiro, I asked the team's media relations director for a couple of minutes alone with Lou Piniella, in his second-to-last season as the club's skipper.
"Just go on in right now," I was told. "Lou's got a few moments."
Upon entering Piniella's office, I was greeted by his voice from an adjacent room. "C'mon in," he said. "I'm here."
I entered, of all possible places, the bathroom, where Piniella stood at a urinal. His left hand was being used to urinate. His right hand, aloft in the air, held a lit cigarette and a turkey-and-Swiss hoagie. "What can I do for you?" he said. "Ask away ..."
With that, my life was complete. The Eiffel Tower would never again look especially spectacular. The Grand Canyon is merely a big hole. A rainbow is (yawn) a rainbow and a newborn baby is just another kid with a loud cry.
I mean, what could possibly compare to the sight of Lou Piniella simultaneously peeing, eating, smoking and talking?
Hence, I was more than a tad sad to learn yesterday that Piniella, in his 23rd year as a major league manager, will be retiring at the end of the season.
Put simply, I have never covered anyone even remotely like Sweet Lou, a genuinely good and decent person who -- unlike many of his peers -- has always seemed to grasp the quasi-ludicrousness of grown men making millions of dollars to dress in pajamas and play a child's game. Much like Dusty Baker, the manager he replaced with the Cubs (and another quality individual), Piniella has high standards, and almost always sticks to them. Fiercely loyal to his players and co-workers, Piniella nurtured an oft-juvenile Ken Griffey Jr. in Seattle, endured the staggering ineptitude of GM Chuck LaMar in Tampa Bay and suffered through the madness of Milton Bradley and Carlos Zambrano with the Cubs.
Early in his managerial career with the Yankees and Reds, beat writers excitedly anticipated Piniella's inevitable on-field meltdowns, which resulted in some of the best dirt-kicking and base-throwing we've ever seen. Heck, he had been the exact same way as a hotheaded major league outfielder (back when he was with the Yankees in the late 1970s, teammates loved reminding Piniella that he had once been beaten out for a job in Kansas City by Jim Wohlford -- then watching his veins bulge from his neck).
But as the years passed and Piniella gradually mellowed, what writers enjoyed most was kicking back and listening to him talk. With a cigarette dangling from his lip (Piniella only smoked during the season), the skipper could reel off great stories about his dealings with George Steinbrenner; about taking over the Reds from Pete Rose; about handling Griffey and Randy Johnson and about the three hellish seasons in Tampa Bay. In the aftermath of those increasingly rare games when he was ejected, Piniella could wink and laugh the whole thing off. "Just part of the job," he'd say. "No big deal."
The truth is, managers come and go. If, as Charles de Gaulle once said, "The graveyards are filled with irreplaceable men," then the same certainly applies to major league skippers.
In Lou Piniella, however, there is something truly different. Is he a Hall of Famer? Maybe, maybe not. Is he one of the greatest managers of all time? Maybe, maybe not. Do his tantrums compare to those of Earl Waver and Billy Martin and Billy Southworth? Maybe, maybe not.
Did he give the strangest bathroom interview of all time?
Without a single doubt.
Jeff Pearlman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.