Today managers make nice money too, and the Piniellas' tuition bills are down to one last year; their son Derek is a senior at Florida, and their two other children are grown. So when the season is over, Lou leaves Seattle and comes back home to Tampa, stops smoking and lollygags about. He and Anita (and an ancient, nonchalant Lhasa apso bitch named Keisha) live in a gated community, surrounded by high, vine-covered walls, redolent of Wrigley, that embrace a golf club and an attractive thicket of large houses—some Tudor, some traditional redbrick, some more in the Mediterranean style, so it is rather like a residential Epcot. The Piniellas' house, the color of evening sunshine, has columns in the front and the 15th fairway in the back. In fact, Piniella sighs, sometimes several days pass before "I go outside the gates."
Piniella's personal phone line has no answering machine, so the Mariners are occasionally reduced to sending him FedExes pleading with him to call them. He made it over to the family beach house near St. Petersburg only twice all winter. "I'm not a physical fitness nut," he admits (unnecessarily). "I don't do much. A little fishing, a little golf—really, the less I do, the better."
He is in good company inside the gates. Over at the clubhouse he likes to stick his head into the card room and hector its denizens: "Am I the only one who works around here?" He enjoys the golf, sure. "But I don't give a damn how I do at it," he says. "I'm average at everything I do." The couple of Grey Goose martinis he has at the 19th hole are the best part. It's a fine off-season Lou Piniella has bought and paid for out of singles and camaraderie and instinct.
He is going on 58, and he has been a professional in baseball since he was 18, so the rhythm of the diamond calendar has been pressed into his DNA. For 14 seasons now he has been smoking as a manager. Anita says he is, for sure, the best manager in the game, and there are people outside the family who wouldn't argue with that. Certainly, Piniella is one of baseball's most popular managers. He's won 1,110 and a world series, an last year, for the third time in the last six seasons, he took the long-shot Mariners into the playoffs, holding them together down the stretch like a cagey old jockey giving a tired nag a hand ride.
So, it's time to head off cross-country to the Cactus League and run a baseball team again. Still, you wonder why he bothers. He had three of the greatest players of this era on his team: Ken Griffey Jr., Randy Johnson and Alex Rodriguez. One by one, they left him. A less secure man might have taken it personally. A less accomplished man might have taken the blame. Instead even as Piniella hugged Rodriguez and cried last fall, no one associated the manager with the defections. Says Seattle outfielder Jay Buhner, "Every single guy in the clubhouse loves playing for Lou. He's great manager-he's tough, but he's fair and he's loyal. The thing that really tells von something is how many of the guys who left say they'd come back and play for Lou in a heartbeat.
So, it's back to the cigarettes again. "Look", Piniella says, "I still truly enjoy what I do, and I've had success at it. Success at it." (He has a little habit of repeating conclusions to his sentences, sort of savoring them. And if he says truly, take it to the bank.) "I mean, I should be better at it. Managing's like anything else. It's easier the longer you do it. I've finally started getting paid a lot too. Also, I'm totally different from when I started. I was a cutup and a red ass. I like myself a heckuva lot better now. Besides outside of making pitching changes, managing is pretty rudimentary. Most guys in the stands know when to bring in the lefthanded hitter to face the righthanded pitcher. We're not building rockets to fly to the moon.
"Don't worry, I'll know when to get out. The wins will be less enjoyable, and the losses won't seem as bad. I'll know. I was still hitting .300 when I quit playing. Still"—he sips on the martini and drinks in the scene in the clubhouse—"every year it gets a little harder to leave the comfortable life. The comfortable life."
The trouble is, however happy life is within the gates, the game is always without, calling to him.
Truly, Lou Piniella knows himself. The irony is that the one thing he didn't know about himself was that he should be a manager. Even after he lost a lot of money in some bad ventures, he thought he should be a businessman. Of all people, the one who figured out that Piniella could manage was George Steinbrenner, a man best known for exterminating managers. As Piniella wryly observes, "The worst job in baseball has not existed yet The worst job in baseball will belong to the guy who takes over the Yankees after Joe Torre leaves."
But give the devil his due. Steinbrenner saw the potential leader behind the happy face of the player whose buddies called him Sweet Lou. Now, for purposes of comparison, Piniella grew up in Tampa with Tony La Russa, the St. Louis Cardinals skipper, and La Russa was a guy who, from the get-go had manager written all over him. He was like Athena, born wise and full grown from the brow of Zeus. Tony Freaking La Russa is not going to tell you that managing baseball is rudimentary. Piniella, in contrast, did not appear to be a serious young man. Strike one: He enjoyed life at large very much On the other hand, strike two: On the diamond he was a raging competitor who never relaxed. Red ass has been attached to Piniella's name much as indicators of lineage are appended to other people's names. King George III. Pope John Paul II. JFK Jr. Lou Piniella, Red Ass.