Only a few baseball people saw beyond the scarlet derriere. Jim Bouton might have been the first. In 1969, the year he wrote Ball Four, he was going to camp with the Seattle Pilots, an expansion franchise. There was the possibility of a players' strike, and Bouton, the veteran, was designated by the union to phone some players. Bouton had already signed with the team and felt he had to report, but after he called the unknown rookie, Piniella, he changed his mind.
Piniella had been bouncing around the minors for seven years, ricocheting five times among four organizations. This was it for him. If he couldn't make the majors with a rotten expansion team, he was quitting baseball. Right away, though, he told Bouton he would stand by any major league strike. "That impressed the hell out of me," Bouton wrote. "Here's a kid with a lot more at stake than I, a kid risking a once-in-a-lifetime shot. And suddenly I felt a moral obligation to the players. I decided not to go down." As it turned out, the strike threat passed, and Bouton met the kid in camp. Immediately he also saw, as he would write, " Lou Piniella has the red ass."
What impressed Steinbrenner was that on a Yankees team riven with cliques—notably the Reggie Jackson and Thurman Munson factions—Piniella got along with everybody. " Lou and Catfish [Hunter] were the only two guys everyone liked," Steinbrenner says. And, by then, the late '70s, Piniella was the canny old-timer, living off his wits and hand-eye coordination.
"I didn't hit home runs," he says. "I wasn't a base stealer. I didn't have a great arm. I mean, I knew why a lot of teams would look at me and say, We can do better. We can do better."
It is symbolic of Piniella's sneakily distinguished 18-year career—this guy did hit .211 with 1,705 hits and play in four World Series—that the play he's most famous for in a positive way is a fly ball he misplayed. It was in the bottom of the ninth inning of the Yankees-Boston Red Sox playoff game in 1978. The Yankees led 5-4, thanks in part to a terrific catch Piniella had made earlier. But now late in the afternoon the autumn sun had fallen low, slanting into his eyes in rightfield. "It's like a ball of fire over the roof," Piniella told his manager, Bob Lemon, after he'd almost lost a POP fly in the eighth.
Then, sure enough, with one out and Rick Burleson on first, Jerry Remy knocked an easy drive directly at Piniella. He lost it but somehow had the presence of mind to hold out his arms as if he had it all the way. Suckered, Burleson held up. The ball finally materialized, dropping five feet before Piniella. He snared it on one bounce and Burleson made it only to second. The next batter, Jim Rice flied out deep—which would have scored Burleson and tied the game if Piniella's acting hadn't worked.
All the big home runs, all the clutch strikeouts, all the beautiful double plays from deep in the hole—never mind. "That was the single greatest play a Yankee has made in all my years with the team," Steinbrenner declares.
It helped that Piniella was a gambler. He lost the ball, but he calculated perfectly. Piniella has no interest in casino gambling, but the horses and the stock market have fascinated him because, he discovered, the payoff is in the satisfaction of doping out the winner as much as it is in the tangible reward. Similarly, he credits much of his success as a batter to being a "guess hitter," which means not so much guessing as having studied the pitcher's past performance Deep in a count most of the best hitters will sit on a fastball, figuring they can always adjust if they set a slower breaking pitch. Piniella, though, would study the patterns of pitchers—and more often, of the catchers who called the pitches—survey how the defense arrayed itself and then bet his swing.
Even then, the larger part of his handicapping was a wager on himself. Piniella is a sturdy 6'2" and played at around 200 pounds, which, for example, was taller yet no less bulky than Reggie, his slugging teammate. Piniella drives a golf ball almost 300 yards, triangulating doglegs with ease. He did not lack power, but he averaged about a half-dozen homers a season. That, too, was a matter of playing the odds.
"See, I didn't have the temperament to be a power hitter," Piniella says. "The home run is the most wonderful instant gratification there is, but swinging away comes with a penalty. You strike out more. I'd've broken too many helmets and watercoolers. Sure, I'd've loved to hit home runs, but you've got to stay within yourself which is why"—he drags on the cigarette allowing himself a small smile—"I played till I was 40 and a half. Forty and a half"