Still, Piniella swears that he was 35 before he "truly learned to hit." That was in 1979, when he came back under the tutelage of Charley Lau, who had been his batting coach in Kansas City. Lau taught him how to prepare properly to swing, by moving his feet like a tennis player getting ready to receive serve. At last, Piniella's mind, emotions and body were in tune. He would repeat that pattern as a manager. He batted .312 and finished second to Rod Carew among American League hitters in 1972, before he learned how to hit. He won a World Series managing Cincinnati in 1990, before he learned how to manage.
Oh, at that time he thought he knew. Anita remembers so well that after Lou's Reds swept La Russa's Oakland A's, he could not resist chortling, "See, George, I can manage"—claiming some vindication from Steinbrenner, who had removed him as skipper twice, in 1987 and '88, as he played switcheroo with Billy Martin.
If Piniella had demonstrated that he could manage a baseball team to victory, though, he had achieved that despite an inability to truly manage the manager. The ass was always red. Every game was a battle more against his temper than against the other nine. In 1991 as skipper of the Reds, he accused umpire Gary Darling of bias and was not only fined by the National League but also sued (a first) by the ump. (They would settle out of court.) In 1992, as reporters looked on in delight, Piniella wrestled on the clubhouse floor with one of his relief Pitchers, Rob Dibble. ("A black mark on my career," Piniella says.) On another pyrotechnic occasion, in Cincinnati in '90, Piniella reacted to what he deemed a bad call by not dislodging first base and hurling it but also chasing it, picking it up and chucking it again. (That's still the lead-off in every Sweet Lou highlight film.)
It is astounding to contemplate how he and Steinbrenner coexisted—especially because, as we know, Piniella feels no great compulsion to answer telephone calls. "Insubordination!" Steinbrenner screamed when he couldn't get through to Piniella to scream at him late in the '87 season. "He's a liar! He promised to talk to me." But Piniella's reluctance to answer was understandable: Steinbrenner would criticize him even when he was winning. Once, when Piniella had to take the Boss's call, in the dugout at Anaheim, Steinbrenner, calling cross-country, began the conversation, without so much as a hello, "Whose side are you on?" And, says Piniella "we're ahead 4-2."
One time, Piniella quit. "Nobody resigns on me!" Steinbrenner bellowed, reserving the divine right to fire. Another time, when he was about to dismiss Piniella, and Lou showed up with Anita, Steinbrenner guiltily peeled off three $100 bills and told a secretary to take Anita shopping. But this too: As Piniella neared the end of his playing career, he was looking for a two-year deal. The Yankees were offering one year. When Piniella confronted Steinbrenner, the Boss began, "I told you, I'm not going to give you two years." Pause. "I'm giving you three."
As strange as Steinbrenner's relationships with his many managers have been, the one with Piniella was touched even more by fond contradiction and mixed emotions. "I don't know if I've had another player who cared so much," Steinbrenner says. "Such instinct and desire!" However, after two stints as Yankees manager, and one each as player, coach, general manager and broadcaster, Piniella knew he had to move on to a more emotionally stable venue. He left Steinbrenner in New York to work for Marge Schott in Cincinnati.
"I always wondered, Why does George hire the same guys over and over?" Piniella muses. "I think I finally figured it out. Each new guy who comes in he treats easy for a while—I guess he feels he has to—before he gets on him. But, you see, if you hire a guy again, you don't have to break him in with kindness."
The Piniella circus didn't confine itself to sojourns with Steinbrenner and Schott. Lou is sort of an Everywhereman. He owns the distinction of having had both Billy Martin and Earl Weaver as managers, and he played on a team for which Cal Ripken Jr. was the batboy. And there he was, the rookie star of Ball Four, recipient of perhaps the best you've-been-traded line in history. When the expansion Pilots sent him to the expansion Kansas City Royals—for whom he would become Rookie of the Year at 26, in 1969—Joe Schultz, the Seattle manager, informed him of his departure thusly: "Lou, you're gonna have to pound Bud somewhere else."
This too: Once when Piniella was arguing with Yankees general manager Gabe Paul over salary, they went to a Chinese restaurant to take a break from negotiating. Piniella opened a fortune cookie that read, "Be satisfied with what you get." He showed it to Paul. So they split the difference on the spot and Piniella signed the contract. Life, too can be pretty rudimentary.
Both Lou and Anita are of Spanish descent, with grandparents from the province of Asturias. The cigar trade brought their families to Tampa. She was a Garc�a, so everybody figured Anita must be Hispanic, although she never encountered a taco till the Piniellas were living in that great Latin American citadel, Kansas City. Lou grew up speaking Castilian Spanish and didn't learn English till the nuns in kindergarten taught him.