Seattle creates a particularly tricky emotional situation for Piniella, and the players, too, because it is so remote. "We travel as much by the All-Star break as other teams do all year," Buhner says. Piniella has had to learn to baby his roster more. Now, with the two big guns, Griffey and Rodriguez, gone, he has had to change the team's style, emphasizing speed, bunting and stealing. "Lou's a running manager," McLaren says. "The one thing you know about legs is that they don't go into slumps. He was a little frustrated with the homer-hitting teams we had because homers are so streaky." Swinging away comes with a penalty.
Against the Chicago White Sox last year in the American League Division Series, Piniella ordered a squeeze play that brought in the winning run from third base in the last game. If Yogi Berra was the model who taught Piniella not to take himself too seriously as a manager, then Billy Martin gave him the most strategic inspiration. "Sometimes Lou's so much like Billy, it's scary," says Buhner, citing Piniella's ability to anticipate and command.
It's worth considering, too, that Piniella's decision not to shoot for the fences as a player may have prepared him to be a manager. It's often been noted that pitchers rarely make good managers, but perhaps home run hitters, with their boom-or-bust mentality, are likewise emotionally unequipped to guide teams through the twists of a serpentine season. In the history of the game, Torre, with a relatively modest 252 home runs is the slugger who has been most successful as a manager. In life, Piniella is large; in baseball he is Big Little Man.
Also, in the starkest terms, his sweetness has surpassed his redness. "My wife has been a big influence on my managing, too," Piniella says. "I don't mean like when to take the pitcher out, but she taught me how to manage myself better. Be spontaneous. Don't let things fester because, truly problems are not gonna go away. And you don't have to act hard-ass. Weakness can be strength. I don't know if weakness is the right word. Maybe meekness is better. What I mean is, All you really need is the presumption of strength. If players know that you truly can get tough, that's enough. That's enough."
So if the fire is still there, ever smoldering, Piniella has learned to accept and accommodate. "He was too impetuous when I first hired him," Steinbrenner says, "but the problem is now he's just too good. Lou almost took us to the cleaners in the playoffs last year."
Imagine losing three of the best players of a generation—maybe the game's best pitcher, best outfielder and best infielder. Did any coach in any sport ever take a hit like that? But it's time to play ball again, so he's back, blowing smoke. "Sure, it hurts to lose players like that," Sweet Lou says, "but here's what you find out: Baseball truly, truly is a team game."
And he is still there with his team in the clubhouse. In the clubhouse.