Then last year, during spring training, Piniella's father developed pneumonia. It turned life-threatening. Piniella received a call from his mother. "Come home," she said, and Piniella was on the next flight from Phoenix to Tampa, preparing himself for the final goodbye. But his father, crusty and stubborn, fought through the illness.
The missed birthdays, the missed graduations—all baseball lifers, Piniella included, learn to live with them. But last season Piniella felt a deeper loneliness. He found himself rising in the middle of some Seattle nights, looking at family pictures, laughing sometimes, crying others. His youngest son, Derek, a two-time letterman as a defensive end for Virginia Tech, had transferred to Florida, where he was in his final semester. Piniella's daughter, Kristi, had separated from her husband and moved into her parents' home in Avila with her daughter, Kassidy. Anita stayed in Tampa for the season to be with her daughter and granddaughter. Piniella came to a realization: He was too far from home.
In September, Piniella went to his Mariners bosses and told them he would not be able to return in 2003 for the final year of his three-year contract. He was prepared to sit out the season, if need be. Then several managing jobs opened up, including the one in Tampa Bay. The Mariners allowed Piniella to negotiate with the inept Devil Rays—while rejecting his request to talk to the New York Mets, a playoff-caliber club—but demanded compensation, which they received in the form of outfielder Randy Winn, Tampa Bay's best player, after Piniella and the Devil Rays came to terms. As part of the deal Seattle sent infield prospect Antonio Perez to Tampa Bay.
This off-season Piniella made midday drives in his big black Mercedes all over his hometown, some days going to business luncheons to build support for his new team; some days picking up Cuban sandwiches at a shop where he bought sodas as a boy; some days lunching at Malio's Steakhouse, owned by an old friend; many days dropping in on his parents on West Cordelia Street, at the house where he lived from the sixth grade until the day he signed his first pro contract, in 1962, after a year at the University of Tampa.
One day shortly before spring training began, Piniella and a childhood friend, Mondy Flores, met up at Malio's for lunch. The restaurant is a Tampa hangout for businessmen and local pols and other notable figures. Piniella is treated like a king there. On this particular day the booth one down from Piniella's is reserved for George Steinbrenner. He lives in Tampa, and he's a regular at Malio's.
When the Boss comes in, he and Piniella hug. Steinbrenner has a soft spot for the Piniellas, husband and wife. In all his years of owning the Yankees, only once has the wife of a ballplayer thanked him for a contract, and that was Anita Piniella, for her husband's final deal as a player in 1982. Piniella retired in '84, and Steinbrenner hired him to manage the Yankees in '86. No bus trips in the bush leagues for Sweet Lou. Steinbrenner gave Piniella his start, and it was in the big leagues. But Piniella is unlikely to return to New York and finish in Yankees pinstripes. "I'm pretty sure that when I'm done here," he says out of Steinbrenner's earshot, "I'll be done with baseball."
After lunch Piniella and Flores go for a drive. They pass Legends Field, where the Yankees play each March. They pass their old school, Jesuit High. They speak of big leaguers who grew up in Tampa: La Russa, Dwight Gooden, Al Lopez and Piniella's cousin Dave Magadan. They drive by a neighborhood park where Piniella's father pitched in an amateur league 65 years ago and where Piniella played outfield 45 years ago. "Remember when you caught that fly ball with that sandwich in your glove?" Flores says, looking through a chain-link fence at a dirt field.
"And the lettuce went flying?" says Piniella.
They drive past a dozen large brick buildings where cigars were once made, an industry that died with Castro's rise and the U.S. ban on Cuban tobacco. They stop in front of Piniella's first home, on St. Conrad Street in West Tampa, a street that in Piniella's boyhood, the sweet Tampa of the '50s, was filled with kids playing games. The old Piniella house, a typical Florida bungalow, is now sagging and abandoned.
"Remember how big it was?" Piniella says to Flores. The driveway is covered by weeds.