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Safe at HOME
Michael Bamberger
March 03, 2003
Why would Lou Piniella leave a winner in Seattle to manage the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, the worst team in baseball? To be with his family
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March 03, 2003

Safe At Home

Why would Lou Piniella leave a winner in Seattle to manage the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, the worst team in baseball? To be with his family

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Louis Piniella has given up on his namesake, his oldest son, the baseball man, the big shot, the multimillionaire. Louis, 84, calls his son's friends instead.� "Hola," he says, shouting, in Spanish, into the kitchen phone of his tidy West Tampa house. "This is Piniella." Peen-YAY-ah. "The grapefruits in my yard, they are so filled with juice, they are falling off the tree. My son goes to the supermarket for his grapefruits. They are dry there, expensive. They are terrible. He thinks he knows good grapefruits. Come by and take my sweet grapefruits."� It's been this way forever between the two Lous, but now it's more this way than ever before. After 41 years in professional baseball, the prodigal son, the firstborn of Louis and Margaret Piniella of West Cordelia Street, has come home, not just for the off-season but for the season, too.

Lou Piniella earned World Series rings as a player with the New York Yankees in 1977 and '78 and as the manager of the Cincinnati Reds in 1990. He managed the Seattle Mariners in 2001 when they won an American League-record 116 regular-season games and last year when they won 93. Things seemed good. Yet he decided to head home, to become the new skipper of the lowliest team in baseball, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. Piniella, who turns 60 in August, signed a four-year deal worth $13 million. The contract survives even if the team does not.

He knows that throughout West Tampa and Ybor City and in all the other Tampa neighborhoods where old people listen to Spanish stations on AM radio, there's only one real question being asked about the upcoming baseball season: What will Peen-YAY-ah's boy do with this lousy club?

Suddenly, with the Buccaneers having won the Super Bowl, Tampa is a sports town. No, a sports area. There's the old port city of Tampa, to which generations of Spaniards, the Piniellas among them, made their way to find work in cigar factories. Fifteen or so miles from downtown Tampa and across Old Tampa Bay, there's the Gulf Coast city of St. Petersburg, filled with kindly pensioners in freshly laundered sneakers and white pants. The Bucs play in Tampa, just down the road from where the New York Yankees have their spring training complex, but the Devil Rays play in St. Petersburg, at Tropicana Field, sealed by a dome and with a shaggy plastic rug for a playing surface. They play their spring training games less than a mile away, at Florida Power Park.

"I wanted to come home, but I didn't come home to retire," Piniella says. He's sitting in his shiny Mediterranean house in Avila, a gated development in North Tampa. The great, black shaggy mane he had in the last days of disco is now silver and neat. He has the paunch of a rich man, a man who eats steaks for lunch. He's cheerful and open—excellent company.

"The Reds had a losing record in '89; I took over in '90, and we won the World Series," Piniella says. "But here we're going to need three or four years to turn this thing around." He's smoking a cigar. There are books on his shelves. His wife of 35 years, Anita, is making white-bean-and-potato soup in the kitchen. He's home. " Jon Gruden's success with the Bucs, that raises expectations. I've got myself a challenge, is what I got. Tony La Russa, he grew up around the corner from me, but I couldn't see him making this move. He has a good thing in St. Louis, like I had a good thing in Seattle. But that's what motivates me: I'm from here. The people I grew up with are here. My mother, my father, my brother, a lot of my friends, my childhood friends, they're all still here. My three kids, three grandchildren. I didn't come here to lose in front of all these people."

Still, he expects to lose more than he wins, at least in the first year. After all, the Devil Rays were 55-106 last season. "If we can win 75 games this year, that's a start," he says. "If we can play .500 ball next year, that's an important step. Then you go from there."

Within days after the Devil Rays' season ends on Sept. 28, Piniella and his wife will take a vacation in Spain, the ancestral homeland for Anita Garcia Piniella as well. Traveling in northern Spain in October, before the cold sets in there, is a trip the Piniellas have wanted to make for years, for decades, but never could. There was always the hope that Lou would be working in October. This year, such a hope is beyond imagination for the Devil Rays.

This season the manager will finally get to use his beach house on the Gulf, a few miles north of St. Pete Beach, 18 minutes by car, the way Piniella drives, from Tropicana Field. He has spent fewer than 100 nights in the house even though he's had it for more than a decade. But he didn't leave Seattle with a year remaining on his contract so he could sleep nights in his beach house. He left the Mariners because it was time to come home. The events—important and minor, merry and sad—in the lives of the people closest to him were unfolding while Piniella was in a rented house 3,000 miles and three time zones away. He was missing too much.

First, his father-in-law, Frank Garcia—the owner of Gulf Tile Distributors, a prominent Tampa business that employs Piniella's oldest child, 33-year-old Lou Jr.—was stricken with Lou Gehrig's disease. For the first months of the 2001 season Anita stayed in Tampa, watching as her indomitable father was robbed cruelly of his body. Though her husband made it home once, he was often unreachable. Frank Garcia died at 77 on June 3, 2001. Lou came home for the funeral.

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