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Grape juice. Is this any way for a grown man to live? He shakes his head. He has lost 15 pounds as manager of the Reds. Fifteen pounds of aggravation and distress.
"For doing this job, I cheat myself a lot," he says. "For eight months, it's just fly and go. I'm away from home. I'm...I'm very different from the way I'm perceived to be. I'm sensitive. Very sensitive. Too sensitive. You probably need a thicker skin than I have to enjoy this job. I know you need a thicker skin." Why does he do it? His phrase: He cannot let go.
The single-minded passion for the game has been part of him from the beginning. Where did he get it? From his father? His father, Louis, had it, pitching those amateur league thrillers at Cuscaden Park in Ybor City, Fla., pitching tight and nasty, fighting anyone, even his own catcher if he gave the wrong sign. His mother? His mother, Margaret, had it. She was every bit as athletic as his father. She played Softball, basketball, played hard. The rest of his family? His cousin is Dave Magadan, playing first base for the New York Mets, taking a run at the National League batting title. His family had it. The passion. Piniella got it, an inordinate amount of it.
"Here's the first time I see Lou Piniella," says Fran Healy, former big league catcher, now a broadcaster with the Mets. "I'm playing at the minor league camp of the Kansas City Royals. I hear the manager behind me in the dugout say, 'Hey, who's that guy playing leftfield without any shoes?' I look out there, and there's this guy, playing in his stocking feet. There was something wrong with his shoes. He was getting blisters or something. Lou Piniella. He didn't care. He was out there, playing."
When Piniella played, he was the guy who attacked the game harder than anyone else. That was his reputation. A lot of players played hard, but Piniella played on the edge of rage. What will he do next? Anything. He held the game in the air by the throat, shook it. He shook himself. A special, different, carbonated blood seemed to run through his body. Once shaken, he very well could explode.
"I played a lot of years with a lot of players," Williams says. "He was the hothead of all time. He took a mediocre talent to the highest level, just with his intensity. I guess I shouldn't say mediocre, because he was a good hitter, but he got everything out of himself he could."
"I had the will to do something," Piniella says. "I don't think I had ability. I had a good batting eye, the ability to make contact, but mostly I just had the will."
For 23 years Piniella careened through professional baseball with an aggression he turned mostly on himself. Why couldn't he be better? Why couldn't he? Why couldn't he hit that guy? Why?
Piniella hit .291 in his 18 years with the Royals and the Yankees and played in four World Series with New York. It was not enough. Never. He screamed in the outfield at himself for some failure, ripping at his shirt, buttons popping everywhere. He hit water-coolers, strangled telephones, pulled shower heads out of walls, broke light bulbs, flattened the brand-new coffee maker in the Yankee clubhouse in a one-punch TKO. He mumbled. He grumbled. Once, after striking out at a big moment in a big game, he ran around the ballpark, yelling, "I can't hit. I can't hit."
The stories are lovely. There was the time in Selma, Ala., in 1962, his first year in baseball, when Piniella struck out with the bases loaded and someone tossed him his glove to take the field. He threw the glove into a rain barrel that was being used to store the team's drinking water. The glove sank. Piniella had to reach inside to retrieve the glove. He fell inside and had to be rescued, pulled from the barrel. There was the time in Portland, Ore., when he struck out to end an inning. He ran straight to the outfield and kicked the portable fence. The fence fell on top of him; he was pinned under it. He had to be rescued again.