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THE EDGE OF RAGE
Leigh Montville
October 01, 1990
First place has been a strangely precarious perch for Lou Piniella, Cincinnati's manager, whose baseball career has been fueled by explosive emotion
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October 01, 1990

The Edge Of Rage

First place has been a strangely precarious perch for Lou Piniella, Cincinnati's manager, whose baseball career has been fueled by explosive emotion

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"The thing to remember, though, is that I was always mad at myself," Piniella says. "I didn't hurt anyone else. I paid for the water coolers. Bought a couple of 'em. I paid for the coffee maker, too. I bought a better one than the one I broke."

The passion was his gift. Other players had special eyesight or special coordination; he had the passion. His second gift was that he could, in his own way, control the passion. Break a water cooler in the fifth inning, hit a single in the seventh. He was able to measure himself on his own wildly fluctuating scale. He outlasted almost everyone else on the Yankees' high-priced team of the late 1970s, playing until he was 40. He was the long-haul ballplayer—who sometimes exploded.

"I was watching a playoff game in New York," says Anita. "I forget which one. Lou was called out at the plate. He just threw himself on the ground and started shaking. I'm sitting with the wives and there's my husband. It looks like he's going into convulsions." She pauses.

"At least he never climbed the screen behind home plate," she says. "Isn't that what Jimmy Piersall did? Climb the screen? Lou never did that."

He does not tell these stories on himself. This is the surprise. He is guarded when he talks, his words emerging as if they have been considered and approved by some federal inspector and stamped in purple on their sides. Piniella is 47 years old now, and he wishes that some word other than volatile would be attached to his name. He knows that he never will escape the word, that he is volatile, but he feels that it somehow demeans what he does. He would like to be known as a good baseball man first. A baseball mind.

His one public outburst this year came on Aug. 21. Cincinnati was in a five-game losing streak, all five losses at home. He had given a pregame speech, a sort of Mister Rogers version of Knute Rockne, a variation on the story of the tortoise and the hare. The Reds had been the hare at the beginning of the season, he told them. Now they had to become the tortoise, grinding their way to the end. In the sixth inning, there was a close call at first on a double play. Piniella went out to argue. He began by throwing his cap on the ground. Ejection quickly followed. Ejection? He looked down at the ground and saw first base. Ejection? He picked up the base and flung it approximately 18 feet. He was not satisfied with the toss. He picked up the base again and flung it 35 more feet into rightfield.

He has spent the rest of the season apologizing. "I shouldn't have done that," he says. "Really. As I've gotten older, I've realized the part we play as role models. My own son, who's 11, said he was embarrassed. I was embarrassed. I was embarrassed when I did it—well, actually, I felt pretty good right after I did it—but when I saw the papers the next day, I was really embarrassed."

He does not see the humor in the sight of a grown man raging across the front page. He wanted no part of the base-throwing competition that was staged two days later in downtown Cincinnati by the Cincinnati Enquirer . He doesn't want the label. He doesn't want to see the pictures. He wishes the incident never happened.

"I know how it goes," he says. "If you're writing a short story about the manager of the 1990 Cincinnati Reds, you're going to begin with the base throwing. Well, it's not fair. It's just not fair."

A search for dignity is one of the reasons he came to Cincinnati. Respect. He managed for the Yankees two seasons and part of a third after he retired as a player. He had good teams in the two full seasons, but they never won a title, and he was part of the made-for-the-tabloids soap opera starring owner George Steinbrenner. Who could find dignity in that situation? The Cincinnati job is a chance to see what he can do. He has taken a pay cut of $50,000 from the $400,000 salary he had in effect with Steinbrenner. He has traveled to a place that he didn't even know was—hey, no kidding—just across the river from Kentucky. He has taken charge of players most of whom he had seen only on TV. He has won.

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