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Lou Piniella is the driver, and the trip has seemed to last forever. He has stayed awake through the long nights and the hot afternoons, checking the road map and fiddling with the dials. He has been in charge. The white line began in Houston at the Astrodome on April 9 and will end...where? Somewhere in October. The Cincinnati Reds, if they can hold the road, will be the first team in National League history to lead their division for an entire 162-game season, wire to wire. The driver is tired.
"I'm not doing this job forever," Piniella says softly. "Oh, no. I don't want to be a career manager. I don't want to do this for the rest of my life. A few years. This is the last stop. I'm not jumping around, one place to another."
There has been no rest. None. The games have never ended. On the good nights, he always thinks of some little thing that could have been changed, some little thing that could have been done better, some little thing. On the bad nights? He has been unable to sweep his mind as if it were just another aisle in the deserted ballpark. He cannot let go. That is his term, his phrase: "I cannot let go."
The baseball world marveled as these Reds pulled away at the start and never looked back. But Piniella has felt all along that he and his team were traveling into a headwind. The landscape in front has always looked treacherous. The activity in back has always seemed threatening. Never looked back? What is the warning on the rearview mirror? OBJECTS MAY BE CLOSER THAN THEY APPEAR. Piniella has watched these objects for almost six months. He always knew they were closer than they may have appeared to others.
"My personality profile is that I'm volatile, intense," he says. "I know it. It's not the way to be. I see guys in this business, they're still able to maintain their family life, have outside interests. Go home. Play with the kids. Have a drink. I don't know. I just haven't learned that yet."
His wife, Anita, remembers that when he was a player, 18 years in the major leagues, he sometimes would practice his batting swing in the middle of the night to work his way out of a slump. She awoke one time and screamed. There was a man standing in the bedroom with a baseball bat! Oh hello, Lou. He cannot swing the bat anymore. His worries are carried home now in an attach� case. He can only think about others swinging bats. This somehow is worse. Harder. He has to worry for an entire team. "This should be harder," he says. "You have more responsibility than you did as a player. You should take things harder."
When he took the job this season in this new city in this new league, the first year of a three-year contract, he brought golf clubs with him. The golf clubs have not left the closet. A powerboat man, he has been out on the Ohio River twice during the season. He found he had trouble docking the boat. He was out of practice. The spring has been baseball, and the summer has been baseball, and now the fall is baseball. All baseball.
Anita and the three children have visited his rented condominium for assorted home stands, but much of the time they have been at the house in Allendale, N.J., that the Piniellas bought when he played with the New York Yankees. Reds pitching coach Stan Williams has stayed with him a lot at the condo. They have been baseball bachelors, stopping at an ice-cream store for a double malted on the way home, then watching the late baseball on ESPN and the late baseball scores on ESPN and then talking baseball into the night. At some point they would fall asleep. Sometimes.
"We're a fine couple," Williams says. "We have a refrigerator stocked with all the essentials for modern living. Soda pop and fruit juice. Though I'll admit the expiration date on that fruit juice carton probably was five months ago."
"Grape juice," Piniella says. "I guess we eat out a lot. I guess we eat at the ballpark a lot."