Commentary

Book excerpt from 'Sweet Lou'

Tracing the origins of Piniella's legendary temper

Originally Published: June 22, 2009
By Melissa Isaacson | Special to ESPNChicago.com

This excerpt from "Sweet Lou ... Lou Piniella: A Life in Baseball" is printed with the permission of Triumph Books.

At least for mass public consumption, Jim Bouton, a teammate with the Seattle Pilots in 1969, was the first to call Piniella a "red ass" in his book "Ball Four." But Piniella was quite familiar with the term by then.

[+] EnlargeLou Piniella
Courtesy Triumph Books"Sweet Lou ... Lou Piniella: A Life in Baseball" chronicles the career of the Cubs skipper.

He had been cursed by it in high school, when differences with his baseball coach resulted in a boycott of his senior season and offered as a reason big-league scouts stayed away, delaying his signing until the following year.

At the University of Tampa, baseball coach Sam Bailey adored Piniella but worried that his temper would keep him out of pro ball if he wasn't careful.

"He didn't blame other people or the bat or the field or the weather, he'd just get mad at himself," Bailey said, echoing the others. "I don't remember him ever having any trouble with the umpires. And he didn't argue with me. As soon as he blew up, I'd wait for him to cool down, I usually got him to the side and talked to him for a bit. I didn't holler and scream. But I did tell him that his worst enemy was Lou Piniella. He thought he ought to bat a thousand. But he realized he had to control his temper or he wouldn't get anywhere."

While Piniella may have tried, he didn't exactly shake it after that, regardless of injury to property or himself. Once, playing Class D ball in Selma, Alabama, for the Cleveland Indians organization, Piniella threw his glove and it landed at the bottom of a giant water barrel that the team used for drinking water. While trying to retrieve it, he slipped, fell in headfirst and nearly drowned before being pulled out.

Another time, playing Class B ball for the Washington Senators in the Carolina League, Piniella hit into a double play in a crucial spot and took his frustration out on the trainers' bag, inadvertently breaking a bottle of acid, which burned through the bottom of the bag. When the trainer picked up the bag and everything spilled out onto the dirt, he began to cry.

"I felt bad," wrote Piniella in his biography. "I wasn't very mature."

Then, sandwiched around a stint with Baltimore playing for Earl Weaver, where Piniella observed and more than occasionally butted heads with the all-time legend of temper tantrums, there was the outfield fence incident.

Back with Cleveland in a Pacific Coast League game in 1967, Piniella struck out in a critical situation, threw his helmet and his bat as he often did, then sprinted to his spot in left field, where he kicked the eight-foot high outfield fence. Being portable, however, it collapsed under the force of his kick and he once again had to be rescued -- this time by the grounds crew from under a pile of planks.

The next day, the manager attached a punching bag to the corner of the dugout for Piniella to vent his frustrations in a little safer manner.

"It's my personality," said [mother] Margaret Piniella, a former All-State basketball player in high school. "Lou's got a lot of patience but he wants to win. I never want to lose either. Even now, I find myself talking to myself when I see certain things that happen [in a ballgame]. That's the way it should be. Some players, if they don't hit, they don't hit. But he doesn't accept that. He used to practice by himself, shooting baskets for hours to do it right."

As a big leaguer, the passion fired just as hotly and no light bulb was safe in the tunnel leading from whatever dugout Piniella occupied to the clubhouse. Nor were the water coolers he dented, one of which he decided to buy and mailed home to Tampa, where he kept it for years in his garage

Yankees teammate Fred Stanley remembered the image of Piniella standing on the steps of the Yankee dugout, screaming at the opposing pitcher and taking particular relish in trading barbs with Earl Weaver when the Yankees played the Orioles.

"He'd yell at the pitcher, 'Throw me a fastball,' and call him gutless," Stanley laughed. "Hopefully, the pitcher would get angry and throw him a fastball next time he was up just to show him he could and then Lou would smoke it."

Orioles pitcher Steve Stone, later a broadcaster for the Cubs and White Sox, remembered a similar exchange when he faced Piniella.

"I remember throwing him, as I threw most everybody, three or four straight curveballs," Stone said. "And I remember in Baltimore, he actually swung so soon that he fouled the ball up over our dugout on the third-base side. He guessed curveball, and it was so slow that he yanked it way over the dugout into the upper deck, and he screamed out at me to 'throw the f------ fastball.' That's one of my vivid recollections of Lou as a player."

And if he guessed wrong and made an out? "Half of our bench would jump up and scatter, and then you'd look over, and their bench had jumped up to see if Lou was throwing things in our dugout," said Stanley.

The thing was, they all recalled, Piniella always calmed down shortly after a blowup and he was always remorseful.

"I never saw him go crazy for even five minutes," said Stanley. "It was a five-second deal. He'd punch something, throw his helmet. Once he threw something near my locker and it hit a plate of spaghetti. He thought it was his locker and he got a chunk of spaghetti sauce on my sport coat. I'm just sitting there and he's going, 'Oh no, I'm sorry. I'll get it cleaned. I'll get it cleaned.' You could laugh with him and at him. You had to."

Once, Piniella flung his helmet in the dugout and grazed the head of manager Bob Lemon. "But that was a ricochet," said Stanley. "It bounced off two things first. It was not an all-out assault."

Just the same, Lemon took to wearing a batting helmet in the dugout after that just in case. "But once Lou saw him sitting there with the helmet," said Stanley, "he felt so badly he would go to the runway to throw his helmet."

Melissa Isaacson

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for espnW.com, ESPN Chicago and ESPN.com. The award-winning writer has covered Chicago sports for most of her 31-year career, including at the Chicago Tribune before joining ESPN in 2009. Isaacson has also covered tennis since 1986.