- Melissa Isaacson, Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
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The offseason rushed past Lou Piniella like the cool, wet winds that plagued Florida's Gulf Coast all winter.
He looked up and it was over, he told his friends a week ago over dinner and a movie with his wife Anita.
"The four of us were talking about how things go by a lot quicker when you're older," said Tony Gonzalez, a close friend of Piniella's since childhood, when the two would wile away long summer days and nights playing ball with their buddies at the neighborhood park in West Tampa.
Piniella counts on the offseason to recharge and refresh, and bought a new fishing boat this winter, which he took down to Key West with Anita, the kids and grandkids.
"But it seemed like we got caught short this year," Gonzalez said. "It would be cold and rainy and rough, and there would be 6- to 8-foot seas out there, and we wouldn't be able to go out, so it was frustrating a number of times. The offseason went by like a flash this year."
The Piniellas also bypassed their usual last stop before spring training, when they visit another boyhood pal of Lou's, Manny Garcia and his wife Gerry, in Aspen, Colo., for a little skiing.
"New management had him running all over the place," said Garcia, though the two couples did make time for a Mediterranean cruise that sailed from Italy to Greece.
At 66, Piniella has told his friends he expects his fourth year in a Cubs uniform to be his last as the final year of his contract expires under the team's new ownership.
"I don't think he's getting worn down," Garcia said. "He's still so intuitive about the game, the guy's brilliant and he loves the game. But after a while, I guess, everything gets old. He seems to think this may be his last year. But I've heard that before, let's put it that way."
This upcoming season isn't likely to get any easier after Piniella's teams failed to get past the first round of the playoffs in his first two seasons with the Cubs and missing the postseason entirely in 2009. What Piniella continues to lack is a postseason player like Lou Piniella.
In any case, general manager Jim Hendry said Piniella's status will not be an issue this season, but that doesn't mean it won't come up from time to time. And the fact that fan favorites Ryne Sandberg and Joe Girardi appear to be moving into position to possibly replace Piniella -- Sandberg now managing the Triple-A Iowa Cubs and Girardi in the last year of his contract with the Yankees -- already has been duly noted.
But those who think Piniella will walk into the Tampa sunset without at least a serious backward glance are sorely mistaken.
"I think the general feeling is that it's his last year, but it's really up to the new owners," Gonzalez said of the Ricketts family. "He said, 'I'll help out in any way I can to get Chicago [to the World Series],' and if the owners feel he's the right guy, I'm sure he's going to give it some fair consideration. I wouldn't say it's a given he wouldn't come back. Not at this point, anyway. He doesn't say, 'I'm not coming back next year.' "
At the Cubs convention, Piniella was emphatic that his job status "doesn't bother me in the least" and "won't be a hindrance."
But a team that finished nine games out of first place last season and whose biggest boast this year is the proverbial addition by subtraction, with the departure of club malcontent Milton Bradley, is not exactly a postseason lock.
"Especially when things are not going well, it takes a toll on you," Gonzalez said. "And it's a little tougher when you're older."
The Bradley situation was obviously stressful, especially considering Piniella's intolerance for spoiled players.
"He's definitely aware of the big money players make, and he expects 100 percent dedication to the job in return," Gonzalez said. "He appreciates the fans and the money he's being paid, and he doesn't take any of that for granted and would really love every player to have that. And when he sees someone making a lot of money and not performing, he uses the word 'disgraceful.' He believes players should understand when they sit down and negotiate for that much money, it's an obligation."
All that said, Piniella's friends believe Chicago and its unique pressures, as well as the Cubs' unique following, have grown on him, and he comes back with enthusiasm intact.
"He's Sweet Lou," Gonzalez said. "He doesn't hold any down feelings for very long."
Though Piniella, who will turn 67 in August, jokes that if he continues to manage, he's going to have to go out and pull the pitcher in a golf cart, he is also talking about staying in baseball beyond managing. You get the feeling if managers were outfitted in suit and tie, Piniella would surely garner more respect.
"He has talked a little about becoming a GM [Piniella was a GM under Yankees owner George Steinbrenner for part of the 1988 season]," Garcia said. "Cincinnati came after him, before the Chicago job, and wanted him as GM. He was talking about it last year."
There has also been speculation that with his continued loyalty to the Steinbrenner family, Piniella could return to the Yankees in some front-office capacity.
"He only wears the one ring," Garcia said of Piniella's 1977 Yankees World Series ring, one of three Series rings he owns (two as a Yankees player in '77 and '78, and one as the Reds' manager from 1990).
Baseball, in any form, has been Piniella's life for, well, his entire life. And for those who know him best, it's tough to imagine him without it.
"It keeps him active, it keeps him sharp," Gonzalez said. "He's constantly thinking about baseball and moves that have to be made. He's constantly on the phone with Hendry, trying to figure out what's in the best interest of the club.
"He hasn't lost one ounce of that focus or competitive juice, no matter how old he is. He's just a little bit more laid back about it, but it still burns."
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.
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