Commentary

Lou had a way with his Boss

Piniella both challenged and revered Steinbrenner and earned his respect

Updated: July 14, 2010, 1:39 AM ET
By Melissa Isaacson | ESPNChicago.com

They all said he loved Lou best. And if not best, then surely in a way that George Steinbrenner never felt about any of his other managers or players.

Maybe it was Tampa or the racetrack, two of the many common bonds between Lou Piniella and the Yankees' owner.

Maybe it was their mutual understanding of baseball as part show business.

"I learned a long time ago from George Steinbrenner that I'm here to entertain," Piniella said when he was named Tampa Bay manager. "So I kick my hat around a little bit."

Or maybe it was simply the way Piniella had of standing up to The Boss while still being the loyal soldier Steinbrenner knew he could count on.

Upon Steinbrenner's death Tuesday, Piniella called the Yankees chairman "a father figure to me." He has long credited Steinbrenner for giving him his chance in New York when he had never managed a game on any level.

But it was always more than that.

[+] EnlargeGeorge Steinbrenner
JC Welch/Icon SMI Maybe it was their Tampa roots, but George Steinbrenner maintained a special relationship with Cubs and former Yankees manager Lou Piniella.

"Lou had a whole different kind of relationship with George Steinbrenner from anybody I saw while I was there," Fred Stanley, who played with Piniella with the Yankees in the 1970s, said in an interview two years ago. "Lou had a way of getting on George, could say stuff, embarrass George and George could be angry with him, but he was the only person who ever did that to George. And George respected Lou, respected him for having the balls enough to say it to him. And you had to have a set of those to get in his face and kid with him in the clubhouse."

The two will forever be linked for the night in Milwaukee shortly before the 1977 All-Star break, when they huddled in Steinbrenner's hotel room with Thurman Munson to discuss how best to keep Reggie Jackson and manager Billy Martin from killing one another.

Actually, Piniella and Munson, with a few drinks in them, knocked on Steinbrenner's door to implore him to stop ripping Martin in the papers and to tell him that Jackson needed to be moved back to cleanup after being banished to the No. 6 hole.

Martin, as the story goes, heard the three talking, burst into the room and called Piniella and Munson "traitors." What was perhaps lost in the story is that order was restored on the Yankees, who, after trailing Boston and Baltimore, went on a tear and won the team's first World Series championship under Steinbrenner.

Also lost was that, in the opinion of some, Piniella formed a bond with Steinbrenner that night that would forever change their relationship. Steinbrenner looked to Piniella as someone whose opinion he trusted.

And Piniella? Well, he could tease Steinbrenner in a way no one else ever could.

"Lou was looked at as George's boy, but it didn't bother anybody," said Bill Madden, then-Yankees beat writer for the New York Daily News. "He was George's boy in the way he could talk to George. Guys liked that. But Lou never got any special favors from George."

Piniella's clubhouse wisecracks directed toward Steinbrenner were legendary. Once, after the Yankees' owner and shipping magnate gave a speech to his team and referenced the tough characters he often met down on the Cleveland waterfront, Piniella cracked, "George, the only time you were on the Cleveland waterfront was when you drove your father's 70-foot yacht to the dock and said to the guy at the gas pump, 'Fill 'er up.' "

Piniella, said his teammates, had a way of disarming Steinbrenner and easing the tension of a club that desperately needed comic relief.

"People were writing everything every day, so Lou had a thousand things to get on him about," Stanley said. "Lou wouldn't ever tell George 'Just go to hell' in his face. I could never see that. But he would take something George would say and turn it into 'Are you kidding me?' He'd get on him about the docks or about his football career -- or what lacked of his football career.

"One day, the flu was going around and George was in the trainer's room getting a B-12 shot. There were a bunch of people in there, and Lou walked in and said to [trainer] Gene Monahan, 'Hey Gene, you could put on a blindfold and throw that dart anywhere in the room and hit George in the ass.'

"Boy, did he get angry. But it was hilarious." And Steinbrenner was as relentlessly tough on Piniella as anyone, once instituting a weight clause in Piniella's contract and trying to enforce it in the winter of '82.

Steinbrenner had just given Piniella a three-year, $1.125 million contract after Piniella had asked for two, prompting Lou's wife Anita to call and thank him. It was a gesture that so touched Steinbrenner he often mentioned it. But he was not so moved that it would keep him from requiring Piniella to report to spring training at 200 pounds or be fined $1,000 a day.

In the 1990 book, "Damned Yankees," by Madden and Moss Klein, they called it "The Great Piniella Weight War," and the "most vocal and volatile" conflict between favorite son Piniella and Steinbrenner.

Steinbrenner dispatched Yankees' part-time fitness instructor Hopalong Cassaday to the Piniella's Tampa home to work out the then-38-year-old Piniella. And Piniella was not pleased, spending the next several weeks expending more energy trying to get out of Cassaday's workouts than doing them.

Piniella showed up at spring training at 215 pounds and eventually got down to 207, but no lighter. Steinbrenner sent notice that he would be fined $7,000, $1,000 more each day until he met weight and would be in breach of contract one week later if he did not.

The war of wills played itself out in every New York paper that spring.

"Sometimes, Lou has to be treated like a 19-year-old," Steinbrenner told reporters. "Everybody in Tampa will tell you that. I've got it in black and white. He knew about the weight clause. He knew what he was signing. If I'm a man and my employer was paying me $350,000 a year, which is more than the president of the United States is making, and there are 10 million unemployed people out there earning nothing in this country, I'd sure as hell take seven pounds off to honor my contract.

"Some day Lou Piniella will be out of baseball and in business. Boy, he'd last five days in business."

As was the case with many Yankee dramas, it eventually fizzled out. Bob Lemon was fired as Yankees manager 14 days into the season and as far as anyone knew, Steinbrenner never did collect the fines.

And clearly, he never did hold a grudge where Piniella was concerned.

[+] EnlargeLou Piniella
AP PhotoLou Piniella first gained George Steinbrenner's trust as a player on the 1977 World Champion Yankees.

With Piniella's retirement as a player still two years off, Steinbrenner would already start talking to him about becoming the Yankees' manager one day. And in 1986, just 14 months after being honored at Yankee Stadium on "Lou Piniella Day," Piniella would replace Martin as Yankees skipper, the fourth of five times Martin was fired by Steinbrenner.

Some 20 years later, while managing the Cubs, Piniella remembered what Steinbrenner told him.

"He said, 'I'm going to be tough on you, but you're capable. Go down and win me a championship,' " Piniella recalled. "That, I didn't do. I tried my darndest, but I learned a lot there in the few years I was managing the team."

The second-guessing began almost immediately, as The Boss questioned a spring-training lineup. Piniella countered by offering Steinbrenner the job of manager for a day.

In Phil Pepe's "The Ballad of Billy & George," he described how Steinbrenner first agreed and then tried to back out.

"Oh, no you don't," he told Piniella. "You're not going to trick me that easy. You're the manager. You do the managing. I'm the owner. I'll do the second-guessing. That's the way it's supposed to be."

Before it was over, Piniella would be put through the same meat grinder as all of Steinbrenner's managers. As always, Piniella never shied away from letting The Boss know where he stood. The two fought, didn't speak, and then fought some more. Steinbrenner cried insubordination. And after two second-place finishes, Piniella was kicked upstairs for a season and a half as general manager, replaced on the field, of course, by Martin.

Ironically, Piniella returned to his role as buffer between Steinbrenner and Martin before resigning as GM. A month later, Piniella replaced Martin as manager and that offseason, he was fired again.

Two years later, it would appear Piniella had the last laugh as he sat in the victorious clubhouse of his World Series champion Cincinnati Reds, and looked up to see none other than George Steinbrenner on TV, hosting "Saturday Night Live."

"I have an announcement to make," Steinbrenner said in his monologue, which aired at 11:30 p.m. ET. "At 11:15, I bought the Cincinnati Reds."

If Piniella couldn't laugh, he couldn't be angry either.

He would be forever linked to Steinbrenner and as it turned out, The Boss never lost his affection for Piniella, hoping, perhaps even assuming, that one day Piniella would return to the Yankees in some capacity.

"He treated me well, he treated me fair and he gave me a wonderful opportunity to play and manage the game we all love," Piniella said Tuesday, the day Steinbrenner died. "George will be remembered as one of the most influential and renowned owners of a franchise in sports history. He leaves a legacy of winning and an unwavering passion for success.

"George was very special to me, and I loved him."

Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.

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.