Heart on sleeve, Piniella says goodbye
No fairy-tale ending for manager's last day in uniform, but his journey was spectacular
CHICAGO -- At the appointed time early Sunday afternoon, Lou Piniella walked out of the dugout and stood against the railing.
Well-tanned and well-fed, Sweet Lou took off his cap, mussed his pepper-colored hair and stood at attention.
When it came time to clap for some veterans, Piniella put his cap back on and clapped, then took it off again when it was time to listen. He wiped something from his face. A tear?
"God Bless America" came first, then "The Star-Spangled Banner." I caught myself watching Piniella, wondering how many national anthems he's stood for, how often he's heard the same song. I wondered whether he was thinking the same thing.
Piniella, 66 and aging more every day he dressed in a Cubs uniform, appeared in 1,747 games as a major leaguer, another 693 as a minor leaguer. He managed 3,548 games. Throw in spring training, high school, Little League, summer league and we're talking five digits.
How many hours has Piniella spent pacing a dugout? How many miles has he walked inside the diamond? How many years devoted to a game with no clock?
In a perfect world, Lou Piniella's career ends with him doused in champagne and beer, the miracle man who slaked the Chicago Cubs' thirst for a World Series. A baseball lifer getting the storybook ending.
That was a fantasy we entertained. But it wasn't meant to be. It never was. This is the Cubs after all, the Bates Motel for managers.
The reality of Piniella's tenure in Chicago was cemented in a 16-5 loss to the Atlanta Braves. If you can remember that far back, the Cubs started the season with a 16-5 loss to the Braves. Chalk up the symmetry as another "Cubby occurrence," a phrase Piniella coined.
That's life as a Cubs manager. They have 16; you have five.
"Today's game wasn't pretty," Piniella said, choking up. "But I'd rather reflect on the good times I had here. Lot of good times, lot of good people. It's been a lot of fun."
The finality of Piniella's decision to retire immediately, rather than after the season as he had planned, hit him Sunday.
He cried during his speech to players. He was still emotional during the lineup exchange with Bobby Cox before the game.
His eyes were wide open, he said, as the details of Wrigley Field spoke to him during the game.
After the game, sitting in the Cubs' charmless interview bunker, he cried, raw and visceral, tears running down his face, unable to speak. Piniella's often gruff exterior, his winking sense of humor, his stately presence, it all melted away.
"I cried a little bit after the game," he said as the tears came down his cheeks. "I get emotional. I'm sorry. I'm not trying to be. This will be the last time I put on a uniform. It's been very special to me."
Piniella thanked the reporters, the organization, the fans who gave him a standing ovation before the game and bellowed "Louuuu" when he made pitching changes.
"I won't have to make any more explanations to you people," he said, laughing, at his now respectful inquisitors. "That's for sure."
There is no pretense to Lou Piniella. He is as authentic as the hand-operated scoreboard in center, as genuine as a triple off the wall in right field. Lou Piniella didn't win the brass ring in Chicago, but he's no one's loser, regardless of the score.
"It's a good day to remember," he said, laughing again. "But it's also a good day to forget."
When Piniella announced he was retiring effective the end of the season on July 20, the Cubs won big 14-7 and we all joked, "Are you sure?"
He was then, and he definitely was Sunday. The bumbling Cubs bullpen made sure of that.
I cried a little bit after the game. I get emotional. I'm sorry. I'm not trying to be. This will be the last time I put on a uniform. It's been very special to me."” -- Manager Lou Piniella
"I don't know if you could've scripted it any worse," catcher Koyie Hill said.
"It's just sad he's got to leave with the kind of season we're having right now," Aramis Ramirez said.
It's indisputable that Piniella deserved better.
His storied baseball career took him from Jesuit High Tampa to the bushes to Kansas City to the Bronx Zoo to the Nasty Boys to The Kid in Seattle to a siren song in Chicago.
Baseball is a game dominated by failure, a game that rewards those who can thrive in pressure, which makes the longevity of Piniella's career, stretching back to 1962, all the more amazing. He spent seven seasons in the minor leagues, then won rookie of the year in 1969 with Kansas City before really making his legacy in New York with the Yankees. A World Series ring managing Cincinnati in 1990 was never duplicated and never forgotten.
No one was surprised when Piniella announced he was hanging up his jersey because the decision was partially made for him. His Cubs contract was running out, and he turns 67 this week. But the choice was sped up by the failing health of his beloved mother, Margaret, who is 90 and living in Florida.
It's been a tough year for Piniella. His close friend George Steinbrenner passed away. Piniella took two leaves of absence; attending his uncle's funeral and hiring a caregiver for his mother, who hasn't improved. If the Cubs were in contention, he would have taken another leave, but they're not. It was time.
"As many know, the several weeks since that announcement was made have been very difficult on a family level, requiring two leaves of absence from the club," Piniella said before the game. "While I fully intended to manage this club the rest of the season, a family situation at home now requires my full attention."
Third-base coach Mike Quade will take over the team, fitting for a minor league manager to head a team rich with recent minor league émigrés.
It was foolish to think the Cubs would go on some kind of tear when Piniella announced he was leaving. Marlon Byrd joked it would be a "win one for the Gipper" charge, but the Cubs cratered instead, with four regulars being shipped out in money-saving deals.
This was a bad team already, not one day above .500 all season, and it had gotten worse.
It's safe to say the team had already tuned out Piniella, and he didn't have a new message to send out.
"I didn't want it to end this way," Piniella said before the game.
I've disagreed with the so-called experts who claimed Piniella didn't care this past season. I knew he was raging after the early losses. But since his announcement, since the Cubs' fire sale, I'm sure that passion dimmed considerably. How could it not?
Piniella had the right to go out the way he wanted to. But he deserved a farewell tour. Cox, in his last year with the Braves after a storied career, had a sign devoted to him across the street from Wrigley this weekend above right field, courtesy of Miller Lite. Piniella should be getting humidors, framed pictures and rocking chairs.
He would have hated it, but it would've been fun.
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Piniella didn't accomplish the ultimate goal of getting this beleaguered franchise to the World Series. Heck, he didn't even get it to Game 4 of the divisional series. But Piniella's first two years were as enjoyable to watch as any in recent memory, and they didn't end in misery like 2003, just disappointment.
The last two years weren't Piniella's best managing jobs. I'm sure he would agree. But the results, including a half-decent winning season in 2009, weren't his fault, either. He just didn't get consistent performances from his veterans, and, in the case of this year's callow bullpen, he didn't have the manpower.
When he came here in the winter of 2006, Piniella didn't need the Cubs but they needed him, and he helped right the ship, thanks in part to a generous infusion of Tribune Co. cash.
The baseball world is going to miss Piniella. There are enough humorless cranks and self-important geniuses in sports. We need more men like Piniella. I wish his career could've ended with champagne and cigars, not an 11-run loss and the likes of Thomas Diamond and Justin Berg.
Piniella gave his life to baseball, and baseball provided him with a life. And if baseball is all about learning to deal with failure, I guess Wrigley Field was a pretty good place to end it after all.
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.