Commentary

Pennant race still fires up mellower Piniella

Originally Published: September 18, 2007
By Jerry Crasnick | ESPN.com

Lou Piniella keeps track of his sleep habits when he's not monitoring the National League Central standings, and he can attest that he's woken up at 4 a.m. this season more often than in any of his previous 19 years as a manager.

When infomercials don't cut it as an insomnia cure, Piniella has a surefire Plan B. He'll open his hotel room door, reach for the USA Today and do a crossword puzzle until he drifts back off to sleep.

"When I started managing, they'd have a bottle of vodka in the room," Piniella said, laughing. "Now I'll eat a piece of fruit and have a bottle of water."

Piniella, in his first season with the Cubs, will always be captive to his emotions to a degree. His temper is legendary, and he's a product of the 1960s and '70s, when men were men, takeout slides really hurt, and managers liked their ballplayers tough, gritty and pressure-resistant.

I have to guard against my competitive nature when I manage a team. I can't be more competitive than the team. I have to find their level and hover slightly above it. If not, you're always going to be upset.

--Cubs manager Lou Piniella

But Piniella is also a stock market devotee, occasional horseplayer and information junkie at heart. He adheres to the concept of baseball as a "percentage game," and trusts in the power of numbers over the long haul.

During charter flights, Piniella will don his reading glasses, pull out the statistical data at his disposal and map out lineups for the next series before the plane lands. If Cubs outfielder Cliff Floyd is 14-for-35 career against Tom Glavine, or an opposing starter's release time enhances Alfonso Soriano's chances of stealing a base, Piniella feels obliged to put that in the vault.

"I've never been on a plane ride with him where he didn't work the whole time," Chicago general manager Jim Hendry said. "I don't think people give him enough credit for that."

While Piniella admits he's mellowed since the Cincinnati days -- when he grappled with Rob Dibble in the clubhouse and inspired mock base-throwing contests in the Queen City -- he'll always be perceived as Mount Lou on the verge of an eruption.

An ESPN anchor took note when Piniella, looking quite displeased, lifted the ball from Ryan Dempster's hand after a rough outing Friday in St. Louis. But after the game, Piniella took pains to reiterate his faith in Dempster, telling reporters that his closer simply had a bad day at the office. With the season winding down and Milwaukee clinging to the Cubs like a conjoined twin, Piniella isn't about to start trifling with Dempster's confidence.

Piniella's challenge, as always, is finding a way to motivate his players and not overwhelm them with his hard-driving bent.

"I have to guard against my competitive nature when I manage a team," Piniella said. "I can't be more competitive than the team. I have to find their level and hover slightly above it. If not, you're always going to be upset."

As the Cubs try to outlast Milwaukee in the quest for their first postseason appearance since 2003, their manager is ascending to higher ground. The Cubs' 7-6 win over Cincinnati on Monday was the 1,598th of Piniella's career. With two more, he'll pass Tommy Lasorda for 16th place on baseball's career list.

Chicago Cubs manager Lou Piniella
Jason Parkhurst/US PresswireLou Piniella has had much to cheer about lately, watching his team win eight of its last 11 games.

Nothing invigorates Piniella more than a race in September, unless it's a playoff series in October. This is the time of year when players prove their mettle, every pitch has meaning, and the buzz is different in the stands.

"I'm a realist, but at the same time, I'm a positive realist," Piniella said. "I come to the ballpark recharged every day to win a baseball game. That's what I enjoy."

Forging bonds

After three trying seasons in Tampa Bay, Piniella spent last season broadcasting games for Fox and cultivating a George Brett-caliber tan. The Cubs lured him from his sabbatical with a three-year, $10 million contract and a mandate to give fans a reason to visit Wrigley for something other than camaraderie and beer.

It took a leap of faith for Piniella, 64, to commit to the Cubs, with their oppressive history and parade-free environment. And truth be told, some people in the Cubs' traveling party didn't know exactly what to expect from the new guy.

Growing up on Florida's Gulf Coast in the 1960s, Hendry watched Piniella star in basketball for Tampa's Jesuit High School. But they barely knew each other until the job interview. Today, if you ask Hendry which Piniella character trait surprises him most, he'll talk about Piniella's super-sized compassion.

When Hendry watches Piniella send a kid to Triple-A, he can tell how difficult it is for his manager to break the news. Last month, when Floyd's father died after a two-month battle with heart and kidney problems, few Cubs empathized more than Piniella, whose father, Louis, passed away in 2005.

"Lou always had this aura where people think he's hard on players all the time -- the 'rule with an iron fist' thing," Hendry said. "But I don't find that. He genuinely cares about them on and off the field, probably more than they would ever know."

Piniella is more inclined to delegate now than in his early years as a manager in New York and Cincinnati. He's content to think big picture and let pitching coach Larry Rothschild, bench coach Alan Trammell and the rest of his staff oversee their individual departments sans interference.

I didn't like Lou much the first two months. It was because I pitched bad, and that's completely wrong. He never quit on me, and I'll never forget that.

--Cubs reliever Scott Eyre

Piniella hates team meetings -- he's held two all season -- and rarely ventures into the clubhouse. One of his few rules decrees that card-playing must cease an hour before game time. Earlier this season in St. Louis, when a few Cubs lost track of time and pushed their luck with a game of pluck, Piniella dropped by and laid down the law, and that was that.

While Piniella is impulsive about personnel decisions, some principles remain constant. He's tough on catchers and can't stand pitchers who nibble. He can live with errors, 0-fers and gopher balls, but the offending player better give his all and be accountable. Excuse makers and players who hide in the trainer's room after games quickly exhaust their credibility with Piniella.

Cubs reliever Scott Eyre knows all about accountability. He posted a 12.86 ERA in April, and felt desperate to prove his worth to the new manager. When Piniella stopped pitching him in tight games, Eyre wished the Cubs would trade him and give him a fresh start somewhere else.

Finally, when Eyre couldn't retire the bat boy, Piniella and Rothschild summoned him for a chat. Their message: You're a better pitcher than this, and we need you to produce if we want to win.

In this case, a little support meant the world. Eyre has held NL hitters to a .188 batting average since the All-Star break, and he's back among the living.

"I didn't like Lou much the first two months," Eyre said. "It was because I pitched bad, and that's completely wrong. He never quit on me, and I'll never forget that."

In contrast to predecessor Dusty Baker, who had a well-deserved reputation as a veteran's guy, Piniella enjoys playing kids because of the energy they bring to the clubhouse and the field. The only catch: They better not be scared or fundamentally unsound.

Three young Cubs -- pitchers Rich Hill and Carlos Marmol and shortstop Ryan Theriot -- are now indispensable pieces for Piniella, and rookie catcher Geovany Soto has hit well enough lately to start taking at-bats from veteran Jason Kendall.

"Lou understands that you're not always going to get a bunt down, or you're going to miss a ball or a sign sometimes," Theriot said. "I hear it all the time, 'He used to be real fiery.' But he's only upset for a second, and it's nothing over the top."

In spring training, the Cubs had too many outfielders and aspiring regulars and not enough role players, and it was up to Piniella to fiddle with the combinations until he found one that clicked. Now the core elements are the same, and he basically tinkers around the edges.

Piniella has been ejected only once this season, in a major blowup against Atlanta at Wrigley Field in June. He received a four-game suspension for bumping umpire Mark Wegner, and appeared chastened by the episode. According to a big league scout familiar with the situation, Piniella was uptight around his club in April and May, but "learned his lesson" and backed off considerably after the suspension.

While no one would ever suggest that Piniella got himself suspended intentionally, the timing of his outburst was intriguing. It came a day after Carlos Zambrano and Michael Barrett made headlines by fighting in the Chicago dugout. Suddenly, the manager was the story and the battling batterymates were yesterday's news.

"If you don't think [Piniella] did that on purpose, you're crazy," Eyre said. "It put the heat on him, and he can handle it because of who he is."

Long, hard road

Piniella works with a personal trainer in the winter, but not during the baseball season, when the travel and long hours take their toll. The Cubs played four games in less than 48 hours against St. Louis last weekend, and Piniella, unshaven and fighting a head cold, looked about as fresh as an Iditarod contestant.

Managers: All-time wins

  • 1. Connie Mack, 3,731
  • 2. John McGraw, 2,763
  • 3. Tony La Russa, 2,367
  • 4. Bobby Cox, 2,248
  • 5. Sparky Anderson, 2,194
  • 6. Bucky Harris, 2,157
  • 7. Joe McCarthy, 2,215
  • 8. Joe Torre, 2,059
  • 9. Walter Alson, 2,040
  • 10. Leo Durocher, 2,008
  • 11. Casey Stengel, 1,905
  • 12. Gene Mauch, 1,902
  • 13. Bill McKechnie, 1,896
  • 14. Ralph Houk, 1,619
  • 15. Fred Clarke, 1,602
  • 16. Tommy Lasorda, 1,599
  • 17. Lou Piniella, 1,598
This Chicago team has a knack for hastening the aging process The Cubs are 22-22 in one-run games after beginning the season at 2-12. And they're an MLB worst 2-8 in extra innings. That $100 million payroll notwithstanding, they're 13th in the NL in homers. Scoring runs is quite often a challenge for them.

The oppressive, nonstop fatalism in Chicago wears on a manager's nerves, too. How many Billy Goat Tavern, Leon Durham and Steve Bartman references should a man be forced to endure?

"We have some very nice people here," Piniella said of the Chicago media, "but they're skeptical. If things just don't go exactly right, it's 'woe and alas' real quick."

Piniella can afford to tune out the talk shows and the columnists because he's a short-termer with the clout to leave on his own timetable. He has no intention of pulling a Jack McKeon or Frank Robinson and managing into his 70s.

When the 2007 season ends for the Cubs, Piniella will go home to Tampa and spend a month golfing, fishing and watching CNBC. Every now and then, Piniella will allude to retirement and his plans to travel to South America, the Baltic countries and other far-flung locations with his wife, Anita.

"This is my last job, so I don't have to impress anybody one way or another, which is an advantage in a way," Piniella said. "I'm only doing it for two more years and I'm going home."

Could he change his mind down the road? Perhaps. Is he on a mission to rescue Cubs fans from their anguish before he heads off to his fishing boat? For sure.

If Piniella fails in his quest, it won't be from lack of effort. Or sleeping on the job.

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN.com. His book "License To Deal" was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.

Jerry Crasnick | email

ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer