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Lou Piniella's retirement makes baseball less interesting

Snapshots of a man in love:

One Tuesday night in 1990, Lou Piniella pulls first base from the ground and tosses it in disgust after umpire Dutch Rennert's call. Not satisfied with his first throw, he picks it up again and heaves it into short rightfield.

One Friday evening in 1992, Lou Piniella charges across the clubhouse in Cincinnati to tussle with Rob Dibble after the reliever made the mistake of questioning his manager's honesty in regard to pitching changes.

One Wednesday night in 1998, Lou Piniella flings his Mariners hat in disgust after umpire Larry Barnett's call. Instead of picking the hat up, he kicks it across the field. Again and again and again.

One Sunday morning in 2005, Lou Piniella sits anxiously in the visiting manager's office in Pittsburgh waiting for reporters to arrive so he can rip his bosses in Tampa Bay for not investing enough in payroll.

This is what a lifelong love affair with a game can do to a man.

A funny, shrewd, honest, profane, caring and intense man who hated losing more than anyone in cleats. And if that meant he couldn't quite control his temper when his sense of fairness was violated, well that was just part of the package.

Lou Piniella retired Sunday afternoon, leaving the Chicago Cubs six weeks earlier than planned to return to Tampa to be near his ailing mother. And major-league baseball is a less enjoyable place this morning.

Ultimately, that may be Piniella's greatest legacy. Not the legendary temper, for that may have been spectacular at times but was actually fairly rare. And not the ledger of victories as a manager, for 1,835 is an impressive number, but it is not a perfect measure.

You see, Piniella, 66, did not change the game. No one wrote books about his managerial intellect, and no one suggested he was a superstar during his days as a player.

Instead, Piniella's contribution to baseball was more visceral than obvious. It showed in the way he cared about the game. Cared about coming to the ballpark every day and doing whatever possible to come out ahead after the 27th out.

In Lou's world, baseball was a vocation for sure. Few counted their paychecks quite so closely. But it was also an avocation. It was what he loved to do, and that is why he kept coming back for nearly 46 years after his big-league debut.

The ballpark is where he felt at ease, and the atmosphere in a dugout suited him. Piniella loved the give-and-take, the putdowns, the off-color jokes and the sense of fellowship. And, heaven knows, he loved the competition.

If his competitive drive is what made him a success, it also made him a difficult employee. He was the best manager Seattle ever had, but he orchestrated his own departure in part because he did not think ownership was as devoted to winning as he was. He was the most popular manager Tampa Bay has ever had, but he forced ownership's hand here, too.

And while family concerns are obviously weighing heavy on him, you can't help but wonder if the disappointment of the past two seasons in Chicago made his retirement that much easier to accept.

Piniella has given his life to the game, and he certainly deserves as many afternoons as he can take on Tampa Bay's golf courses and beaches. But I can't help but feel a sense of loss for baseball.

Before Piniella called it quits, the National League had four active managers with more than 3,000 games on their resumes. That's incredible. It's almost freakish. In the history of the game, only 17 managers have topped 3,000 games. And to have four of them managing at the same time in the same league for several years was unprecedented.

Yet now Piniella has walked away, and Bobby Cox will be gone in a couple of months, too. Joe Torre may consider retiring himself this winter, and Tony La Russa will soon be 66.

That doesn't mean there aren't plenty of smart, devoted managers still around. In fact, a lot of the newer skippers are maximizing their rosters in ways managers would have never conceived 30 years ago.

Still, there is something melancholy about watching a man of accomplishment heading toward the exit. Even if it is his time. Even if the game remains in good hands.

It's not his double switches that I will miss. It is not his trips to the mound, or his arguments with umpires. It is knowing that nobody cares more about the game's outcome than the man with the lineup card in his hands. It is knowing the sense of delight, appreciation, adoration and respect he brought with him to the ballpark every day for most of the past five decades.

The game has not changed, but some of the people have. There is more entitlement and less reverence. There is more business and less character.

There are too many people with no sense of the game's history and too few people like Lou Piniella.

John Romano can be reached at romano@sptimes.com.

Lou Piniella's retirement makes baseball less interesting 08/22/10 [Last modified: Monday, August 23, 2010 7:31am]
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