Lou Piniella comes home this week a happy man.
He returns to the Trop for the first time since his departure from the Rays, and he'll go on about how thrilled he is to be managing the best-in-baseball Cubs and how pleased he is to see his hometown team doing so much better.
He'll also say he has no regrets, but that doesn't mean there isn't a slight sense of what might have been. Many days (and some late nights) during his frustrating 2003-05 seasons managing the Rays, he sat in his office, doodling and thinking aloud about how all the Rays needed to quickly become contenders was spend the money to add a few key veterans.
And now that they've done exactly that …
"I'm happy for them, I really am," Piniella said. "Their young kids are coming of age, ownership has spent some money and they've finally got good pitching. Those three things add up to a nice situation. …
"I think if they had done that when I was there, this would have happened sooner."
But it wasn't going to happen that way, not with the change in ownership from Vince Naimoli to Stuart Sternberg's group, which needed a couple of years to implement its plan.
His frustration mounted, and the morning after a particularly rough June 2005 loss in Pittsburgh, he went public with a critical rant that was the beginning of the end, leading to a $2.2-million buyout of the last year of his contract.
"What I said about the ownership at the time was accurate," he said, sitting in the same PNC Bank Park office a few weeks ago. "I was basically told that the commitments that were made were not going to transpire as quickly as I thought.
"Everybody wants the answers from the manager, and sometimes the manager doesn't have all the answers. They're good people (the Sternberg group). They just weren't ready at the time to commit, and I was too old to wait."
After a year in the Fox broadcast booth, Piniella took over a Cubs team that lost 96 games in 2006 and took it to the playoffs last season, and — despite the recent injury to Alfonso Soriano — has serious World Series aspirations.
He likes the big-city scene, the excitement of sold-out Wrigley Field and, of course, the winning (he's 1,647-1,522, 14th all time in wins). "I just didn't want my career ending on a losing note like that," he said.
Piniella turns 65 in August and swears this will be his last job, though he coyly won't say how long he plans to keep it. Then with a lovely Redington Beach house waiting, he'd like "a little consulting job with somebody" to keep his head in the game.
Maybe he can come home again?
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