Tuesday, April 24, 2018
Tampa Bay Rays

Fennelly: Did Rays cost Lou Piniella the Baseball Hall of Fame?

Sweet Lou Piniella, Tampa's own, was on the telephone recently talking about golfing with Steve Spurrier.

Lou won.

"Steve's a competitive guy. I'm telling you," Piniella said of the former Gator great.

Like Lou isn't.

And don't think Piniella, 73, wouldn't like wonderful news tonight, when the Baseball Hall of Fame announces its newest inductees as decided by the 16-member Today's Game Era Committee. Long name. Piniella is up for the Hall along with five players, one manager and three executives, including a fellow Tampa icon: George Steinbrenner.

If Piniella joins Tampa guys Wade Boggs, Tony La Russa and Al Lopez in Cooperstown, I'll be the first to rip out first base and throw it in the air. Well, maybe the second.

Everybody likes Lou.

"I'm excited. I really am," Piniella said. "And I'm honored. There are a lot of wonderful candidates. I was really happy to see I was on there with my old boss, my good friend and my mentor, Mr. Steinbrenner. That means a lot."

Piniella might seem a long shot for the Hall. Nominees need 75 percent of the vote. It won't be easy.

(Besides Piniella and Steinbrenner, here are the others on the ballot: Harold Baines, Albert Belle, Will Clark, Orel Hershiser, Davey Johnson, Mark McGwire, John Schuerholz, Bud Selig.)

We all know this would be a slam dunk for Piniella if two of these things had happened:

1. If he had won the 2001 World Series with the Seattle Mariners, who tied a record with 116 wins that season. That would have given Piniella a world championship in both leagues, like Hall members La Russa and Sparky Anderson. Lou's old club, the Yankees, beat Seattle in the ALCS.

2. If he had taken the Cubs to the World Series. Chicago made the playoffs twice under Piniella and had the best record in the National League in 2008 but was swept from both postseasons. Cubs-to-the-Series was the golden ticket to Cooperstown, if you ask me. Need proof? You just watch Joe Maddon make the Hall.

Then there's …

3. If Lou hadn't returned to manage the Rays.

Piniella's three-year, 200-285 turn with Tampa Bay is an anomaly in a career in which he won everywhere he went, from New York to Cincinnati to Seattle to Chicago.

No matter.

"I came home for the right reasons," Piniella said. "My dad was sick. He passed away soon after. I spent some valuable time. What happened here in Tampa Bay — really, this was the only place where I didn't have success."

I'm going to make a case for Lou. Yes, he has only one World Series title and one pennant (with the Reds in 1990), but he ranks 14th in managing wins. Every man ahead of him, with the exception of Gene Mauch (who had a losing record, no pennants) is in Coopers­town. In 23 seasons, Piniella took teams to the postseason seven times and was named manager of the year three times.

Plus, he was a good, hard-nosed player with a .291 career average and the 1969 AL rookie of the year. That's not supposed to factor into the voting — Piniella is being considered as a manager only — but it can't hurt in people's minds, at least with voters old enough to remember the fire Piniella brought to the game. And the warmth. Everybody likes Lou.

I still keep coming back to 2003-05 — the Rays years. You take away Piniella's wins and losses from the Rays and his win percentage leaps from .517 to .534, a sizable jump that puts him in the same neighborhood, at least by percentage, as La Russa (.536) and Hall of Famer Joe Torre (.538).

"I needed to be home," Piniella said. "I was thankful the Rays gave me an opportunity. We improved the team while I was here. With the payroll we had, we couldn't compete. I'm going to be honest with you: I don't like to lose. I've never been a good loser as a player or as a manager. You put the uniform on to compete. We had very young teams and small payrolls.

"I remember (Tampa Bay Times baseball writer) Marc Topkin asked me in Pittsburgh, point blank, 'When are you going to get better?' I said when the ownership group starts spending more money. Everybody took that wrong, but it was the truth. We couldn't compete in the American League East, payroll wise. We just couldn't."

I'm pulling for Lou Piniella this weekend.

He's pulling for the Boss.

"George absolutely should be in there," Piniella said. "He took over a franchise that was floundering. He improved it dramatically. He became bigger than life. He brought a winner to the Yankees and the city. He used free agency in its infancy as well as anybody. He realized in New York, not only did you need good teams, but stars."

Lou Piniella's professional baseball life has spanned nearly a half -century; he still does occasional consulting for the Reds. Piniella is finishing a book with Bill Madden, the great baseball writer. And today, at baseball's winter meetings, the newest Hall of Fame members will be announced.

"I've had a great, long, wonderful career," Piniella said. "I've worked with many, many special people. I've got no complaints. Now we'll see what happens with this vote. I'm hoping. But we'll see."

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