When it comes to baseball managers, this always has been Piniella's county.
Around here, by golly, people like Lou. From the gravel in his voice to the fire in his blood, from the way he screams at an umpire to the way he snarls at a low payroll, Lou Piniella always seemed to strike the perfect chord with Tampa Bay.
It will be easy enough to understand the cheering tonight when a favorite son returns home, again. For a lot of people, Piniella always was the very model of a modern baseball manager. He looked the way a manager is supposed to look. He sounded the way a manager is supposed to sound.
After all, managers are supposed to be direct and demanding, cantankerous and combustible, old school and preferably from the old neighborhood. Tell me: Does that sound like anyone you know?
Even now, you would have to say that Piniella, 64, is everything that Tampa Bay fans have ever wanted in a manager.'
As it turns out, however, Joe Maddon is a better fit for the Rays.
It seems as if tonight might be as good a time as any for fans to realize it.
For some, such a notion will be hard to grip, especially when you think about the considerable regard this area has for Piniella and the considerable amount of criticism that has been aimed at Maddon. Nevertheless, it is true. Given the blueprint of the Rays, given the patience that the past three years have demanded, Maddon is better suited for the Rays than Piniella ever was.
In other words, the Rays-Piniella divorce is working out just spiffy for everyone. For the Rays. For the Chicago Cubs. For Piniella. For Maddon. Pretty much, for everyone.
Do you remember the image of Piniella late in the 2005 season? Losing had ground him down and worn him out. It was as if he had spent three seasons being flogged by a sockful of nickels, which, if you think about the team's payroll, was fairly close to the truth. Every day, the frustration was easier to see in his face.
Had Piniella stayed, can you imagine how he would have looked by now? How much would it have aged him to see veterans such as Aubrey Huff or Julio Lugo being shipped out? What would last year's bullpen, the worst in 50 years, have done to his blood pressure? How would he have reacted to the constant caretaking of Elijah Dukes and Delmon Young?
No, it would not have been pretty, and it would not have been smooth. Not when the manager is pushing for a higher payroll, and not when the new owner is calling for patience.
By contrast, Maddon has been the perfect mix of teacher and nurturer. He was patient as the front office imported arms. He was positive as young players such as B.J. Upton found their strides. He was pleasant as fans criticized him for replacing one bad reliever with another.
And, yes, now that the team seems to be growing up nicely, Maddon needs some credit for what he has done as a manager, too. Give the guy a few pieces, and it turns out he can make a few moves.
Will Maddon ever be as popular as Piniella? Probably not. After all, during Piniella's tenure, when Vince Naimoli owned the team and Chuck LaMar was running it, Lou often seemed like the only sane voice in the room. Even when he left with a year remaining on his contract, no one seemed to blame him. Maddon, on the other hand, has worked for a fan-friendly ownership and, as such, has been a convenient target.
Still, what if Piniella had stayed? There is a telling quote, late in Piniella's first season when he was about to finish up a 63-99 season, that bears repeating here.
"This really isn't managing,'' Piniella said. "This is teaching and evaluating, seeing what we have and what they can do, deciding what role they should be used.''
In the end, that was Piniella's biggest frustration. By nature, he is not a patient man, and the idea of waiting until a distant tomorrow was never going to sit well.
For Piniella, Chicago seems like the perfect spot. The Cubs have the highest payroll in the division, which gives Piniella a great chance to win. If Piniella can end the Cubs' curse, he can win all the way into the Hall of Fame.
If so, it is safe to assume Tampa Bay will cheer his name. That's rare in sports, too. Usually, there is remorse in the sight of a fan favorite in other teams colors. John Lynch, for instance. Brad Richards. Josh Hamilton.
With Piniella, however, it all worked out. Good for him. Good for everyone.