Before he left his Tampa home 50-some years ago to play pro ball, before he starred for the Yankees during 18 seasons in the majors, before he won the first of 1,800-plus games and a World Series as manager for five teams including the Rays, Lou Piniella was just a boy with a favorite baseball player.
"I was a Boston Red Sox fan and Ted Williams was my boyhood idol," Piniella said. "I remember always going to Al Lopez Field when the Red Sox would come (for spring training) to see Ted."
As Piniella's career advanced, he relished chances to meet Williams, to listen to his stories and, most sacred of all, to talk hitting.
"He could do that for hours," Piniella said. "He would ask you your opinion, and if it wasn't like his, it was wrong. He'd argue with you, and try to change your mind, and finally, when he'd give up, he'd say, 'Well, you really don't know what you're talking about.' "
Piniella obviously had some idea, because he did well enough to be chosen for the Ted Williams Hitters Hall of Fame, with induction of an impressive class occurring during Saturday's Dinner with David Price and Friends charity event at the Trop.
"I'm honored," Piniella said. "I really am."
Piniella, 69, is all but retired now, still living in Tampa, working a few weeks in the spring as an instructor for the Yankees ("I don't do anything but sign autographs") and a dozen or so games as a TV analyst. He reflected on his career this week with the Tampa Bay Times. Here are excerpts:
Will you manage again?
I'm done. I'll be 70 years old. I did it for 23 years. I had a really nice career. I enjoy being home. I enjoy being with my family. I enjoy my friends. I play some golf, I do some fishing; we went on three different vacations last year. One thing I have found out though: When you're retired, you spend a hell of a lot more money than when you're working.
Best team you played on?
The '77 Yankees were a really good team, but my favorite team was the '78 team. We were 14 games out around the All-Star break and came back and beat a really good Boston team (thanks to Bucky Dent) and then repeated as world champions.
Best team you managed?
I had two. The 1990 Reds, wire-to-wire World Series champions. And in Seattle, in 2001 we won 116 ball games, an all-time American League record.
With all you've gotten to do in baseball, are there any regrets?
The places where I managed, I went for the different challenges involved. I didn't really wait for a team that you'd say, "Boy, this team is ready to go to the World Series." I enjoyed each and every one. The place I had the least success was Tampa Bay, and the reason being our payroll was supposed to grow and it never grew past $20-something million, and I couldn't compete in that division. But everywhere else — we won two divisions with the Cubs, in Seattle we went to a lot of postseason games, in Cincinnati we won a world championship, in New York we won 90 games. But there's nothing really that I would have done different. Losing in my hometown (200-285 in 2003-05) wasn't fun, but, look, I did the best I could. What can I say?
It was tough on you, right?
I just wasn't used to the losing. I thought I could go anywhere and win. I took a little bit of a beating there, no question.
Ever think you shouldn't have done it?
As soon as I took the job there was like a rift between the owners (Vince Naimoli and his original partners) and because of it our payroll never really increased. When the (Stuart) Sternberg group bought the team, I told them it was going to take about $60 million or so to have a good team, that they had some good young players but needed some veteran players also. And when the payroll finally got to that number, they started to win some games. They've had a good run. I'm proud of the job they've done.
As a lifelong area resident, are you surprised the Rays haven't drawn better?
I thought they would do better attendancewise than they have. It has been surprising. All this talk of a new stadium and everything else, we'll see where that goes.
How about your chances to make the Hall of Fame (as a manager)?
My numbers are there. I finished 14th all time, over 1,800 wins, won a world championship, won 116 games in a season, which was only done one other time. But I'm in with a tough group. I've got (Tony) La Russa, my good buddy, I've got Joe Torre, I've got Bobby Cox. These guys have had great, great careers. So we'll see what happens. But if you ask me, if you look at other managers that have gotten in, you look at their resumes, mine is as impressive or more impressive.
Sounds like it would mean a lot to you?
It would mean a lot to anybody. It's the epitome of what you work for. Just to be considered is a good warm and fuzzy feeling.
What about your reputation for arguing so, um, colorfully with umpires?
Truthfully, it embarrasses me somewhat. I don't like that part of me. But it wasn't an impostor out there. It was me. … I'd rather have people talk about the successes that I've had and the games that I've won as opposed to the temper tantrums, but what can you do. … You look at these other managers I mentioned and they probably had more ejections. The problem is they didn't stay out there as long.
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]