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Years managing Tampa Bay Rays could cost Lou Piniella a spot in the Hall of Fame

In New York, he will always be Sweet Lou.

Long black hair flying from beneath his cap. A .300 batting average right up to the day he retired.

In Cincinnati, he orchestrated a memory that will last forever.

A four-game World Series sweep that capped a wire-to-wire season in his National League debut.

In Seattle, he set a standard yet to be matched.

Four postseason appearances for a franchise that had never been to the playoffs before or since.

And in Tampa Bay? How should Lou Piniella's time in his hometown be recalled?

Possibly as the place that cost him the Hall of Fame.

Maybe you think that's a stretch, but it's at least a consideration in the wake of Piniella's announcement Tuesday that he will be retiring from the field after he finishes his fourth season as Cubs manager in a few months.

He is 66, and the time is right. Though he made two postseason appearances in Chicago and won his third manager of the year award in 2008, he never put the free-spending Cubs in the World Series, and it seemed obvious his contract would not be extended for 2011.

Which means the time has come to put his legacy in perspective, and to assess Tampa Bay's role in it.

It is fair to say Piniella is a serious Hall of Fame candidate. He already has more than 1,800 wins on his resume, and of the 10 managers to retire with at least that many victories, nine are in the Hall. That's a pretty strong argument in his favor. Maybe even irrefutable.

Except there are a couple of problems. Those nine Hall of Fame managers all won multiple pennants. Piniella won one in 23 years. And most of those managers had better winning percentages than the .519 Piniella is currently sporting.

This doesn't mean Lou won't make the Hall of Fame. My gut says he belongs.

But if the vote is close a couple of years from now, you could look back on his decision to force a trade from Seattle to Tampa Bay in the winter of 2002 as the reason his candidacy is now in doubt.

Piniella was coming off a 93-win season with the Mariners but was unhappy ownership had not spent money to acquire help at the trade deadline. He had another year on his contract but told Seattle owners he wanted to manage closer to home in 2003.

The Mets and Rays immediately expressed interest in acquiring Piniella, but the Mariners would allow him to negotiate only with Tampa Bay. The Rays agreed to a deal with Piniella and shipped outfielder Randy Winn to Seattle, and a doomed marriage was consummated.

Piniella came to Tampa Bay with the understanding the team would increase payroll. Instead, under previous owner Vince Naimoli, spending went backward. The Rays stunk, and Lou was miserable.

How bad was it?

His best season in Tampa Bay would have been his worst season anywhere else. Take away the Tampa Bay years, and Piniella's winning percentage jumps from .519 to .536. Instead of Ralph Houk range, he would be closer to Leo Durocher territory.

In retrospect, Piniella was completely miscast as a Rays manager. He is an impatient man who was asked to bide his time year after year. He is a manager of veterans who was given a roster of rookies. In other words, he never would have come if he knew the economic realities of the franchise.

Had Piniella stayed in Seattle in 2003, he could have won 93 games instead of 63. And even if he wanted to be closer to home in '03, he could have sat out the final year of his contract and been a free agent with a chance to go to a contender in 2004.

Maybe he was not the most glorified manager of his generation. That was Tony La Russa. And perhaps he was not the most successful, either. Both Joe Torre and Bobby Cox have more victories and pennants.

But Lou had something else in his favor:

He is almost universally beloved.

There is an aura of integrity about him. A sense of honesty. He is the manager a lot of us would like to be, for he seemed to care as deeply as anyone who has ever invested himself in a team.

"He just put that in me, that go-play-hard stuff all the time. Every play, go all out. Don't take no time off," Carl Crawford told reporters in Baltimore. "And at the end of the year, you're tired as hell but you look back and you're like, 'I'm glad I played for Lou because he gets everything out of you.' You don't lollygag at all. Some things you guys see now, wouldn't happen if Lou was here. I guarantee that."

Piniella suffered through a good portion of the growing pains in Tampa Bay, but he did not have faith things would change quickly enough under new owner Stuart Sternberg. He bellyached his way out of a contract and ended up in Chicago a year later.

The irony is in the results.

Piniella is 308-271 in Chicago, and never won a playoff game. During that time, the Rays are 303-276 and have won a pennant.

That pennant looks awfully nice hanging in Tropicana Field. It would have looked good on Piniella's resume, too.

Unfortunately, he picked the wrong time to come home.

Times staff writer Marc Topkin contributed to this report. John Romano can be reached at romano@sptimes.com.

Years managing Tampa Bay Rays could cost Lou Piniella a spot in the Hall of Fame 07/20/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, July 21, 2010 8:38am]
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