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Lou Piniella on upcoming baseball Hall vote: ‘I feel like I belong’

Having dealt with a mini stroke and prostate cancer, the longtime manager from Tampa is hopeful that Sunday’s vote leads him to Cooperstown.
 
Tampa native and former Devil Rays manager Lou Piniella in the office at his Tampa home on Nov. 14, amid some of the memorabilia from his storied baseball career.
Tampa native and former Devil Rays manager Lou Piniella in the office at his Tampa home on Nov. 14, amid some of the memorabilia from his storied baseball career. [ MARC TOPKIN | Times ]
Published Nov. 29, 2023|Updated Dec. 1, 2023

TAMPA — Lou Piniella has had his battles.

Over the last few years with his own mortality, starting with a mini stroke in June 2017, then prostate cancer that metastasized to his lymph nodes. Also a right shoulder that needs surgery so he can try to play golf again.

“I was perfect until age 75,” said Piniella from his North Tampa home. “From 75-80, I’ve had a myriad of problems. But I’m still here. And I’m thankful to God. I’m thankful.”

Before that, his battles came on the baseball field.

For parts of 18 seasons, as a gritty good but not great player in the majors, with a 1969 American League Rookie of the Year award and 1977-78 Yankees World Series rings to show for it.

And for 23 seasons after that as a manager of five teams, known for his fiery temper and entertaining outbursts at umpires, but also for winning: the 1990 World Series with the Reds, and a record-tying 116 games in 2001 with the Mariners.

Now, the fight is for baseball immortality.

For the third time, Piniella, who turned 80 in August, will be considered for election to the Baseball Hall of Fame thanks to his success as a manager. His fate rests with a 16-member committee that will consider a ballot of eight former managers, executives and umpires, with results announced Sunday night.

“Sure, I want to make it,” the Tampa native said. “I feel like I belong. I would vote for myself, but unfortunately I don’t get to.”

Lou Piniella before the MLB All-Star Game in Seattle on July 11.
Lou Piniella before the MLB All-Star Game in Seattle on July 11. [ LINDSEY WASSON | AP ]

Piniella has the qualifications, with an 1,835-1,713 (.517) record that includes seven trips to the postseason.

Of the 16 managers with more wins, 12 are in the Hall and three others seem likely headed there (Dusty Baker, Bruce Bochy and Terry Francona). Only Gene Mauch, who has an overall losing record, won’t be in Cooperstown.

Piniella just missed in the last election in 2018, one vote short of the requisite 12 from a previous iteration of the committee that also considered former players and enshrined Harold Baines and Lee Smith.

“It was disappointing,” Piniella said. “I’m getting at the age now where time is of the essence. But we’ll see what happens.”

Piniella has much to be proud of, and during a recent hour-long chat recalled assorted highs and lows from his career on the field and in the dugout, at times in great detail, citing specific players and roster deficiencies (such as his Devil Rays pitching staffs), telling stories from decades ago and laughing about them.

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Stopping short of using the word “regret,” he noted two areas that he feels could be keeping him from the Hall.

Some bedeviling days

Lou Piniella had some trying times while managing the Devil Rays.
Lou Piniella had some trying times while managing the Devil Rays. [ AP (2005) ]

One is obvious, his 2003-05 stint managing in Tampa Bay.

In his first 18 seasons as a manager — three each with the Yankees and Reds, 10 with the Mariners — he had a .537 winning percentage (1,319-1,135) and five playoff appearances. In his last four with the Cubs, he had a .519 mark (316-293) and made the playoffs twice.

In between, he and the Devil Rays went 63-99, 70-91, 67-95, then had a negotiated breakup with a year left on his contract.

Piniella wanted to come home for good reason — to spend more time with his mother and father, who was in failing health (and died in February 2005). And when the Devil Rays traded All-Star outfielder Randy Winn to Seattle to get Piniella, there were grand expectations of great success for the expansion franchise that struggled mightily through its first five years and two managers.

But Piniella felt original owner Vince Naimoli didn’t increase the payroll enough as promised to improve the team. Three years of mounting losses beat Piniella down, and he wasn’t shy about sharing his frustration publicly.

With the Stuart Sternberg-led ownership group taking over after the 2005 season, both sides felt a change would be better, negotiating a buyout that Piniella still points out cost him $2.2 million of his remaining $4.4 million salary.

“When I look over my career, that’s the only thing I feel bad about — I came here to Tampa to turn this thing around right and it didn’t work out,” he said.

“I found out one thing, that if you don’t have the talent, you don’t win. That’s exactly what I found out. I never lost 100 games, thank God. … But it was fun. I lived on the beach. I got to spend time with family.”

Putting on a show

Devil Rays  manager Lou Piniella, right, argues with home plate umpire Chris Guccione, left, during a 2003 game.
Devil Rays manager Lou Piniella, right, argues with home plate umpire Chris Guccione, left, during a 2003 game. [ ALAN DIAZ | AP ]

Piniella’s other concern is that his temper — which led to some of the game’s most entertaining outbursts, including cap kicking and base tossing, among his 64 ejections as a manager — could be working against his Cooperstown candidacy.

“The only thing in my career I would do is tone (down) my act on the field a little,” he said. “The amazing thing — you’ll laugh about this — but some of the places I managed, they would call me up from upstairs to get kicked out of the game. They want me to get kicked out so it could get the back page of the newspaper and so forth, and boost our attendance.”

If that sounds a lot like his tenure in New York, it was. Piniella noted the pressures of working for owner George Steinbrenner, and the lessons he learned playing under legendary manager Billy Martin, in addition to the “fire” he got from his parents.

“Steinbrenner said it’s a business, a sport and entertainment — go entertain the fans. And that’s what I did,” Piniella said. “I had fun doing it. I never held a grudge against the umpires. Never. I respected them. But I went out there and I had fun with them. And they had fun with me. But I think (the voters have) held it against me a little bit in the Hall of Fame voting.”

Piniella said he was retiring at 67 when he left the Cubs toward the end of the 2010 season to spend more time with his ailing mother (who died in February 2012).

Several teams tried to lure him back, with the Marlins, Mariners and Reds among those calling. Piniella was content doing some advisor and broadcast work, around playing golf, fishing and watching Rays games, but then started dealing with health issues.

‘Getting along OK’

Lou Piniella attends the Innings Festival at Raymond James Stadium in March 2022.
Lou Piniella attends the Innings Festival at Raymond James Stadium in March 2022. [ AMY HARRIS | Amy Harris/Invision/AP ]

He acknowledges being “a little conscientious about my speech,” which as a product of the stroke can be a tad slow at times, but said otherwise he feels fine, exercising to “stay in decent shape,” including three days a week of Pilates, and taking an hour nap each day.

“I’m getting along OK,” he said.

The prostate cancer diagnosis a few years ago was a surprise, as he hadn’t done regular PSA testing.

Piniella, preferring not to go into details, said that radiation and drug therapy eventually worked, though the cancer metastasizing and spreading to lymph nodes in his chest created a greater worry for him, his wife and family, and his care team at the Mayo Clinic, and that also had to be addressed.

“They were scared it was going to keep traveling up to the brain,” he said. “If it goes to the brain, you’re dead.”

His most recent scans have been clear as was another he had this week.

“I’m hoping that I’m still cancer free, and I can start getting a little stronger,” he said. “So we’ll see.”

Because of his experience, he is planning to tape a public service campaign, aimed “especially to Hispanic people,” about the importance of regular PSA testing.

This week, Piniella’s focus is on the Hall election process, noting last time he was in church and that “maybe the third time’s the charm.”

The field is strong and includes managers Cito Gaston, Davey Johnson and Jim Leyland; umpires Ed Montague and Joe West; and executives Hank Peters and Bill White.

Twelve votes are needed for election from a 16-person panel of Hall of Famers (Jeff Bagwell, Tom Glavine, Chipper Jones, Bud Selig, Ted Simmons, Jim Thome, Joe Torre); current/former executives (Sandy Alderson, Bill DeWitt, Michael Hill, Ken Kendrick, Andy MacPhail, Phyllis Merhige); and media members/historians (Sean Forman, Jack O’Connell, Jesus Ortiz).

“I’ve been fortunate,” Piniella said. “I’ve had a good life. A real nice career. And I don’t plan on going anywhere soon, but you never know.”

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