Tagged: Lou Piniella

The Sunday Scuttlebutt

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How quickly a player’s value can change. Brandon Inge could
have been had for a song during spring training. The Tigers would have taken a
small amount of talent from any team willing to pick up the bulk of Inge’s
contract for 2009. Just a few weeks later, the Tigers are glad that nobody took
a flyer on their starting third baseman. Through Sunday’s games, Inge has hit
seven home runs and is making an early argument for a berth on the American
League All-Star team, especially with Alex Rodriguez on the disabled list. He’s
also played a stellar level of defense at third base, which is no surprise to some
scouts who consider him capable of winning a Gold Glove…

 

The Royals made a surprising move this weekend when they
designated third-string catcher Brayan Pena for assignment. Pena is a rare
breed in 2009–a backup catcher who can actually hit and carries more than a
modicum of power. He also brings versatility to the table, with his ability to
fill in at third, first, and the outfield corners. Expect the Royals to find a
taker in a trade for Pena. If not, he won’t last long on the waiver wire. There
are at least a dozen major league teams who could use help behind the plate

 

The Yankees just cannot seem to avoid injuries. For the
third straight year, the Bombers have been assaulted by a wave of physical
setbacks to start the season. They have five players slated to be part of their
25-man roster currently on the disabled list. The growing list includes set-up
reliever Brian Bruney (elbow), starter Chien-Ming Wang (hip), and default third
baseman Cody Ransom (torn quad), all of whom have hit the DL during the
Yankees’ disastrous weekend venture to Boston…

 

Speaking of waves of injuries, I thought the A’s would be a
factor in the AL West, but the disabled just isn’t cooperating. Staff ace
Justin Duchscherer remains on the 15-day DL with an elbow that underwent
arthroscopic surgery and won’t be able to return until the middle of May at the
earliest.  The A’s also learned this week
that their No. 1 set-up reliever, Joey Devine, will likely be lost for the
season because of an elbow injury. With Duchscherer and Devine, the A’s would
have made a run for the Western Division with the Angels, who have a ravaged
pitching staff of their own, but without at least one of the “Double D’s,”
Billy Beane may have to conduct another firesale this July…

 

Jeff Francouer has promised repeatedly that he’ll be a new
player in 2009, but we’re still seeing the same strangling level of impatience
at the plate. Through Sunday’s games, Francouer has drawn only three walks in
18 games, which is palatable if you’re a Kirby Puckett type of player, but unacceptable
if you’re not hitting for power and not bringing Gold Glove fielding to right
field. Unfortunately, the Braves are strapped for outfielders. They’ve already
made top prospect Jordan Schafer their starting center fielder and just had to place
the disappointing Garret Anderson on the disabled list…

 

On paper, the signing of Milton Bradley made tons of sense
for the Cubs. They need the kind of left-handed bat that the switch-hitting Bradley
can provide. But Bradley has started out miserably at the plate (one hit in 23
at-bats), has already suffered his first injury, and won’t play again until Lou
Piniella deems him 100 per cent healthy. In the meantime, the Cubs will
continue to play with 24 men. Observers in Chicago are also wondering when Milton and
Sweet Lou will have their first blow-up. Both men have explosive tempers that
tend to erupt when things go badly on the playing field. Watch out in the Windy City…

 

Carlos Beltran is hitting like he did during the 2004
postseason, when he practically carried the Astros to their first berth in the
World Series. By flattening out an already level swing, Beltran has been able
to hit National League pitching at a .406 clip. Beltran won’t hit .400 for the
entire season, but his speed, patience, and ability to switch-hit make him a
contender for his first batting title. I just hope that Beltran doesn’t wear
himself out trying to catch everything in an outfield that will feature Daniel “Bull
in a China Shop” Murphy all too regularly and Gary Sheffield on occasion… Sheffield’s
presence on the roster continues to surprise many of the New York beat writers. With Sheffield in town, Fernando Tatis’ role has been reduced
to almost nothing, while Ryan Church remains a platoon player in the eyes of
Jerry Manuel. Sheffield started Friday night’s game against Washington’s Scott Olsen, the first time the
Mets had faced a left-handed starter all season…

 

Finally, a postscript to Hank Aaron’s visit to the Hall of
Fame on Saturday. In filling out all of the artifacts contained in the new
Aaron exhibit, the former Braves legend has donated more than 50 pieces of
memorabilia to the Hall of Fame and Museum. The large supply of Aaron artifacts
include not only the requisite share of milestone bats, balls and gloves, and
his entire uniform from home run No. 715, but also several bricks and a porch
post from Aaron’s childhood home in Mobile, Alabama. Those surviving pieces
from Aaron’s youth serve as yet another reminder of how “The Hammer” came from
modest beginnings, overcoming a lack of money and a preponderance of racism on
his way to one of the greatest careers in the game’s history. Kudos to Hall of
Fame curators Erik Strohl and Mary Quinn for a job well done in constructing
such an extensive exhibit on Aaron, now on permanent display on the Museum’s
third floor.

Card Corner: Sweet Lou Piniella

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Piniella.JPG

In 1984, Topps printed its final card for Lou Piniella as a
player. Even though he was hitting .302 at the time, Piniella realized that he
was blocking the way of younger outfielders in the organization and agreed to
retire in the midst of that season. The sweet swing, the reliable hands, and
the clubhouse agitation–all prominent features of the longtime Yankee–departed
the Bronx to make room for a new wave of outfield youth.

 

Piniella was one of the last remnants of Gabe Paul’s regime
as Yankee general manager. After the 1973 season, Paul sent aging reliever
Lindy McDaniel to the Royals for Piniella, who had won the American League’s
Rookie of the Year in 1969 but had slumped to a .250 batting average and a .291
on-base percentage during his final season in Kansas City. Paul figured that Piniella had
endured an off year, nothing more. Piniella fit Yankee needs precisely–given
their lefty-leaning lineup–providing them a semi-regular outfielder and DH who
would play against all left-handers and occasionally against right-handers,
too. In three of his first five seasons in pinstripes, Piniella hit .305 or
better while filling in day-to-day gaps in left field, right field, and at DH. He
became a vital complementary piece to the world championship teams of 1977 and
’78, culminating in his miraculous “stop” of Jerry Remy’s sun-screened line
drive in the tiebreaking playoff game of 1978.

 

Aside from his one-hop snare of Remy’s drive, I’ll remember two
features of Piniella’s game more than others. First, he owned one of the best
opposite-field strokes of any hitter I’ve seen. As he took his stance, he kept
his hands back, wrapped almost behind his right shoulder. With his left
shoulder tucked in and his back visible to the pitcher, Piniella pushed the
ball toward right field with the same kind of ease and precision that most
players reserve for their pull side. Then there was his reliability in the
field. Though he lacked speed and had nothing more than an average throwing
arm, Piniella possessed hands of velvet. If he could reach a fly ball, he
caught it. And whenever he pounded his fist into his glove, he was sure to make
the play.

 

Piniella’s line-drive stroke and sure hands represented the
best of his talents. But he had his critics–Clete Boyer was among them–those
who felt that he was vastly overrated. Piniella didn’t hit with much power,
rarely drew walks, and ran the bases poorly, sometimes atrociously. Most of his
value was tied up in his batting average. If he batted .300 or better, he could
help you, but if he hit anything less, he was just wasting at-bats that could
have gone to Roy White or Cliff Johnson.

 

While with the Yankees, Piniella also enhanced his
reputation as “Sweet Lou,” which had begun to form with Jim Bouton’s revealing
passages about him in Ball Four. As
is common with many nicknames, the origins of “Sweet Lou” derived from the
theory of opposites. Like the 400-pound guy who is called “Tiny,” both friends
and detractors of Piniella referred to him as Sweet Lou because of his sour
moods, sarcastic sense of humor, and his explosive temper tantrums. On the
field, his displays of anger, including incidents of helmet-and dirt-kicking,
sometimes reached comic proportions.

 

I first encountered Piniella three years after his
retirement from playing. By then, he was the Yankees’ manager, one of many
successors to Billy Martin. In 1987, the Yankees played the Braves in the Hall
of Fame Game here in Cooperstown. Aside from
recalling the hijinx of Rickey Henderson and Claudell Washington
at the Sheraton Hotel in UticaHe’s telling
me to go away
, I thought to myself. Stopping dead in my tracks, I soon
realized that Piniella was gesturing toward someone else, someone he knew.
Relieved that he hadn’t dismissed me,
I was nonetheless intimidated, and gave up my pursuit of Sweet Lou.

(that’s an article for another day), my strongest memory of that weekend
involved Piniella. Covering the event for WIBX Radio, I had the assignment of
doing on-field interviews prior to the game. I targeted Piniella as one of my
prime interviews. I made my way in his direction amidst an army of media types
that swarmed Doubleday Field; we soon made eye contact each other. As I drew
closer, Piniella’s blank expression became a scowl, followed immediately by a
dismissive wave of the hand.

 

Piniella did not return to Cooperstown
until last year, when his Cubs were scheduled to play the Padres in the final
Hall of Fame Game. The two teams never actually played, the game canceled after
several downpours of rain. Unfortunately, Piniella provided the other downer of
the day. During the pre-game parade that made its way down Main Street,
Piniella made it obvious he wanted to be anywhere but Cooperstown, underscoring
some earlier negative comments he had made about having to travel to upstate
New York. According to my spies, a number of fans screamed “Lou! Lou,” hoping
that Piniella would wave–or even smile. Instead, he continued to frown,
maintaining a scowl that reflected his contempt for having to come to Cooperstown in the first place.

 

In spite of my disappointment in Piniella’s dismissive
attitude toward the Hall of Fame Game, I like him as a manager. Except for Tampa Bay,
he’s consistently posted winning records, even for teams with a recent history
of failure. Last year, Piniella guided the Cubs into the postseason for a
second straight fall (though the team followed up with a second straight early
exit from the playoffs). It’s amazing the impact that he continues to have on
his teams offensively, whether it was in New York
in the eighties, Cincinnati and Seattle in the nineties, or now the Windy City
in the 2000s. When Piniella took over Chicago’s helm four years ago, the Cubs
found themselves choked by an offense that could only kindly be described
as below-average. They didn’t walk, didn’t get on base, and didn’t score runs.
By 2008, Piniella’s philosophy had taken hold. Aside from Alfonso Soriano,
almost all of Chicago’s
hitters worked the count capably last summer. Youngsters like Geovany Soto
thrived under Piniella, as did seemingly past-their-prime veterans like Jim
Edmonds. Even the role players, from Mark DeRosa to Mike Fontenot to Reed Johnson,
make ample contributions. It’s no wonder that the Cubs scored 855 runs, putting
them well ahead of all teams in the National League. Simply put, runs
scored translated into games won for the Cubs, just as it did for Piniella
long ago with the Yankees, Reds, and Mariners.

 

So with Piniella, you take the bad–the temper tantrums and
the moodiness–with the good. Just a few weeks ago, Piniella unleashed another
tirade, this one directed at ESPN’s Steve Phillips. The former Mets general
manager had dared to mention that the presence of an impatient manager like
Piniella made life more difficult for Kosuke Fukudome, a Japanese player who
faced an extremely difficult transition to American culture. I thought it was a
fair point by Phillips, but Piniella took it as a personal insult.


There will likely be more tantrums from Piniella this
season, whether it be a public scolding of the media, an angry mound lecture to
a wild Cubs pitcher, or a childish dirt-kicking of an umpire. That’s Sweet Lou
for you: good player, better manager, and ready to scowl at a moment’s
notice.

Postseason Notebook–Liftoff Edition

As a lifelong resident of New York state, I have to confess that the start of the 2008 postseason has brought me mixed feelings. The postseason has always been one of my preferred times of the year, but the lack of New York teams this October is disconcerting. After all, it marks the first time since 1993 that neither the Mets or Yankees are involved in a postseason run.

Still, these games matter more than any other games that are played. And there are several upper-echelon teams participating, including regular season kings like the Rays, Red Sox, Angels, and Cubs. The first two days of this year’s postseason have brought us some memorable moments–including a pair of game-changing grand slams, one for the Phillies and one for the Dodgers–but most of the games have been one-sided. There has been no bigger story than the Cubs’ early playoff flop. As Lou Piniella said after another blowout loss in Game Two to the Dodgers, the Cubs have played probably their worst games of the season in falling into an 0-and-2 hole. Piniella’s notoriously short fuse has already been tested by Kosuke Fukudome, who was verbally dismissed by Sweet Lou after a direct postgame question from a reporter. “Don’t ask me any more questions about Fukudome!” bellowed Piniella, who proceeded to explain that his Japanese import will be benched for the third game, probably in favor of Reed Johnson. It’s an overdue move for the Cubs, who have watched Fukudome swing a noodle-like bat for most of the second half. It’s a long way from Opening Day, when Fukudome hit that dramatic ninth-inning home run against Eric Gagne. 

The Cubs’ embarrasment reached dramatic proportions in the second game against the Dodgers. Each member of the infield committed an error, including crucial miscues by the usually reliable Mark DeRosa and Derrek Lee. Defense, pitching, and hitting have all failed the Cubs, putting their season on the brink as they head west to LA…

The other Chicago team is also struggling, having watched Javier Vazquez blow up yet again in one of his many failed postseason starts. Injuries haven’t helped the White Sox cause either, with both Carlos Quentin and Joe Crede unavailable for the series with Tampa Bay, and perhaps all of the postseason. Quentin’s replacement in Game One, journeyman flychaser DeWayne Wise, might be the most obscure veteran player on any of the postseason rosters this fall. And just when I thought that Wise could become a black hole offensively, he blasted a three-run homer in Game One, giving Chicago a temporary lead against the Rays. The left-handed hitting Wise was benched for Game Two on Friday, but only because of the presence of Rays southpaw Scott Kazmir on the Tampa mound. The switch-hitting Nick Swisher, who has postseason experience from his days in Oakland, took Wise’s place in left field.

Chicago’s third base situation could become a bigger problem. Ozzie Guillen continues to show faith in Juan Uribe, an ultra light-hitting converted shortstop who went hitless in Game One. I know that Uribe has more postseason experience, as one of the holdovers of the 2005 championship team, but I’d be tempted to find out what young Josh Fields can provide. Fields has been one of Chicago’s top prospects for years now, and could give the Sox the kind of offensive boost they will need against Tampa’s terrific pitching staff. When you’re trying to scratch out all the postseason runs you can against quality pitching, it makes little sense to give up one of your nine precious lineup sports to a guy who’s all-glove and no-hit.   

 

Monday’s Bunts and Boots–Molina and Sims, Stadium Sendoffs, and Sweet Lou

Baseball has a remarkable symmetry that borders on the supernatural. On September 30, 1973, a fading, aging backup catcher named Duke Sims hit the final home run in the history of the original Yankee Stadium. On September 21, 2008, a light-hitting backup catcher, Jose Molina, perhaps the least likely longball threat on the entire Yankees’ roster, hit the final home run in the history of the renovated Stadium. On a team featuring the powerful likes of Alex Rodriguez, Jason Giambi, Hideki Matsui, and Xavier Nady, among others, who would have figured that?…

In celebrating the final night of the Stadium’s baseball existence, the Yankees did a wonderful job honoring both the distant and recent past, parading a full range of icons onto the various positions on the field, from a sliding Willie Randolph to a standing Bernie Williams. Yet, I was more captivated by the postgame celebration, which seemed far more spontaneous than the highly orchestrated pre-game introductions. Derek Jeter’s impromptu but eloquent salute to the fans, followed by an emotional lap around the Stadium confines, involving all of the current Yankees, made for a sincere and softened finish to a night full of emotionally jagged moments. As Yankee players and fans lingered on the field and in the stands, the Stadium bowed out–respectfully and almost happily…

While the Yankees honored their Stadium, the Cubs basked in the aftermath of Saturday afternoon’s clinching, which puts them into the postseason for a second straight fall. It’s amazing the impact that manager Lou Piniella continues to have on his teams offensively, whether it’s in New York in the eighties, Cincinnati and Seattle in the nineties, or now the Windy City in the 2000s. When Sweet Lou took over Chicago’s helm three winters ago, the Cubs found themselves choked by an offense that could only kindly be described as below-average. They didn’t walk, didn’t get on base, and didn’t score runs. In 2008, the contrast is stark. Aside from Alfonso Soriano, almost all of their hitters work the count capably. Youngsters like Geovany Soto (the clearcut NL Rookie of the Year) have thrived under Piniella, as have seemingly past-their-prime oldsters like Jim Edmonds. Even the bench’s role players, from Mike Fontenot to Reed Johnson, make ample contributions when given their share of at-bats. It’s no wonder that the Cubs have scored over 800 runs, putting them well ahead of all remaining teams in the NL. Simply put, runs scored have translate into games won for the Cubs, just as it did for Piniella long ago with the Yankees, Reds, and Mariners.

Postseason Notebook–October 10, 2006

Well, it appears the Daily News was wrong. Joe Torre is staying. He will return to manage the Yankees in 2007, though it’s not known exactly what his team will look like next spring. The fates of several players–including Alex Rodriguez, Gary Sheffield, Mike Mussina, Jaret Wright, and Ron Villone, to name a few–remain unknown at the moment.

The news of the manager’s return really means only this: Torre will start the 2007 season in pinstripes. That doesn’t mean he will be managing the team in May, or June, or come the postseason. For the first time since his early days as Yankee skipper, Torre is skating on ice the thickness of copy paper. If the Yankees endure a bad start–as they did when they stumbled out of the gate at 11-19 in 2005–Torre will be fired. If they don’t make the postseason, he will be fired. If they don’t reach the World Series, he will be fired. And even if they win the World Series, Torre’s days as Yankee manager might still come to an end because his contract is up and he could decide that 12 years in the Bronx is enough.

The announcement that Torre is coming back probably reduces the chance of A-Rod returning for a fourth season in Yankeeland. Lou Piniella, who appeared to be the heir apparent, has a good relationship with A-Rod going back to their days in Seattle. Torre’s relationship with his third baseman is not as sound, given the two lineup demotions that A-Rod endured in the postseason. If Rodriguez consents to waive his no-trade clause, the Yankees will aggressively pursue trade options with the Angels, White Sox, Mariners, Dodgers, and Phillies, all teams looking for either a third baseman and/or a power hitter… Expect the Angels to be the most aggressive team to pursue A-Rod. Owner Arte Moreno wants Rodriguez badly, and might pressure general manager Bill Stoneman to offer a high-end package of Ervin Santana, Scot Shields, Chone Figgins, and Kendry Morales…

Overshadowed by the Torre/Piniella saga, the American League Championship Series begins tonight in Oakland. It’s a rematch of the 1972 playoffs, when Billy Martin’s Tigers and Dick Williams’ A’s did battle in a classic five-game matchup. And we do mean battle. In Game Three, Tigers relief pitcher Lerrin LaGrow hit Campaneris with a fastball in the ankle on instructions from Martin, motivating Campaneris to fire the bat helicopter-style at LaGrow, which in turn prompted a bench-clearing, bullpen-clearing brouhaha of massive proportions. (Campaneris drew a suspension for the rest of the ALCS, but was allowed to play in the World Series–a controversial decision by Commissioner Bowie Kuhn.) Somehow I don’t think we’ll see any similar histrionics in the 2006 version of this rivalry, if only because managers Jim Leyland and Ken Macha don’t behave anything like the pugilistic Martin. (Then again, nobody does among today’s managerial set.) Still, we should see a very competitive, highly contested series between the two teams that have the best combination of pitching and defense in the American League. I’ll take the A’s in seven, given their home field advantage, better pitching depth in a long series, and superiority in closers. Leyland is clearly the better tactical manager, however, and that could make a large difference in any close games that develop in the series…

Over the weekend, the Hall of Fame hosted its second annual fantasy camp, featuring four Hall of Famers and six other retired major leaguers. On Saturday night, the Hall hosted an entertaining Legends Event with the group of ten former big leaguers. I learned a few things I didn’t know, including the following tidbits… Enos Cabell, who served as one of the fantasy camp instructors, is actually the brother-in-law of Hall of Famer Eddie Murray. Murray was supposed to be at the camp, but had to be replaced at the last minute because he was a little busy handling coaching duties for the Dodgers against the Mets in the Division Series. Cabell, by the way, is currently working for the Astros’ in the community development department, managing a youth team in Compton, California… Hall of Famer George Brett revealed that Dickie Noles did try to intentionally hit him in the head with a pitch during the 1980 World Series between the Royals and Phillies. Years after the incident, the two ran into each other, and Noles admitted that he threw at Brett on purpose, in part because of his addiction to drugs and alcohol at the time. Thankfully, Noles has recovered from his problems and now spends much of his time preaching against the lifestyle that short-circuited his career in the 1980s… Robin Roberts told the Cooperstown audience that the best managers of his era, “head and shoulders above everyone else,” were Al Barlick and Larry Goetz. Barlick is already enshrined in the Hall of Fame, but Goetz has never received the Cooperstown call…Former Tigers left-hander Jon Warden stole the show with a series of brief but humorous answers to audience questions. “I know I look like the groundskeeper,” said the hefty Warden, “but I really did pitch in the major leagues.”