Tagged: Steve Phillips

The Other Side of the Steve Phillips Argument

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General manager-turned-broadcaster Steve Phillips has taken
a lot of flack over the last few days, ever since he made a series of critical
comments about the Mets’ Carlos Beltran during ESPN’s Sunday night broadcast.
Frankly, some of the blowback against Phillips has been overdone, with his
comments taken severely out of context by some critics who don’t like his commentary to begin with or haven’t forgiven him for a spotty record as a general manager.

 

First of all, Phillips only suggested trading Beltran IF the
Mets were to fail to make the postseason for a third consecutive year. Let’s be
honest here. If the Mets fall short of the playoffs for a third summer, no one in the organization will be
untouchable. GM Omar Minaya and manager Jerry Manuel will likely be fired, and
one of the Mets’ big three–either Beltran, Jose Reyes, or David Wright–will
almost certainly be traded. (And if you don’t agree with that possibility, you
simply haven’t been following the Mets’ fortunes since October of 2006.) Furthermore,
one of the reasons that Phillips “picked on” Beltran has to do with the ages of
both Reyes and Wright, who are both 26 and likely have a number of prime years
remaining. Beltran is no kid anymore–he’s 32, an age by which most players
start to show some decline–and therefore not likely to have as prolonged a
future as either Wright or Reyes. Yet, because of his all-round greatness as a
player, Beltran will still command something substantial in a potential trade.

 

In posing some of his criticisms of Beltran on Sunday night,
Phillips chose some of his words badly and came off sounding awkward. For
example, he talked about Beltran not delivering enough “winning plays,” a
strange and nebulous way of wording things, to say the least. That kind of
terminology certainly did not help Phillips’ argument, leading to some of the
negative reaction on the Internet. That’s fair criticism. But some of Phillips’
points about Beltran are legitimate. Twice this year, Beltran has inexplicably failed
to slide on the basepaths when sliding should have been his first and only
option. (Beltran is just part of the problem here; as a team, the Mets are simply
atrocious running the bases. They don’t hustle, they don’t understand game
situations, and now they even miss bases.) In the field, Beltran has also made
a habit of missing the cutoff man, which is surprising for a center fielder of
his rather considerable defensive talents. And Beltran has never been much of a
vocal leader, which is an attribute the current Mets severely lack–and have
lacked for a few years now. Hey, when you make the big bucks, like Beltran
does, some people expect you to speak up in the clubhouse every once in awhile. 

 

Did Phillips make his case against Beltran poorly? Yes,
absolutely. Did he belabor his criticisms of Beltran during the broadcast? No
question. But let’s keep things in context here, while looking toward the
possible future. If the Mets continue their inconsistent play and miss out on a
postseason berth for a third consecutive season, Beltran will be one of just
many people in the organization holding their heads on the chopping block. And
if the Mets can get the right package of players in return for Beltran–who is
still one of the top ten players in the game and a future Hall of Famer–that might be one of the steps they
need to take to change the dynamics of a team that too often seems dazed and
disinterested.

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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.