Lou Piniella was a fiery ballplayer with a sweet swing. Not always the most graceful on the field, he seemed to consistently make the big play or take the extra base; Piniella was the consummate professional.
Originally signed by the Cleveland Indians in 1962, Piniella was drafted by the Washington Senators in 1963 and played briefly for the Orioles the following year. In 1968 he returned to Cleveland, where Indians manager (and former catcher) Birdie Tebbetts planned to play Piniella behind the plate. After working with Tebbetts, all seemed to be going well until Piniella was called on to catch Sam McDowell during practice. Piniella was hit by so many bad pitches, he declared he would be an outfielder or nothing at all.
Piniella was drafted by the expansion Seattle Pilots for 1969 but was traded to Kansas City and went on to win AL Rookie of the Year honors. He gave the Royals three solid years but after his average dipped to .250 in 1973 Pinella was traded to the Yankees for Lindy McDaniel.
In his eleven years in New York, his consistent play and clutch hitting made him popular with the fans. Piniella, who found much more success batting against lefties than righties, platooned with Bobby Murcer and Oscar Gamble for most of his Yankee career. A master at adapting his batting stance to the situation at hand and the type of pitcher he faced, Piniella compiled a lifetime .319 World Series average during the Yankees’ four appearances in the Fall Classic.
After retirement in 1984, “Sweet Lou” stayed in the Yankees organization. First hired as a scout and batting coach, Piniella eventually became the team’s manager in 1986. After hiring his former outfielder to replace Billy Martin (who had been fired for the fourth time) Yankee boss George Steinbrenner opined that Lou “was my kind of player — I think he’ll be my kind of manager.”
Piniella indeed did lead his Yankees squad to a 90-72 second-place finish in his first season, but despite an 89-73 record in ’87, the team finished behind Detroit, Toronto, and Milwaukee in the AL East after injuries to key players Rickey Henderson and Willie Randolph plagued the Yanks down the stretch.
After the season, Piniella was “promoted” to GM by a disappointed Steinbrenner and replaced by Billy Martin, who had spent the year second-guessing Piniella’s moves from the Yankee broadcast booth. Yet when Martin was fired for the fifth time midway through the 1988 season, Piniella’s loyalty to pinstripes led him to finish the 1988 season as the team’s interim manager.
Piniella became the team’s TV commentator after Dallas Green was hired in 1989 to replace him in the dugout, but still longed to escape the confines of broadcasting and return to the field. After Steinbrenner repeatedly refused to allow the AL East rival Blue Jays to hire Piniella as their manager, Lou’s relationship with the team soured. He soon left the club to take the manager’s job in Cincinnati, rejoining new Reds GM and fellow Yankee refugee Bob Quinn.
Under the sometimes hot-headed Piniella, who in one game during the season flung second base into the outfield during an argument with an umpire, the 1990 Reds became the first National League team to spend an entire 162-game season in first place. Cincinnati finished with a 91-71 record and after reaching the World Series not only upset but swept a powerful Oakland A’s team that had won 103 games under Tony LaRussa.
However, the team fell to 74-88 the next year, plagued by injuries to ace Jose Rijo and outfielder Eric Davis. After revamping their roster, the Reds improved to a second place finish in ’92, but Piniella wasn’t satisfied with the team’s play down the stretch. He often overheated during the pennant race, frequently assaulting the team’s water coolers, and publicly erupted at closer Rob Dibble after one particularly infuriating blown save.
At the end of the season, Piniella left the Reds and returned to the AL, taking on the challenge of reviving the last-place Seattle Mariners. In his first season with the club, the Mariners (led by emerging stars Ken Griffey, Jr., Edgar Martinez, and Randy Johnson) finished a respectable fourth with a 82-80 record, making Piniella the third manager (after Clark Griffith and Joe McCarthy) to lead three different teams to a winning record in their first year with the club.
After the Mariners made their first postseason appearance ever in 1995, Piniella became the franchise’s winningest manager with his 234th victory on May 22, 1996 against the Boston Red Sox. Piniella was often criticized for failing to develop young pitching talent, and the Mariners’ lack of depth on the mound tempered their success at the plate. However, Piniella redeemed himself by successfully nurturing a crop of talent yielded by the trades of Griffey and Johnson in the late 1990s. In 2001, after star shortstop Alex Rodriguez left to sign with the Rangers, Piniella’s Mariners tied a 95-year-old major-league record with 116 wins.