It’s been a long, strange trip for Lou Piniella, who called it quits as a manager yesterday after twenty-three seasons. He had previously announced he’d retire at the end of the season, but he decided to step aside early so he could leave to be with his ailing mother.
Originally signed as an eighteen-year-old by Cleveland in 1962, Piniella changed teams five times before winning the Rookie of the Year Award with Kansas City in 1969. In Jim Bouton’s legendary book Ball Four, Piniella makes his entrance when Bouton notes, “I overheard Lou Piniella having a heated discussion with [manager] Joe Schultz…” His hot-headedness was described a few pages later with the immortal words, “Lou Piniella has the red ass.”
He was a professional hitter with limited power, a complementary player who made one All-Star team in his eighteen seasons in the majors. His peak came in his early thirties, as a relatively sane and steady player in the midst of the Thurman Munson-Reggie Jackson Bronx Zoo Yankees. He was, in sum, a good but not great ballplayer.
That seems to me a pretty good evaluation of Piniella as a manager as well. He was not, as some have argued, a Hall of Famer.
The Cooperstown case for Piniella lies mostly in his victory total: He leaves the game with 1,835 wins, fourteenth among all managers in major-league history. The only Hall-of-Fame-eligible manager with more wins who is not in the Hall is Gene Mauch, held back by his sub-.500 career record and zero pennants won.
This makes the case for Piniella seem not just reasonable but inevitable. It neatly ignores the fact that of the nineteen men selected for the Hall on the basis of their managerial careers, all but four had a better winning percentage than Piniella’s .517 – most of them a lot better. Each of the nineteen won at least two pennants; Piniella won just one, with the Cincinnati Reds in 1990.
Piniella is one of only five managers to win three or more Manager of the Year awards. Sounds like an elite club, until you remember that the award only dates back to 1983. Dusty Baker has won three of them, and so has Jim Leyland. Are either of them Hall of Fame managers?
The three active managers who have won more games than Piniella are Tony LaRussa, Joe Torre, and Bobby Cox. LaRussa is frequently and routinely described as a genius; he’s won two World Series, managed in three others, and will pass John McGraw for second on the all-time wins list sometime in 2012 if he chooses to keep managing. Bobby Cox won eleven straight division titles, fourteen in fifteen years, and reached five World Series. Joe Torre’s run of four championships in five years and six pennants in eight guarantees him a spot in Cooperstown; every retired manager with three World Series titles or four league pennants is already in the Hall.
As a manager, Piniella had two distinct high points. One was his World Series upset sweep with Cincinnati over Tony LaRussa’s Oakland A’s, possibly the most shocking Series result in baseball history. The other is Seattle’s 116-win season in 2001, one of just two times he led his team to the best record in its league (Chicago Cubs, 2008). Both the Mariners and the Cubs fell to Torre-managed teams in the playoffs in those seasons, the Mariners losing four of five to the Yankees, the Cubs being swept in three straight by the Dodgers.
Piniella was considered “entertaining.” For a manager, this means he was willing to make a big show of his arguments with the umpires. Dirt-kicking, base-tossing, cap-turning and -kicking in a futile cause is supposed to be fun for the fans and inspiring to the players. Maybe it is. Maybe it’s just foolish, if fitting for a fifty-something or sixty-something man dressed up in a baseball uniform.
His desire to cut short his season to devote himself to family matters is admirable. It doesn’t make him a Hall of Famer, any more than his accomplishments in the dugout. He was not a great manager; he was a pretty good manager who lasted a long time. We’ve already got too many players of that type enshrined in Cooperstown.