SEATTLE — With chairs pulled into a circle, the students of the Hutch School, and the adults in attendance, took turns introducing themselves.
When it came around to Lou Piniella, he said matter-of-factly, “I’m a retired old baseball player and manager.”
Rarely has an accurate statement left so many volumes unsaid. Because Lou Piniella, in Seattle, is far more than just a guy who managed the Mariners for the 10 greatest years they’ve ever had — seasons that cause ever more nostalgic yearning with each passing last-place finish.
Somewhere along the line, Piniella became an icon, a local legend. And each return visit to Seattle — more and more infrequent, because the flight from Tampa seems longer each time — finds him increasingly greeted as a conquering hero. Even though Piniella’s greatest regret is that he never conquered the American League to the ultimate extent, which would have been winning, or even getting to, a World Series.
So when Piniella takes off his 1977 World Series ring and passes it around to show the kids, makes a crack about the gaudy championship baubles that players wear today (“They look like Madonna’s diamonds”), and talks about the two title rings he gave to his sons (‘78 Yankees and ‘90 Reds), the wistfulness over the absence of a Seattle ring hangs in the air.
The Mariners made it to three American League Championship Series in the Piniella years, losing first to Cleveland and twice to the Yankees. The one that seems to still hurt Piniella the most is 2001, when the Mariners won a record 116 games yet fell to the Yankees in five games in the ALCS. Piniella said that one of the most prized pieces of memorabilia hanging in his office is the lineup card and baseball from the final out of the Mariners’ 116th victory.
“What’s amazing is that it really belongs in Cooperstown,” he said, “and they’ve never called for it. I’m happy to have it at my office.”
Piniella is in town to be the keynote speaker at the Hutch Award luncheon today at Safeco Field. The honor this year is going to Barry Zito, which reminds Piniella that Zito pitched in 2001 for the Oakland Athletics, who faced the Yankees in the division series.
“We wanted the Yankees to beat Oakland, because we wanted to beat the Yankees,” he said. “At least, I did. I think I was wishing for the wrong thing, because we had a lot of success against Oakland that year.”
OK, so maybe Piniella’s recollection isn’t so great on that one. The Mariners were actually 10-9 against the A’s in 2001, their lowest winning percentage against any team. They were 6-3 against the Yankees.
But this appearance at the Hutch School wasn’t about a decades-old lament. It was about interacting with the students from the only full-time school in the nation for the children and siblings of cancer victims, as well as the youthful patients themselves.
It’s a wonderful place, and I consider myself privileged to have visited the school for the past 15 years to watch Hutch winners and keynote speakers like Joe Morgan, Jim Palmer, Ken Griffey Sr., and Johnny Bench interact with the kids.
No one has done it better than Lou, who had the kids in attendance, and the adults, enthralled. At one point, Piniella posed for a standard group photo. Then the photographer asked for everyone to act silly, leading to perhaps the only photo in existence with Lou Piniella sticking out his tongue that didn’t involve an umpire.
Speaking of which, one of the kids, probably a first- or second-grader, innocently asked Piniella if he had ever yelled at an umpire. After the grown-ups had stopped tittering, Lou said, “I can’t lie. Yeah, I’ve yelled at umpires. But they’ve yelled back at me, too.”
One of the teachers told Piniella that he asked the students to look up “Lou Piniella throwing bases” on YouTube. Piniella chuckled and shook his head.
“I’ve only done that twice in my whole career, but I get reminded of it about once every 10 to 15 days on ESPN or CNN or somewhere. Look, I’m not proud of the fact I did it. I’m really not. I wish I hadn’t. When I see it now, it makes me shudder and say, ‘What the heck did I do that for?’ I did it once in Seattle and once in Cincinnati. It was always first base. I don’t know why I never picked up second or third base.
“Why did I do it? Out of frustration more than anything. You go out to argue with the umpire, he gives you a smart remark, and before you know it ... When I did it in Cincinnati, I was younger. When I did it in Seattle, my back hurt for about three or four days. And that was the end of doing that, believe me.”
Piniella stepped down as manager of the Chicago Cubs in August 2010 and insists he’s never going to take another managing job. I’m still skeptical, but he’s loving the retired life with his wife Anita. There are four grandchildren (all girls) to dote upon, golf courses and fishing holes to attend to. He and Anita went to North Carolina last year to watch the seasons change. You can’t do that when you’re managing. Even a brief stint as an adviser to Giants general manager Brian Sabean, an old buddy from his Yankees days, proved too time-consuming.
“They wanted me to be more full-time, and I just didn’t want to be traveling all summer,” he said.
So Piniella dabbles in broadcasting as an analyst on about 15 to 20 Yankees games, and thoroughly enjoys a life without pennant races, bad calls, or media scrutiny.
“People don’t realize, I’ll be 70 years old this year,” he said. “When do you enjoy the rest of your time on earth?”
For Piniella, that time has come. He’s a retired old baseball player and manager, and happy to keep it that way.