Thursday, June 28, 2012

#390 - Lou Piniella

It’s Sweet Lou saying “Aw, shucks” just after he misses a pitch. He’s probably really saying something else and one can foresee him storming off the field if this was strike number three. This is a great action shot and may occur at Comiskey since the only other shots of Royals in the old road uniforms are taken there. Lou is the third ROY in the past seven posts and after this trade would join his follow-up in the AL, Thurman Munson. Add Chris Chambliss in another year and the Yankees had a lock on these guys. It’s nice to see Lou looking so svelte. He probably was able to stay that way back then wearing these flannels in the middle of the summer. This photo is actually pretty emblematic of the ’73 season for Lou. While he kept his power stats pretty constant, he got into a hitting rut early in the season – by the end of May he was hitting around .235 – and after challenging Rod Carew for the batting title in ’72 dropped over 60 points from his average. Back then poor Lou was still always trying to prove himself and his slump was deemed one reason to let him go as was a not great relationship with manager Jack McKeon. Though he didn’t know it at the time of this photo Lou would get the last laugh.

Lou Piniella grew up in Tampa and after his high school days as a baseball and basketball – 30 ppg his senior year – star he went to the University of Tampa for a year where he played both sports. In summer ball during and after high school he played in a local league with Tony LaRussa and Ken Suarez. After his time at Tampa he was signed by the Indians in ’62 and spent that summer in D ball where he hit .270 with 44 RBI’s in 70 games. That November he was selected by the Senators in the first year draft and in ’63 would go on to produce a .310 season with 16 homers and 77 RBI’s even though he missed some time with a pulled shoulder. He also had one of his Lou moments that season when he punched out the top of his baseball hat in a fit and had to play the rest of the game with basically a visor. Then in the ’64 season Lou sort of screwed himself by not handling his deferment papers correctly and instead of serving after the season like a lot of players were allowed to do, he had to put in his military time during it. So that year, while he got his first Topps rookie card, he barely played and in August was traded to Baltimore for pitcher Buster Narum. For the O’s he got his only playing time, including an at bat up top. In ’65 he spent the season in Double A where he did OK power-wise but his average slipped to .249. After the season he was shipped to Cleveland for catcher Cam Carreon. For the Indians Lou would put together three good seasons at Triple A Portland – a .303 average over that time - and in ’68 get five at bats up top. It is believed that his temper kept him from being promoted since there was definitely room back then for him in the Indians outfield. He also had his second rookie card in ’68 on which he was teamed with Richie Scheinblum who would be a fellow All-Star in Kansas City in ’72. After the ’68 season Lou was selected by the Pilots in the expansion draft.
’69 did not start off terribly well for Piniella. While he did get his third rookie card from Topps – on each of those cards he was with a different team  - and hit around .400 in spring training he was not going to make the cut to be with Seattle on opening day. According to Jim Bouton in “Ball Four” Lou was a red ass to which management wasn’t particularly cozy. Not unexpectedly shortly before the ’69 season began he was traded to the other AL expansion team – the Royals – for Steve Whitaker and John Gelnar. Lou would pay immediate dividends for KC as he got the team’s first hit and scored its first run Opening Day. He went on that year to win the AL Rookie of the Year award, possibly setting a record for the largest gap between having a rookie card and winning that award. Then to top off the good part of that year he graduated from Tampa to which he'd returned during off-seasons. He then put up an excellent follow-up season in ’70 in which nearly all his offensive totals increased. In ’71 he broke his thumb early in the season and never really got his timing back. While his average was pretty respectable his power stats slid hard as Lou, always a free swinger, got behind in counts an inordinately large amount of the time. He worked on that in the off-season and returned in ’72 to challenge Carew and Scheinblum for the batting title and play in the All-Star game for the only time. Then came his ’73 letdown and the trade to NY.

Piniella’s trade to the Yankees was not a popular event back in KC and it became less so when Lou hit .305 with 70 RBI’s as New York's everyday left fielder. Lou liked NY – he was too cool not to – and he was great for sound bytes so the media took to him right away. ‘75 was sort of a disaster: an inner ear infection destroyed his balance at the plate and caused him to miss a bunch of games, resulting in a .196 average and the loss of starting claim to left field back to Roy White. In ’76 the Yankees went crazy with trades and the outfield got crowded with four potential starters: Lou, White, Oscar Gamble, and Mickey Rivers. The solution was lots of moving around for Lou between the outfield corners and some DH work. That would be the rule pretty much the rest of his time in NY. He didn’t dig not having a regular spot but he wasn’t exactly over-burdened with it either as he generally turned in really good work, hitting as high as .330 (’77) and getting as much as 69 RBI’s (’78 and ’79) in way less than full seasons. On the plus side beginning in ’76 he regularly got to experience post-season action and he did a pretty good number on his old team, hitting .305 in ALCS games against KC. By ’81 Lou started to get less work at the plate and though his at bats were less frequent he sure kept hitting: .307, .291, and .302 his last three seasons. After the ’84 season he retired as a player with a .291 average, 102 homers, and 766 RBI’s. He hit .305 in the post-season with three homers and 19 RBI’s in 44 games, winning two rings.

Piniella immediately returned to baseball as the hitting coach for the Yankees in ’85. He then took over managing the club in ’86 and ’87. After the latter season he was replaced by Billy Martin on his final go-around with the team. Lou was named GM and when Billy ran out of gas mid-season Lou returned as manager. In ’89 he became a broadcaster for the team but George wouldn’t let him go to the Blue Jays during the season as their manager so after his contract was up Lou walked. He took over managing the Reds and won the Series. He remained with Cincinnati through ’92 and when he couldn’t handle Marge Schott any more took the same gig with Seattle. Lou stayed with the Mariners through 2002, taking them to the post-season four times – once beating the Yankees – and winning 116 games in ’01. He won AL Manager of the Year that year and in ’95. He then took over as manager of the Devil Rays and in ’04 won a team-record 70 games. But he had run-ins with management over its parsimonious ways and split after the ’05 season. After a year back in the booth in ’06 he returned to the NL to manage the Cubs and did a nice job reviving things there, winning 97 in ’08 and another MOY award. In 2010 his mom got very ill back in Tampa and Lou left late in the season to take care of her. To date his managing record is 1,835-1,713 and he has fulfilled his wish to be the third guy with 1,700 hits and 1,700 managerial wins. Since 2011 he has been a consultant to the Giants. His mom passed away earlier this year.

As for the Traded card, it isn’t exactly ugly. Lou was too good-looking to get that tag. But the air-brush job makes it look like he played for the Highlanders in 1902. This card is definitely one of the worst art jobs in the set.

Lou gets his star bullet props and they’re pretty good. That Peninsula year was his first for the Nats and the doubles category would be the only league-leading stat he had except for grounding into double plays one year. Joe Girardi likes to play chess also. I guess it’s a thing with Yankee managers.

Actually Lou wasn’t too crazy about the deal initially as he and his family had settled into life in KC. The rest of the card back they got right. The Yankees obviously got the better of this deal. On the pitching side alone they made out as Wright would get traded from NY in May to the Phillies for Mike Wallace, who went 6-0 with a 2.41 ERA the rest of the way. It was one of KC’s worst trades, especially given that they were normally big winners (Amos Otis and John Mayberry).

This one needs an extra step:

1. Piniella and Paul Schaal ‘69 to ’73 Royals;
2. Schaal and Aurelio Rodriguez ’67 to ’68 Angels;
3. Rodriguez and Gates Brown ’71 to ’75 Tigers.

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