One grey and breezy mid-February day in Tampa, a tall, tan man in his late 60s strolls casually down his driveway. On his body, he wears a white t-shirt and black running pants. On his feet, nothing. Left hand holds a leaf-blower. Right hand is offered to me in greeting, as he says in a friendly-but-matter-offact-fashion: “Hi. I’m Lou.”
This, to be sure, is not the same manner in which he introduced himself to MLB umpires from time to time. But this indeed is the very same Lou Piniella (the one who younger baseball fans know – thanks to ESPN clips and online videos – more for his entertaining encounters with umps than for his success as a MLB player and manager).
Piniella’s passion, energy, and emotion have all been well-documented and widely witnessed. What is less known – and perhaps unknown to anyone not close to Piniella – is this confession:
“Basically, I’m a little shy, and I – “
I interrupt: “Wait, you’re a little shy?!”
“Yeah, I’m a little shy…I don’t like the limelight too much, you know?”
“You think there are many umpires who would have thought you’re shy?” I ask. We both laugh.
“Well, you know (here, Piniella pauses and chuckles again), umpires are characters too. And it takes two to tango, remember. But I’ve changed my focus on a lot of things. You know, sports are
fun; they’re entertainment. Yeah, they’re important. But you know what? What’s really important is helping people, and that’s what I enjoy doing.”
And that’s exactly what Piniella is doing this particular February weekend. He’s hosting a celebrity golf outing – which included a dinner at his home the night before golf – to raise money for SCORE International. SCORE will use the funds to share both baseball and the Bible with young people in America and abroad.
We sit, following the outing, at a tall table in the golf club’s grill area, not far from the 18th green. All told, we’re together for 30 minutes, but the interview only takes about 20 minutes of that time. The other 10 minutes consist
of Piniella being politely interrupted by golf outing participants and volunteers.
I am glad for these interruptions. They reveal little about Lou Piniella the manager, but they speak volumes about Lou Piniella the man.
For no matter if the person stopping by the table – or, in some cases, smiling and shouting while passing by it – is a name everyone knows or a name no one knows, Piniella’s response is the same: gracious, and genuinely so.
I sit surprised. Not surprised by the person Piniella is, but surprised by the person he isn’t. Specifically, Piniella the person isn’t much like Piniella the persona portrayed on TV. Of course, Piniella himself did a few things in the past that helped to create this persona. And he’s not proud of that.
“Look, if there’s one thing in my whole career I would erase, it would be those sort of things (altercations with players, umpires, the media). I see myself once in a while on ESPN…and I don’t like myself for that. But what are you gonna do? Let me tell you this…when I first started managing, in 1986, Mr. Steinbrenner called me into his office and said, “Look, your number one job is to win. Number two, your job is to put fannies into seats – so if you get kicked out of a ballgame, put on a nice show for the
fans, you know what I mean?’”
Just then a lady stops by the table, gives Piniella a peck on the cheek and says, “Thank you, darling, and thank Anita (Piniella’s wife) for us.” “Thank you,” Pinella replies.
Lou and Anita Piniella have been married nearly 50 years, and Lou calls her his cornerstone:
“As I was listening to Andy Benes talk last night, I was reflecting back on my career – and you’ve gotta have a good wife. It’s not an easy living, being a professional baseball player. You’ve got 81 road games and are gone six to seven weeks for spring training. You’re tired, and when you’re not going good, you get a little more irritable (we both laugh). So you’re wife’s gotta be a rock, you know?”
“I went to a Catholic school, and I’ve always believed in God – there’s no question about that. But at the same time, I didn’t have a much deeper foundation than that. But through a lot of prayer from Anita and through Bible study groups I’ve done with her, I’ve found out what’s really, really, really important – and this gives me more peace, more serenity. You know, I’m really at peace with myself.”
Another woman Piniella beams when asked about is his mother, Margaret, who died in late January of this year “My mother encouraged me. She always told me to keep believing in myself. Plus, she knew baseball. When I was managing she’d call me and say, ‘Don’t pitch this guy’ or ‘Don’t play this guy – he’s not doing very well. So, I’d always get tips from her.” (Here, Piniella stops for a split second to reflect – and grin). “Listen, my dad worked and my mom was there for my brother and me. She encouraged me a heckuva lot, and I’m appreciative.”
Piniella grew up in West Tampa, a place that has produced many professional players, including Dwight Gooden, Gary Sheffield, and Wade Boggs. He gives credit to Tampa native Al Lopez for creating a baseball buzz in the city, especially within the
“Al not only played baseball in the big leagues but he also managed. You know, he was a Hall of Famer, so I think that opened up the eyes of a lot of Latin kids like me,” says Piniella.
Lopez, the son of Spanish immigrants who came to America via Cuba, caught for several teams during a MLB career that spanned 19 years, and he managed (Indians and White Sox) 18 seasons. Lopez was nicknamed “El Señor” for his courteous and classy temperament.
Piniella’s MLB career is similar to that of his hero Lopez’. Piniella played 18 seasons, and managed 23; he won the World Series twice as a player and once as a manager.
Piniella was nicknamed “Sweet Lou” for his fluid swing.
And, as it turns out, that nickname fits his personality, too.
Andy Benes, who spoke at the dinner for the Lou Piniella Celebrity Golf Classic, talks about his marriage in the “Intentional Walk” column of Inside Pitch’s (spring 2012) edition. You can read this column at http://www.insidepitchonline.com/Press-Center/Lineup/2012/-Change-up-A-renewed-heavenly-focus-alteredAndy.aspx