Saturday, October 20, 2001

Piniella never left at a loss

        NEW YORK — Lou Piniella's face was a nice shade of lobster. His disposition was decidedly crabby. The manager of the Seattle Mariners left his clubhouse Thursday night to find a long line of media types awaiting entry. He stopped, unbidden, and spoke, unprompted. After two days of simmering rage, Piniella had run out of restraint.

        “I'm going to tell you this so y'all can hear it,” he said. “We're going to be back here to play Game Six. You don't have to ask questions. Just print it. We're coming back here to play.”

        Fresh from another narrow loss to the New York Yankees, the mighty Mariners are again on the cusp of post-season collapse. They trail the American League Championship Series, 2-0, and must win two out of three games in Yankee Stadium just to bring the series back to Safeco Field.

  • National League
  • American League
        To Lou Piniella, subtle as pepper spray, defeat means defiance. His vow to bring the series back to Seattle is what Mary Poppins would call a “pie-crust promise — easily made, easily broken.” Yet it is also pure Piniella. Sweet Lou has stopped flinging bases and tackling his pitchers, but he still leads with his jaw. He claims to have mellowed, but it's a myth.

Approaching the elite

        “I heard about all that stuff — how he's changed,” Yankee manager Joe Torre said. “He has not changed ... I love him. He's full of passion. He knows how to win.”

        Piniella established himself as an elite manager in 1990, leading the Reds to their wire-to-wire world championship. Yet maneuvering the Mariners to 116 regular-season victories, Piniella has moved to a higher plateau. Should the Mariners win the World Series, Piniella would join Sparky Anderson as the only managers to win it all in both leagues. He would move into the Hall of Fame's on-deck circle.

        But that's conditional on beating the Yankees, who are as much a symbol of October as Halloween.

        If Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez and Roger Clemens pitch to their historic standards, the Mariners may have to be superb just to avoid a sweep. But if Hernandez and Clemens pitch as they have recently, Piniella's promise is still possible.

        “They're a team ready to get beat, if somebody would go out and beat them,” Piniella said. “We could do it we start hitting the damn ball, and we're fully capable of it.

        “I don't mind sticking my neck out there by saying what I said. We need to go out there and kick their (butts).”

A natural man

        In another man's mouth, Piniella's diatribe would have seemed calculated — designed to rouse his players and rattle the opposition. But there is nothing premeditated about Piniella.

        He is what he seems — spontaneous, sincere, combative and combustible.

        “There's nothing wrong with being fiery,” he said. “But, you know, you come to the realization that there's just so much that a manager can do. You prepare your team. You motivate your team. You let them play and you stay out of their way.”

        When a team dominates as the Mariners have done, a smart manager endeavors to maintain the momentum with a consistent, understated approach. When that stops working, though, it is a manager's job to lead the way out of the wilderness.

        No manager is more fun to follow.

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