Piniella aims to end on a high note
New Cubs skipper looks to finish career as a winner
MESA, Ariz. -- Lou Piniella has filled out lineup cards for 2,939 Major League games, beginning in 1986 with the New York Yankees. And that doesn't count all the Spring Training games during those years. Piniella ranks 18th on the all-time list and fourth among active big-league managers with 1,519 wins.
But Piniella is a rookie again.
The 63-year-old Tampa, Fla., native is back in the dugout as the 50th manager of the Chicago Cubs. After three draining years as Tampa Bay's manager, he took a one-year leave to work in the broadcast booth. Piniella signed a three-year contract with the Cubs last October, but has made it no secret this will be his last job. And he wants to finish as a winner.
Cubs fans want a winner, too, and Piniella realized just how much during the winter fan fest. Elderly women and men would tell him they were running out of time. The team hasn't been to a World Series since 1945, and the Cubs haven't won since 1908. Nobody wants to celebrate 100 years without a championship, which is why the front office spent more than $300 million this offseason on players.
"In New York, there's obviously a national stage," said Piniella, who played and managed the Yankees. "Being there all those years helps. Experience is your best teacher. I like it here in Chicago. We've had a lot more attention here than what I thought we'd have. I think if we play well, like we expect this summer, we'll continue to have it."
Piniella hasn't changed much over the years.
"He has an unbelievable desire to win and that trickles down to his staff and his players," said Cubs infield coach Matt Sinatro, who has spent 11 years with Piniella in both Seattle and Tampa Bay. "Players play hard for him, and he's a fair guy. There's no surprise to his success. He demands a lot, but he leaves you alone."
The Cubs are finding that out this spring.
"He definitely has that intimidating presence," second baseman Mark DeRosa said. "It's almost like a fatherly thing -- you know how far you can go without pushing the envelope. Obviously, he has a presence about him that commands a lot of respect, and he should."
Piniella has three World Series rings, winning as a player with the Yankees in 1977 and '78, and as a manager with the Cincinnati Reds in 1990. He guided the Mariners to a 116-win season in 2001.
"You talk about the players sticking together and knowing how to play the game -- 116 wins is incredible," Sinatro said of that magical season. "We might be in the fourth inning and down by five, but we had the confidence in the players and the talent and the manager to know we were coming back. We could've picked up some more wins, but we had to get ready for the playoffs. That was a lot of fun. Hopefully, we can do it here."
After 10 seasons in Seattle, Piniella was lured home to take over the Devil Rays in 2003.
"He was not a happy camper," Sinatro said of the Tampa Bay days.
These days, Piniella will pass through the Cubs clubhouse and joke with the players. He laughs with the fans. A chorus of "Lou, Lou" echos from Spring Training parks whenever he heads to the mound. He's refreshed after a year off. He's also revived his desire to win.
"I've seen him pull guys aside and say, 'You can't do that stuff, not on my team,'" Cubs pitcher Scott Eyre said. "He's teaching. He wants you to learn. He wants you to play well. He wants to win in Spring Training to establish an attitude. I think he's brought a good atmosphere here."
Piniella has talked about developing a "Cubby swagger."
"He wants people to say, 'I don't want to play the Cubs this weekend,' and not just because we have a good team but because of the way we carry ourselves," Eyre said. "He wants you to walk around and think you're good. He wants you to believe you're good, and not just think it, but know you're good."
The Cubs will be a fairly veteran team, and Piniella has left the experienced players alone, so far.
"He lets the veterans do their thing, until they don't do their thing. And if they don't, then he'll let you know," Eyre said. "He doesn't care how many years you've got. It's a good thing -- it's called constructive criticism. He trusts you to police yourself and do things on your own."
The year away from the dugout as a color commentator for FOX TV helped Piniella's perspective.
"I think sometimes, managers have a tendency to take things too seriously," Piniella said. "I'm going to enjoy it. I always have fun. At the same time, you have to be a little challenging."
Piniella got his point across early this spring.
"You definitely get the brutal truth," DeRosa said. "For some guys it will be -- I don't want to say tough to hear -- something they'll have to get used to. Just in the first couple of games, he told guys when they did good and told them when they did something bad. That's what guys look for.
"We're all grown men. We know he wants us to do our best and perform our best. But he's got an obligation to the front office, management and fans to put a winner on the field. He'll make sure we go about our business the right way."
"He's always been a guy who liked the pressure, and a guy who has delivered," Sinatro said. "It's a great challenge. Here, the front office has done a great job, and everybody's on the same page. It's exciting to put on a uniform every day."
According to a recent Sports Illustrated story, Piniella has been ejected 57 times in his career. What about those base-throwing, vein-popping, temper tantrums that can be found on YouTube?
"There's a reason he might pick up that base and throw it," Sinatro said. "It's not to show off. When he does that, he's showing everybody how much he cares. He's entertaining -- he's entertaining as heck. He's a smart guy and the thing about it is, he doesn't miss a trick.
"A lot of these things spark the club. He does it for a reason. He doesn't do it for show. Sometimes, he might do it because he's aggravated."
"He's not really different," Cubs shortstop Cesar Izturis said of his new skipper. "He just wants to win. That's what it's about. You come in here to win games, and it doesn't matter if it's Spring Training or split squad."
The Cubs players are still getting to know Piniella. When the roster gets trimmed to the final 25, they can expect more one-on-one chats with the new manager.
"It's a simple thing with me," Piniella said. "You want your name in the lineup and you want to get the ball, get the job done."
Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.