Remembering the Sweet Lou years

The news out of Chicago today that Sweet Lou Piniella would be retiring as the Cubs manager at the end of the season caused a lot of flashbacks at Safeco Field.

Of all the managers I have covered — 20 at last  count — in the past 40 years, Dick Williams (Athletics, 1971-73) and Lou (1993-98) rank at the top as 1 and 1A.

They got the most out of their players and accountability ranked first with both skippers. Play the game the right way or it was the highway, no questions asked.

I had a brief chat with Jay Buhner, who was in clubhouse manager Ted Walsh’s office on Tuesday afternoon during pre-game batting practice. Buhner talked about his 10 years with Lou.

“He was the greatest manager I ever played for, hands down. There was accountability and that’s the one thing I loved about him. He immediately, from the first day he stepped in here, completely turned the atmosphere, approach and mentality around. He changed it and it was well-needed.”

A no-nonsense kind of guy (just ask Rob Dibble), Piniella expected his players to loathe losing as much as he did. He had a good time winning.

“He made it a fun place to come every day,” Buhner said. “Anytime you are coming to a place day in and day out, even though it is a job, and you have fun you don’t think a bout the grind. He made it fun. He had a unique way, even when he was ticked off and was snapping, he had a way of loosening the team up. That was the beauty. He was good at judging character and knew which guys needed a kick in the butt and he wasn’t afraid to do that. He knew the guys that needed a pat on the butt and he wasn’t afraid to do that either. He turned the clubhouse over to a collective group of veterans to police it and he just worried about putting up the lineup and managing the game and he did a pretty damn good job doing it.”

Some of the most enjoyable road trips were those that stopped in New York. Lou was loved by Yankee fans and the love was reciprocated. The only thing better than playing the Yankees was beating them. Oh, he loved to do that.

The Mariners and Yankees had some great series in New York and Seattle during the 1990s — especially after the unforgetable 1995 AL Division Series.

From a reporter’s standpoint, Lou was a gem to cover. He had a plethora of stories about his playing days with the Yankees, many of them about the late George Steinbrenner. I could spend hours at a time listening to those stories and even though he told them numerous times to numerous people, the stories were always the same. Fun and funny is one way to describe him.

And his on the field antics were priceless, as you well know.

“The great thing about Lou was he didn’t hold a grudge,” Buhner said. “I mean, you could go toe-to-toe with him and the next day he would come in and give you a hug. That was legit. Now, he was a little tougher on pitchers and catchers. I don’t know if it holds true with the, but in my experiences with him, it was nothing but a pretty awesome experience.”

I had one of those experiences with him, and he was not exactly “Sweet Lou”.

The Mariners were struggling in 1998 and there were grumblings around town that he could be dismissed as the skipper. So I called team president Chuck Armstrong and he gave me a profound “no way” Lou would be canned. I wrote about it and the next day Lou came up to me and in an expletive-filled blast suggested that if I wanted to write about his job I should talk to him.”

A few hours later, after that night’s game in San Francisco, we had a brief meeting, hashed things out and both a friendship and working relationship picked up where it had been beforehand.

The man most responsible for bringing Lou to Seattle, then-GM Woody Woodward, was at Safeco and recalled the beginning.

“I brought him here because I knew he was a winner,” Woody said. ” And you know what? I think he proved me right. Hes always been a winner. As a player, a hitting instructor, a manager, its always been part of his nature to want to win. He came out here and made believers I think out of the northwest.”

“Lou and I had been good friends for years with the Yankees, and after being out here a while I told him, I said, ‘Lou, all we have to do is put a winner together. We have a good ownership group, and the northwest is going to respond. His comeback at that time was, ‘Are you sure? All the experts back east kept telling him baseball will never make it in the northwest.’ And how wrong were they, and are they? This place, you put a winner on the field, they’ll come out bigtime and they proved it. Thank goodness, that was maybe the one time Lou listened to me. He bought into it, and he was such a big part of taking a very good group of players and producing a winning team out here, no doubt about it.”

— Jim Street

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