Lou Piniella came into town and left this week and we didn’t even have to batten down the hatches, as it turns out. The kiddies’ eyes didn’t have to be covered. The umpires were spared.
The Tigers brought a kid second baseman up from the minor leagues, along with his shortstop partner. It was September, 1977, after the rosters were allowed to burst at the seams—jumping from the 25-man limit to infinity following the end of the minor league seasons.
The shortstop was Alan Trammell, and his keystone mate was Louis Rodman Whitaker. “Sweet Lou”, we were told to call him for short.
Tigers fans, the next season, began to be regaled with the fine play of Trammell and Sweet Lou—the start of the longest-running double play combo in big league history.
The denizens in Tiger Stadium likely thought they had the market cornered on Sweet Lous, no doubt.
They’d have been wrong.
The original Sweet Lou came up through the Baltimore Orioles system, debuted in 1964 during one of those September cups of coffee, and five years later won the American League Rookie of the Year Award playing for the Kansas City Royals.
Lou Piniella, “Sweet Lou”, was a marvelous ballplayer.
He made his real mark with the Yankees, after the Bronx Bombers fleeced the Royals in a trade for his services in 1973.
Piniella was usually nosing around the .300 mark every year, and playing some fine outfield.
But his nickname surely must have been a joke, like when you call a bald guy Curly or a fat dude Tiny.
Sweet Lou was sweet, in reality, the way vinegar is.
You can chalk it up to his Italian heritage if you’d like. Whatever floats your boat. But Piniella was an angry man, playing baseball with a fury that was always threatening to burst into flames.
It started in the batter’s box, where Piniella would glare at the pitcher over his left shoulder, staring daggers at him as if the guy just cut him off in traffic.
It continued on the base paths, where Sweet Lou made up for his lack of speed by crash landing into unsuspecting infielders at second base.
It was on display in the outfield, where Piniella possessed a cannon of an arm. He even threw angry.
And it sure as hell was evident when an umpire dared make the wrong call, in Sweet Lou’s dark eyes.
Piniella played baseball on edge. Then he became a manager, and there were times when I thought the game just might kill him.
The Lou Piniella Outburst became a classic, ranking up there with those of Earl Weaver, Billy Martin, and Bobby Cox.
When Piniella got going, it was “Katie bar the door,” to borrow an old hockey term.
Bases would be pulled out of their sockets and tossed. Dirt would be kicked. Caps would be tossed to the ground and stomped on. Then, after the expected ejection, no water cooler or bat rack in the dugout was safe.
The stuff of legend.
He ended up managing a few years ago in Tampa, his hometown. The Rays, then, were typically awful. But Lou took the job anyway, believing that ownership would do whatever it took to win.
They didn’t, at least not fast enough for his liking, and he took his gripes to the papers. He all but challenged his bosses to fire him.
But it appears that Sweet Lou Piniella might finally be mellowing.
It only took him about 45 years.
Piniella’s Chicago Cubs passed through town this week and the Tigers handled them, three straight times. All the games were close. The umpires didn’t always cooperate with Sweet Lou’s team.
His players didn’t always cooperate, either. Runners were left stranded. Mistakes were made defensively. One night, the closer served up a game-winning, two-run homer in the bottom of the ninth, to a pinch-hitter.
But Lou didn’t pop a gasket. He came out to the field once in the three games, that I saw, to discuss a call with an umpire. And it was all very civil. The TV cameras even caught him in the dugout, sharing a chuckle with bench coach Trammell (ironically)—and it was the ninth inning of a game in which the Cubs were losing.
Now, in the irony of ironies, Sweet Lou finds himself managing a player very much like how he was, back in the day. And he’s not liking it too much.
Milton Bradley—not the game company—is an outfielder, just like Lou was. He’s edgy, just like Lou was. He’s prone to tantrums, just like Lou was.
Well, you get the idea.
Bradley has bounced around the big leagues, wearing out welcome mats in dizzying fashion. The Cubs are his seventh team in nine seasons. He’s talented but is higher maintenance than a 1966 Mustang.
Piniella is running out of patience, already, with Bradley, who’s in his first season with the Cubs.
Friday night in Chicago, the Cubs visiting the cross town White Sox, Bradley made an out, ran back to the dugout, and then proceeded to bludgeon a water cooler in his ferocity.
Piniella caught him in the runway, confronted Bradley, and told him to go into the clubhouse, get dressed, and go home.
“This has been a common occurrence and I’ve looked the other way a lot and I’m tired,” Piniella said after the game about Bradley’s caustic behavior.
Imagine that—Sweet Lou tired of the very same fury that he himself played and managed with for decades.
Oh, they’ll tell you that it’s hogwash that Piniella has mellowed. His players will say that he still has that famous short fuse, at least behind closed doors.
Certainly, it’s still there to a degree. But it’s doing a slow burn out, befitting a man approaching 66 years of age. Time would have been when Lou would have shrugged off Milton Bradley-like behavior from one of his players. The “boys will be boys” mentality.
Before you know it, Sweet Lou really will be sweet, after all.
Then we’ll have to start calling him Sour Balls, I suppose.