Piniella managing just fine with Mariners He's welcoming fresh challenge

April 11, 1993|By Jim Henneman | Jim Henneman,Staff Writer

SEATTLE -- Suggest to Lou Piniella that he could write a book about owners he has known and the reply is a smile.

There are more than a few stories hidden behind that smile, but for the most part they remain unrevealed. As the ninth manager in the often turbulent 17-year history of the Seattle Mariners, Piniella is content to let the past be and to concentrate on the future.

He has embarked on the third chapter of his managerial career. It may be his most difficult assignment, but it won't be as tumultuous as the previous two.

George Steinbrenner, whose affection for Piniella as a player ranked second only to that he held for the late Thurman Munson, gave him his first managerial opportunity with the Yankees (1986-88). And it was Marge Schott, who replaced Steinbrenner on the owner's suspended list March 1, who gave Piniella a second chance to prove he could manage a winner.

"George had confidence in me," said Piniella, 49. "He just didn't have patience with me."

It was two and a half years after he was dismissed by Steinbrenner that Piniella led the Reds to an four-game sweep over the favored Oakland Athletics in the World Series. His team led the NL West from the first day to the last.

When it was over, the self-satisfaction was scribbled all over his face. If he had anything to prove as a manager, he had baseball's biggest prize as evidence.

"That was about it," Piniella said as he awaited last night's second game of the series between the Mariners and Orioles. "I wanted to prove something to myself -- and I wanted to prove something to the guy in New York [Steinbrenner]."

No outward evidence of bitterness, just a simple statement.

"Without a doubt, it [winning the World Series] was the highlight of my whole career," said Piniella.

His fortunes turned quickly in Cincinnati as the injury-riddled Reds dropped to a fifth-place finish (74-88) the following year. Even though they rebounded strongly last year with a 90-72 record, the Reds never seriously threatened the Atlanta Braves.

He was back in familiar surroundings: the owner (Schott, this time) igniting turmoil that couldn't help spilling into the clubhouse. Piniella believed the club left him out to dry after a major confrontation with umpire Ron Darling the year before and decided to move on, this time by his own choice.

He allows that "Marge was something else," and that having her pet St. Bernard on the field before home games "got on my nerves," but Piniella prefers to dwell on the good times -- and thinks the Mariners may ultimately provide more.

It was his connections with the Yankees that lured Piniella to the Great Northwest, just as had been the case in Cincinnati. Piniella had worked with both Woody Woodward (Seattle general manager) and Bob Quinn (former Cincinnati GM now in San Francisco).

"I have a good relationship with Woody," said Piniella, "and the new ownership here convinced me it is committed to winning. But they're not going to do it with an open pocketbook. There are going to be restraints, as there should be.

"When I first met with them [Seattle owners], I told them 'I'm no miracle guy -- we're going to need two or three years, we're not going to put it together right away.' When we get settled, we're going to have eight first-year players on our roster, and we're short in some areas.

"But," said Piniella, encouraged by what he saw during a good spring training, "with a few additions, we could have a lot of fun this summer with the talent level we have here."

He points to Ken Griffey ("a great talent and a great kid"), and currently injured third baseman Edgar Martinez ("a very important player for us") as cornerstones on which the Mariners can build. "The first baseman [Tino Martinez] is going to be very good and we've got some pitching [starters Randy Johnson, Chris Bosio, Erik Hanson and the injured Dave Fleming, plus closer Norm Charlton, who pitched for Piniella in Cincinnati]."

As in his other two jobs, Piniella has a three-year contract. He heeded the advice of one of his former managers, the late Dick Howser.

Howser was fired after one year with the Yankees despite winning 103 games. "Have a strong stomach -- and a long contract," Howser said, when asked what it took to be a successful big-league manager.

Piniella, who spent seven years in the minors before beginning a 17-year big-league career (he came up in the Orioles' system and played under Earl Weaver), was born with a strong stomach. And he has protected himself by securing long contracts.

He long ago severed his ties with the Yankees. He is selling his residence in New Jersey and moving back to his native Florida.

It's easy to sense that he's a man with a mission.

"This is a challenge -- a different kind of challenge," said Piniella about managing a team that has had just one winning season in its history. "We're trying to put something together here. We've got to learn to win. We've got to establish a tradition."

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