I have been asked by Al here at BCB to write a short diary about my experiences with Lou Piniella, and because Al has always been very nice to me when we chat on the SB Nation email list, I told him it would be my pleasure to do this for him.
First off, I guess that Sweet Lou is setting his sights on the Cubs. Media reports have him heading to Chicago because Jim Hendry likes his "winning reputation". The exact same thing that Hendry does not have. As an outsider, I must wonder why he has a job.
I am quite well-versed with Al's opinion on Lou, as looking at his posts from the last couple days don't really leave much to the imagination, ha ha. I must give him credit, he is a very forward-thinking person.
When Lou was hired by the Devil Rays in October of 2002 you could not find a person in Tampa Bay that would have said a bad thing about him. For a franchise coming off of consecutive 100 loss seasons under the disastrous reign of Hal McRae, seeing the commitment by thrifty owner Vince Naimoli on getting such a big name to manage the team was seen as a coup.
The Tampa Bay area had a special love of Lou. As a native of Tampa, the Bay Area had been behind him and his exploits since he began his career with the Royals. Along with Tony LaRussa, the Bay Area had always been proud of Lou's accomplishments for as an area without a team, he represented something for us to be proud of.
And there was a lot to be proud of with Lou. He was an excellent baseball player with several championships in New York, and had a great reputation as one of the finest managers in the game with New York, Cincinnati, and Seattle.
With all of that in the past, you can understand why the area was elated to get him back. For a franchise with so little hope, so little to appreciate through six years, Piniella represented the pinnacle of our hopes.
Add to this the fact that the Rays beat out the New York Mets for the right to hire Piniella, that we shoved it to Newsday and other New York tabloids spitting on our pride as a franchise. The acquisition of Piniella was arguably the most important in our team's history, and even naive little me believed it would turn out well, that Lou would be the one to bring credibility and a winning attitude to Tampa Bay. How wrong I was.
The Lou era started out great on Opening Day 2003. The Rays produced a late rally against the Boston Red Sox on the night of the 31st, culminating in a walkoff home run by Carl Crawford to start Piniella's Tampa Bay tenure on the right track. Reveling in the great start of a young team was incredible. And even though the Rays fizzled over the course of the season like you knew they would, there was something different about that year. There was hope. The great rookie season of Rocco Baldelli, Carl Crawford's breakthrough, Aubrey Huff's amazing year, among others, contributed to a feeling of hope. In fact, one of the funny things about that year was Lou saying that he would get his hair dyed any color the team chose if they won three in a row. Well, when the moment finally came, here was the result:
The Rays won their final game that season to break a string of 100 loss seasons and finish 63-99, and even though that represented stagnant progress over the inaugural season, there seemed to be hope for the first time since the franchise took the field.
And that hope continued over into the 2004 season. The Rays excited the fan base yet again, bringing home another Tampa native, Tino Martinez. Despite a slow start, the Rays rebounded with a jaw-dropping 30-10 run in the middle of the season that took the team from 20 games under .500 to the cusp of the wild card race in midseason. Naturally, Lou was lauded for his miracle-working that year. Hope sprung eternal. Attendance rose, there was even talk of....playoffs. It was that delusion-ally wonderful.
Even though that run proved to be a massive fluke by a relatively mediocre team, the Rays rebounded in their final series at Detroit and won their final game to finish with a franchise-record 70 wins. We went into the offseason with genuine hope.
However this is when the reality of what Lou Piniella did to this team set in. Before he agreed to sign on with Tampa Bay two years before, Piniella had a verbal commitment from ownership that they were committed to winning and would spend money to back it up. Thus far, this commitment was lacking, and all of Tampa Bay was behind Piniella's subtle hints of unhappiness at ownership's lack of monetary commitment.
Every few months or so, when a losing streak came about, Lou would not hold back on his opinions. He would often call out management for being cheap, and while at the start it was refreshing to hear him take the stance of your average fan and go to bat for us, after a while it became old, and quite honestly distracting to the team.
It was during the 2004-05 offseason that I, and many other Rays fans, began to realize that Lou was perhaps part of the problem. Jorge Cantu was one of many young players that showed that they possibly held a future in Tampa Bay. Over the final two months of the 2004 season, he hit .301/.341/.462. So what does Lou, in-cahoots with the wondrous mind of Chuck LaMar, do? Why, go out and sign Roberto Alomar to start in front of him, despite the fact that Alomar hadn't been good for four years.
And instead of letting a young fringe outfield prospect like Matt Diaz or Joey Gathright, either of which MAY have had a future in St. Pete at that point, play the outfield in place of the injured Baldelli, what does he do? Advocate the signing of Danny Bautista.
Luckily both Alomar and Bautista retired during spring training, and Cantu went on to be the starting second baseman that year, posting 28 home runs and 117 RBIs, having a very good year offensively at second base while setting a team RBI record. Gathright did not have the same success, partially because he was blocked from playing more often because of Lou's dead end thinking, I.E. giving more playing time to the likes of Alex Sanchez, Chris Singelton, and Damon Hollins.
Over the course of the 2005 season, this pattern became more evident. A figure began to emerge of a bitter, vindictive man trying to take the ship down with him. His attacks against management, however deserved, did not do a service to his team, his continued bias against young players in favor of crappy veterans was appalling, and he sold his team down the river numerous times.
Looking back, this trend probably started in late 2004, when he mishandled top prospect B.J. Upton by leaving him to sit on the bench in favor of the likes of Geoff Blum. This most egregious example of awful decision-making was to be compounded the next season.
I can remember a few particularly insane instances from 2005. One time, he fined his leading hitter Jonny Gomes a large sum and suspended him for one game, draconian punishment. His transgression? Sleeping a little late.
Another instance came during a period in August of 2005. He repeatedly refused to put in lefty pitcher Jon Switzer, instead leaving him to rot for 10 day stretches at a time, choosing to put in dead end relievers like Joe Borowski (familiar to many a Cubs fan), who completely turned to crap after a short little scoreless innings streak. He did the same thing with Tim Corcoran a bit before. His constant refusal to try and find out more about his young players in favor of going with the veterans he knew were bad was insane, especially for a team going nowhere and that is building for the future.
His insane desire to finish with 70 wins instead of 65 corrupted his mind. He tried to start Scott Kazmir twice in the final week, despite his innings pitched total being far above previous levels and his final scheduled start being an excellent one. He was eventually forced out of the idea by management, but the fact that he would try to corrupt a pitcher by pushing him past the limit after he had already accepted a buyout for the following year was just incredible.
Instances like this just plagued the entire second half. The Rays finished with a winning record after the All-Star break, yet that likely came in spite of him. They were awful in the first half, and after a sweep in Pittsburgh at the hands of the Pirates, he said, and I quote "I do not take responsibility for this", as part of one of his anti-management ramblings. The fact that he sold his team down the river instead of sticking up for them, doing it all year with certain players, and then wanting to bask in the glow of a winning second half made me sick.
Towards the end, before he accepted a buyout from the new ownership group coming aboard that offseason, he just started trashing Stu Sternberg and his group of investors, slated to take over the next month. Despite the fact that it was Naimoli who screwed him over, he questioned the new ownership group's desire to win because they wanted to protect the team's prospects rather than let them be prostituted for an extra win.
His last year at the helm, Lou just became a bitter, vindictive, self-destructing old man. I am not blaming him for the Rays losing, that clearly is not his fault, but he did not help, and if he were allowed to continue, I suspect that the condition of our future might look even worse. His stubborn refusal to be a forward-thinker, and his inability to take the heat for his players were my lasting impressions of his tenure. In no way should this man ever be allowed anywhere near a young team.
This column by my good friend Jim Wisinski says it better than I ever could. He explains point by point the reasons that most Devil Ray fans who followed the team closely were relieved when he accepted a buyout. I think he could be successful with the right team, but a restraining order should be issued limiting him to keeping a certain distance away from young players. So hide away Felix Pie and Matt Murton, and if you had any hope of salvaging Mark Prior's arm, it may have just gone out the window.
I don't hate Lou, as much as I despised his managing during his final season. He was a gentleman the few times I met him, he means well, and he still is a local product. But he just isn't a good manager for a lot of teams. He is, essentially, a white Dusty Baker if that simplifies things. The two are opposites in demeanor, but their managerial decision-making is very much alike. Why Jim Hendry would want him, I do not know.
I personally have nothing against the Cubs. They have been my brother's favorite team every since the days of Don Zimmer, before Tampa Bay got a team, and when he would watch them on WGN with my grandfather. Unfortunately, he passed away 13 years ago, but the Cubs remain his favorite team. But as a Rays fan, he knows all too well the perils that Lou Piniella brings to a team.
Why the Cubs would hire Piniella over Joe Girardi, I do not know, but as any Devil Ray fan could tell you, you are in for a long year. My sympathies Cubs fans, no one deserves this. Best of luck over the following years, you will need it.
-Patrick Kennedy writes about the Tampa Bay Devil Rays for DRaysBay