Three current MLB managers are a lock for the Hall of Fame: Bobby Cox, Joe Torre, and Lou Piniella’s high school pal and ultimate clubhouse lawyer, Smilin’ Tony LaRussa. Several others, including Mike Scioscia, Terry Francona, Jim Leyland, Cito Gaston and – like it or not – Dusty Baker, probably are only a league pennant or two away from enshrinement.
And then, of course, there is Piniella himself, whose singular achievements in Cincinnati and Seattle place him squarely in line behind the three obvious inductees, and slightly ahead of those candidates who may have to wait like Dick Williams to one day, perhaps, be invited to sneak in the back door at Cooperstown. As he rests on the cusp, I imagine the last thing Lou wants is to spend his retirement waiting for the call that never comes, watching some of these other presently less-accomplished managers take their places in the Hall next to Stengel, McGraw, and Piniella’s old nemesis, Earl Weaver.
It’s sometimes assumed that the biggest reason Lou came to Chicago was to bask in the glory and certain HOF enshrinement that will be his if he can manage even a mere Series appearance by the Cubs. If he needed the money in 2006, he probably doesn’t need it now, so why else would he return after last year’s disappointments?
I think we can reasonably assume that Lou’s 2009 malaise was only temporary, most likely a byproduct of the stunning playoff failures of ‘08, and the even more stunning panic moves that he and Hendry made immediately prior to last season. By the end of that 8-game losing streak in May, Lou must have realized that Soriano, Soto and Z were in no condition to play for a championship, that Gregg was no closer, and that Bradley was every bit the head case he had been so many other places.
From that point on, I think Lou managed defensively, certainly not giving up on the team, but basically playing for 2010 and the new owner-in-waiting. By late May, he must have recognized that the 2009 Cubs had the perfect makeup to produce a 68-94 disaster which, combined with Piniella’s failures in Tampa Bay, might have sent Lou not only into retirement, but also to the back of that HOF managerial waiting line.
Make no mistake, 83 wins last year was an achievement that required Piniella to show enormous restraint on the field, in the clubhouse, and probably in the front office. In addition to saving his job, he caught a couple of breaks with the emergence of Randy Wells, and in the willingness of Milton Bradley to run himself out of town. Now, the stink of the ‘08 playoffs has worn off, team chemistry apparently is good, and at least Soto and Z are primed for a comeback. Even more importantly, Lou himself has every reason to be primed for his own comeback as a tactician and motivator.
HOF managers generally fall into two categories: Dynasty Builders like Mack, McGraw, Anson, Stengel and McCarthy, and Miracle Workers like Durocher, McKechnie, and Dick Williams. Oddly enough, three managerial miracles usually are enough for induction and, in Lou’s case, millions can verify the two he already has performed with the 1990 Reds and the 2001 Mariners.
Given his 45-year record of perseverance and the enormous personal motivation he must feel to succeed this year, the odds for his own comeback seem likely. In many ways his career as both player and manager is similar to that of Stengel – probably the greatest of all managers – who had his two best seasons at ages 66 and 68. But if I’m wrong about Lou, we should know early, when it will be Durocher ‘72 all over again.