Thought processes and conversations started under the tilted cap of Tropicana Field. Someday everyone will know the Rays play in St. Petersburg, Florida, not TAMPA, or the fictitious city of TAMPA BAY.
I like Lou Piniella, I truly do. I got to know the former Tampa Bay Rays Manager when he first came aboard with the Rays when I came into the Rays Spring Training Clubhouse at Progress Energy Park and could hear his laughter from two rooms away. He had all the gruff and lines of a Manager that you should fear with every inch of your being, but also had that calming effect you wish your friends possessed.
And he truly loved this game. And at times it seemed that he not only loved it like a secret mistress, but he relish the excitement, agony and also the drama that makes this game special in every moment of every game. I never got a chance to sit there and chew the fat with the Manager that some Rays players avoided at any cost, but I did share a joke or two with him on occasion when performing my old Pepsi duties for the Rays clubhouse Manager, Chris Westmoreland.
Lou wanted a nice cooler unit for my office, and I had come into the Rays clubhouse to show “Westy” some of the selections of coolers when Piniella came roaring around the corner with a new special idea he wanted to illustrate to his players as to commitment to the game. This was the moment Piniella had come up with the hair dye moment to commemorate a winning streak, and the glow in his eye showed the fire was still deep and glowing within him.
But most people remember the Manager who would rant and rave at his players, even from his perch in the dugout for a jaunt instead of a gallop towards a base. Giving his troops a rant after their telltale moment of a lapse of any baseball intelligence, or simply not giving the game the respect it deserves…always. For deep down below that angry guy persona was a former player turned Manager who’s respect and adulation for the game far outweighed his sense at times.
Piniella never seemed totally at ease being the skipper of the Rays warship. He always seemed to want one more power weapon, one more viable option, but the team was strapped to it’s fiscal responsibilities and could not always give Piniella the weapons he so deserved or demanded to fight within the American League East. But Piniella tried to be the model Manager and leader and absorb some of the punches from the mistakes and faltering pitching or offense that always seemed to doom his Rays teams.
But in the end, it was not Piniella being tired of teaching the young how to play the game right, or even the weigh of all the Rays losses that killed his passion, it seemed to be he did all he could with the Rays resources he was given and had finally seen that it was not going to change anytime soon. I did not see him the day he finally decided to put his Rays cap on the last time, but I know even with the end in sight, Piniella fought the game as if it was his first contest as a rookie in Kansas City.
Piniella was always a fighter, a scrapper and was ultimately the right man at that moment in this Rays development as a franchise. People always say that the winning attitude was defined with the beginning of the Joe Maddon Era. Well, the fires were lit, and the embers never dies under Piniella’s watch. And that passion sprung to life again after a short hiatus as a broadcaster and he took his last grasp at the job that has consumed and entertained him for much of his adult life.
Piniella might have finally take his last stroll onto the Wrigley Field turf today, and hopefully he took in the blue sky and the green grass and memories flooded his mind of being able to play coach and manage this great kid’s game for such a long time in his adult life. I always thought Piniella might become this generation’s Don Zimmer, the guy who will always have his fingers somewhere in the baseball cookie jar and take an occasional big bite until he takes his last breath.
But this is not a truly sad day because we all know that Piniella has lived, breathed and been so consumed within the fabric of this game for so long it will always be a part of him. And he will be somehow just beyond the shadows talking, instructing or possibly building a dream team of his own after he finishes wearing the Manager’s uniform. Tampa Bay has been blessed to have a Manager like Piniella when he was here to push the team and the franchise into another spot in it’s development.
I know family matters brought this action to fruition before the end of the Cub’s season, but I hope I have the same sentiments as the rest of the Rays Republic and hope that Piniella finds that next rhythm, that essence of solitude and finally a time for loving life after the diamond. Mostly I am glad he was a part of our Rays history and brought this franchise through its teenage years with patience, counseling and a bit of tough love to give it the firm foundation of respect for the game that the Rays possess today.
They say special people help make and shape our lives. Hopefully the integrity, virility and a passion formed by Piniella here in Tampa Bay always flows through this franchise. I know I will miss your gruff triads and comments, all boosted up by the love you have for this great game.
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