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A Great Start for Mariners

A mellower Piniella returns to New York at the peak of his profession and in a position where he can really call his shots.

October 11, 2000|BROSS NEWHAN

NEW YORK — The American League championship series has more subplots than any drama on Broadway.

There's the possibility, for example, of a true Subway Series if the New York Yankees and Mets advance to the World Series.

There's the rivalry--bitter at times--between the Yankees and Seattle Mariners that was born in the 1995 division series that the Mariners won after losing the first two games.

There's the return of Rickey Henderson to New York and the brotherly friendship of Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez, the premier shortstops.

There's also Lou Piniella, whose Mariners improved to 4-0 in the postseason Tuesday night by defeating the Yankees, 2-0, in the tense opener of the champiionship series.

Piniella is a plot unto himself, but there is a twist to the obvious theme of his postseason return to Yankee Stadium, where he spent 17 years as player, manager and general manager.

The more interesting story line is twofold.

1--He has nurtured the Mariners to within three games of the World Series as the literal Sweet Lou--mellower, less confrontational.

"The new me," he said Tuesday night.

2--He could also be in his final month at the Mariner helm despite the success of this season and his six-year role lifting the organization to playoff prominence and putting it in position finally to leave the dreaded Kingdome for a new home.

The future will be his.

The Mariners will certainly ask him to return, but Piniella is at the top of his profession, prepared to write his own ticket in what could be his last contract and, perhaps, looking to move to a team that trains and/or plays closer to his Tampa, Fla., home. The Cincinnati Reds, whom he managed to a 1990 World Series victory, are a possibility.

"I want to manage four or five more years, but I'm only focused on the job I have to do tonight, tomorrow and as long as we're still playing," Piniella said. "I talked to [Mariner CEO] Howard Lincoln in mid-September and we agreed that we'd talk again when the season is over. That's been the plan since before spring training, and I'm comfortable with it.

"I mean, it comes down to this: My situation, whatever happens, whether it's here, somewhere else or nowhere, I'm perfectly at ease with it, although my preference is to continue to work."

However that plays out, and wherever it plays out, Piniella is no longer the cap-kicking, base-throwing, umpire-baiting wild man of previous seasons--a transition benefiting a team that relies on calm leadership and strategical guidance more than the power machines of the Kingdome era.

"I still have a desire to win, but I like my new self," Piniella said. "Every time I read stories of my old stuff it upsets me, but you make your bed. My wife was a big part of the transition. She basically said, 'When are you going to grow up?' I'm 57 and it was about time."

Then again, Piniella added, "You have to remember I broke in under Billy Martin, and Billy was a confrontational manager. I accepted it as part of the job. I was young, inexperienced, felt I had something to prove, wanted to be recognized as the best manager in baseball, and intimidated by losing. I didn't mind confrontation. Now I'll do anything to avoid it. I'm not afraid to lose. It doesn't intimidate me."

Besides, he said, "You have to find the pulse of your team and stay with it. If you can raise it some, fine, but what good does it do for the manager to be more intense than the team? I told this team a month ago that I enjoyed managing it more than any other I've had, and I meant it. These guys have worked hard, played hard. It's their game, their clubhouse. I get paid to win, but if I bring an urgency to it I'm only going to get in the way. That's the biggest change of the last few years."

Some of the other changes were on display Tuesday night. Piniella had a reputation for abusing pitchers, but he legitimately argues that it was the Kingdome that did the abusing. Besides, he didn't have an Arthur Rhodes or a Kazuhiro Sasaki to bring out of the bullpen as he has this year, as he did in Game 1 Tuesday night after showing faith--"the players look to you for leadership and you have to let them know that you have confidence in them"--in his 24-year-old starter, Freddy Garcia, at a critical juncture in the sixth inning.

The changes in Mariner personnel this year and the move to a more spacious home field have forced Piniella and his team to adopt a National League style of play that emphasizes pitching, defense and more speed. It's not little ball, Piniella said with a grimace, adding that he dislikes that term, but a more situational approach.

The Mariners, in adapting, shook off an August stumble to rescue the wild card with a 19-10 September, swept the Chicago White Sox in the division series and walked into the Yankees' hallowed home with an opening shutout that left Piniella saying, "We certainly respect the Yankees and what they've done in recent years, but we're not intimidated."

Neither is he predicting the future, his or his team's, saying only that he has enjoyed his tenure with the Mariners as he enjoyed his time with both the Reds and Yankees, appreciative of the opportunity George Steinbrenner gave him, even if it wasn't always easy under an owner even more demanding than his young and inexperienced manager was on himself.

Now? "Well, it seems like Lou is at peace with himself," center fielder Mike Cameron said. "It's as if somebody came down and touched him on the shoulder. It's a blessing."

Piniella won't argue with that, of course. Sweeter Lou doesn't like to argue.

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