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Ross Newhan ON BASEBALL

Piniella Understands What He's Getting Into

March 22, 2003|Ross Newhan

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — It is a 15-minute drive from Lou Piniella's Redington Beach house on the Gulf of Mexico to Al Lang Field, where the Tampa Bay Devil Rays train, and the same to Tropicana Field, where they are entombed during the season.

The journey to exhuming the Rays in the American League East can't be measured in minutes or even months, although that doesn't deter Piniella, choosing valor over discretion in this spring of his Tampa homecoming.

"This will be the biggest challenge and teaching job I've had as a manager, but we're going to get it done," he said in his clubhouse office. "I'm confident that within three years we'll be competing with anyone in the division."

That, of course, represents a lot of confidence.

It also translates to a lot of patience from a manager whose volatility -- on and off the field -- doesn't always jibe with his Sweet Lou moniker.

Consider that the 5-year-old Devil Ray franchise won only 55 games last year, that it has never registered the 70 wins in a season that Piniella has set as his initial objective, that the team lost 100 and 106 games in the last two seasons, that the force-fed roster averages 25.5 years old and that its industry-low $20-million payroll is akin to a utility infielder's salary for the division rival New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox.

Patience? Can a manager who ranks fourth among active peers in wins and has led teams to four division championships and one World Series title maintain his sanity?

"I'll be fine," he said. "There's a reason to my madness."

Perhaps, but Piniella has already had one expletive-laced dugout blowup over a series of pitches thrown by Tampa's Travis Phelps to three Houston hitters, one of whom hit a grand slam, and the manager recently threw up his hands and walked away from a clubhouse chat with reporters, suggesting he had discussed the importance of on-base percentage too many times already and that his young hitters weren't coming to grips with it.

"I wear my emotions on my sleeve more than most people," Piniella said, having apologized for the dugout incident that was captured by a mike placed without permission. "I have to recognize it and guard against it, particularly since it's the first thing people want to touch on. What they should touch on is, baseball-wise, I'm a little more astute than people think and I know how to win."

A team that has reportedly had trouble at times meeting its bimonthly payroll is guaranteeing Piniella $13 million over the next four years to help teach it how to win.

In gaining his divorce from the Seattle Mariners after 10 years, Piniella calls his new arrangement a "unique marriage." Instead of nine months on the road with the Mariners, who train in Arizona and play out of baseball's most distant and demanding location from a travel standpoint, he will be away from his Tampa home and family about 90 days.

The Devil Rays, in turn, gain proven and flamboyant leadership, a popular hometown figure around whom they have built their promotional campaign -- and if Piniella chases an umpire or heaves the dugout Gatorade container now and then, the prospect of that can only help a team whose attendance surpassed only that of the Florida Marlins and Montreal Expos among the 30 teams last year.

Piniella, who helped save baseball in Seattle, cited the similarity to the Tampa Bay situation and said, "If we can make it work here it will be beneficial for the franchise and major league baseball as well." He recognizes the challenge, of course, but the importance of being home was imperative, and when he told the Mariners that he wanted out of the last year of his contract and wanted to work closer to Tampa, "They made sure I got real close."

They did that by accepting All-Star outfielder Randy Winn as compensation after failing to agree on compensation with the New York Mets. Piniella said he would have liked to talk to the Mets, but he didn't want to be in a situation where he turned down either team and he is convinced Seattle had no interest in allowing him to manage in the Big Apple.

"This job, if I wasn't from this area, wouldn't interest a guy who's [59] and been as successful as I have," Piniella said. "You talk to [Yankee manager] Joe Torre and see if he wants to manage the Devil Rays and live on the beach. He's going to tell you he's very happy where he's at.

"From the other perspective, of course, if I wasn't from this area, this organization wouldn't have hired me either [because of the salary]."

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