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Inside Baseball | AROUND THE HORN / Ross Newhan

Now Smoke-Free, Piniella Wants to Kick Losing Habit

May 09, 2004|Ross Newhan

The Type 2 diabetes was discovered during his annual preseason physical. No biggie, in the words of Lou Piniella.

The manager of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays takes medication to control his blood sugar level and watches what he eats. He expresses regret for not being more enthusiastic about exercise, but it is with pride that he says he quit smoking "cold turkey."

Of course, the inept start of the Devil Rays wouldn't benefit anyone with a nicotine urge.

"Each time we get our rear kicked, I miss having one," Piniella said, referring to a cigarette.

The Devil Rays have been kicked with regularity, but their 60-year-old manager has resisted the urge, which is not to say that smoke hasn't billowed from Sweet Lou's ears on occasion.

Piniella was so confident that the second year of his homecoming would produce a significant improvement from 63-99 that he predicted his team would be competitive, a contender even, in the high-rent district that is the American League East.

Tino Martinez and Jose Cruz Jr. were among the veteran hitters brought in to help stabilize a force-fed roster and enhance an offense built around talented young Rocco Baldelli, Carl Crawford and Aubrey Huff. Instead, said Piniella after the Devil Rays were shut out by John Lackey and the Angels on Friday night in Anaheim, "Everyone who pitches against us is a Cy Young candidate. I wish I were a poet. I'd write an ode to scoring runs."

The verse couldn't be worse. The '04 Devil Rays have become the '03 Detroit Tigers.

They went into Saturday night's game against the Angels with a 9-19 record, last in the league in hits and runs, having scored three or fewer 17 times and averaging 3.36 a game. In the last 20 years, only four AL teams had scored fewer runs through 28 games, and all went on to lose at least 91.

In mid-May, the Devil Rays are the only team in the majors not to have won back-to-back games.

"I don't know what to say anymore," admitted Piniella. "In this league [with the designated hitter and emphasis on offense], you have to find a way to score five or six runs consistently.

"It's not like the National League, where you can win 4-3 and 3-2. You've got to score more than the league average," which is more than four per game.

With a $23-million payroll, the Devil Rays are conceding a lot in dollars and manpower to their opponents. They can't afford to do it in performance as well. Much of their offensive frustration has been centered on Huff, 28, who hit 34 homers and drove in 107 runs last year to earn a three-year, $14.5-million contract. Through Friday, however, Huff was hitting .186 with three homers, nine RBIs and rising irritation as exemplified by the bat he shattered against the ground after fanning against Lackey.

Piniella too has often worn his emotions on his sleeve, but is he ready to be fitted for a rubber room?

"The losing is hard, it really is," he said, "but there's only so much a manager can do. The guys are playing hard on the field, I have no complaints about that, but ... the season is moving along. It's time to start hitting."

Or the manager may soon ask whether anyone has a cigarette.

*

Spider-Man came and went, but it was a week of significant milestones:

* Roger Clemens passed Steve Carlton to move into second place on the all-time strikeout list but remains a planet behind Nolan Ryan.

* Mike Piazza passed Carlton Fisk as the all-time home-run leader among catchers, ensuring a plaque in Cooperstown and the probability of a full-time position change in 2005.

* Alex Rodriguez, continuing to emerge from his April struggle with the New York Yankees, hit his 350th and 351st home runs, the youngest to reach those plateaus.

Rodriguez has won three AL home run titles in a row and hit at least 40 in six straight seasons, matching Sammy Sosa and one behind Babe Ruth's record. The next 350?

"I don't allow myself to look that far ahead," Rodriguez, 29 on July 27, told the Yankee press corps. "I'm so into the moment. Everything I do is based around staying in the now, and looking ahead would kind of contradict what I believe in.

"It's humbling to get to this point, for sure, but I've always said that for star players, the most important stat is games played. Even if you're not producing, your presence in the lineup is paramount. All those numbers are the product of being the most durable player I can be."

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