SEATTLE -- Lou Piniella is saying he never thought it would turn out this way. Not in a million years.

Yes, he saw what happened to Billy Martin and to Bob Lemon, Dick Howser, Gene Michael, Yogi Berra and Clyde King. Yankees owner George Steinbrenner has fired managers 12 times in 10 years, and Piniella saw it all.

He suffered a little bit for all of them, too, because they were his friends. Their careers as managers of the New York Yankees all ended much the same way. There was either a losing streak or a charge of insubordination, or in the case of Howser a news conference to call his firing a resignation.

It was supposed to be different for Lou Piniella, one of the most popular and respected men to wear Yankee pin stripes. This was a job meant for him, especially after an 11-year Yankees career in which he hit better than .300 four times and was at his best in clutch situations, hitting .305 in postseason play.

He was extremely popular with the demanding fans of New York, and, more important, close to Steinbrenner. He joined the Yankees in 1974, a year after Steinbrenner bought them, and was promoted to coach when he quit playing in 1985. At the time, Steinbrenner hinted Piniella was being groomed to be manager, and Piniella is now the only person to wear the uniform for 14 straight seasons under Steinbrenner.

"I thought it might be different with me," he said quietly. "I don't know why, but I did."

In a down moment last week, he said the events of the last two weeks had "ripped my heart out."

If these weren't the Yankees and this wasn't August, the scene would seem crazy. Instead, it's the status quo for an owner whose public tantrums and day-to-day promotions and demotions have become almost as much a part of Yankees tradition as Casey Stengel or Babe Ruth.

If these weren't the Yankees, it would sound ridiculous to hear a coach say, "I was thinking about what our lineup might be, and I couldn't remember whether a couple of guys were here or back in Columbus. Honest to God, I couldn't. Isn't that something?"

If these weren't the Yankees, it would sound ridiculous to hear about 66 roster moves, about using 39 players, including 19 who've played at both Class AAA Columbus and New York. One of those promotions was pitcher Pete Filson, who was demoted before ever getting into a game.

If these weren't the Yankees, it might be a time to celebrate a manager who has kept an injury-riddled team in a pennant race. Even after having lost 10 of 15, the Yankees are just 2 1/2 games out of first place, and at 69-51, on a pace to win 94 games.

In normal circumstances, that might be considered pretty good for a club that collectively has lacked one player or another for 282 games because of injuries. The top three hitters in the order -- Rickey Henderson, Willie Randolph and Don Mattingly -- have missed 103 games because of injuries, and Henderson, their catalyst, might not return for a while.

If these weren't the Yankees, it would sound ridiculous to have so many people on the road not knowing what they're supposed to be doing.

First, there's Billy Martin, the former manager, current television commentator and (apparently) future manager. He strolls into the Kingdome press box in the first inning and gives a big hello to Clyde King, another former Yankees manager.

After being fired as manager in 1982, King was named general manager, then a year ago was removed from that job, as well. Now, he serves as a special adviser to Steinbrenner and has been called in to "observe," he said.

He's seated next to another observer, former Baltimore Orioles manager Joe Altobelli, who said: "I'm here to observe, too. My plans? I really don't know."

Yet, they all know why they're here. They're here because Steinbrenner is upset with Piniella and, by having these people around and by issuing various critical press releases, he's letting Piniella know it. In the clubhouse, this situation has put Piniella in a sort of torture chamber with no letup because Steinbrenner has so far refused to fire Piniella or announce he won't. Piniella, looking tired and drawn, is asked about working under such difficult circumstances.

"No, I'm not managing every game like it's a season," he said. "You can't do it like that. I don't feel that way, and the players shouldn't feel that way. We're struggling right now to score runs. All teams go through it, and when we get through it, we'll be fine."

If he gets through it. The Yankees haven't finished in first place since 1981, and Piniella was very nearly fired last August when they dropped 8 1/2 games out. That time, he made an impassioned clubhouse speech, and the Yankees responded by winning 18 of their last 25 to finish 5 1/2 games out.

This time, there have been no speeches, no excess pressure on his players.

"We know it's there," reliever Tim Stoddard said, "but you can't ask someone to go out and pitch to save the manager's job. That's just too much pressure for any one person."

Reliever Dave Righetti added: "That may be one reason for the slump. We've all been trying so hard for Lou that we've ended up going backwards a little bit. But with all the injuries we've had, we're fortunate to be as close as we are."

Piniella said he hasn't heard from Steinbrenner in a couple of weeks, this from an owner who once called as many as a dozen times a day just to suggest lineup changes. In fact, Piniella said he has heard nothing at all since the weekend of Aug. 8 when Steinbrenner issued a long, rambling statement criticizing Piniella for not being available for a scheduled phone call.

In that release, Steinbrenner stunned Piniella and others in the organization by revealing details of a couple of private conversations. Not coincidentally, his attack came just a day after the Yankees had fallen out of first place for the first time in five weeks.

Steinbrenner said finally he'd have no more contact with Piniella or his baseball staff. Two days later, after another loss, he issued a briefer statement in which he said (apparently sarcastically) that he was glad to see the players had "rallied around Lou."

Then he told a reporter that hiring Piniella might have been a mistake. And just when a firing appeared imminent, Steinbrenner went silent. And Piniella waits. If all of this sounds as if it has created chaos, it hasn't.

"Are you kidding?" asks Righetti. "I've been through this nine other times. You never like to see it, but it goes with the territory here. We all feel badly for Lou, but he knew what it would be like. The phone in that office rings a lot."

The difference this time is that these Yankees not only respect Piniella, they like him.

"Lou takes a lot of heat that the players used to take," Righetti said. "I'm sure he has taken a lot more of it than anyone really knows."

Mattingly agrees, saying: "We can't worry about that stuff because we know it's going to happen. It does wear on you after a while, but what can you do? You get upset, but you've got to let it go and keep going out and playing. In my own mind, the stuff with Lou has been over with for a week. That's the way it has been here. It happens, then you go on. It'll happen again sometime."