Imagine the funniest, most mischievous, hot-tempered kid in school. The one who only had time for sports, cars, girls, fights and aggravating as many teachers as possible. When he wasn't laughing, he was smirking, shooting pool, playing poker or sneaking off to the racetrack. In the yearbook, you probably voted him Most Likely To Goof Off His Whole Life.
Thirty years later, the guy ends up secretary of state or chairman of the Federal Reserve. That's how people feel when they find out that Lou Piniella is the manager of the world champions of baseball.
You mean Louie The Hook, high school basketball all-American? Sweet Lou, the hothead at whom rival fans once threw iguanas?
Whether you knew Piniella from childhood on the Spanish-speaking side of West Tampa or his 16-plus seasons as a .291 hitter in the majors, it's hard to imagine ruggedly handsome, square-jawed, quick-triggered, self-absorbed, who-do-you-like-in-the-daily-double Lou Piniella as the brains of the outfit, the authority figure, who runs the Cincinnati Reds.
What a shock it must have been for Tony La Russa too.
He and Lou grew up playing alongside each other in American Legion ball and against each other in high school.
"Tony was like a manager on the field even then," says Piniella.
"Lou was the goof-up," says La Russa.
Did they really throw iguanas at Lou?
"I missed that one," says La Russa. "But it sounds like him."
The 1990 World Series was a nightmare for Oakland's La Russa, who is an ultra-prepared control freak with a computer full of stats, percentage theories on every strategy, a submerged- but-simmering streak of temper and a fall-back law degree. Baseball to him is work, not play. Like Earl Weaver, he was meant to manage over the long haul. Short series make him nervous, maybe irritable, just as they did Weaver -- who was favored in four World Series and won only one.
This World Series was a dream come true for Piniella, an intuitive, play-a-hunch renegade who lives the game for the moment, trusts his gut more than his brain and lets his emotions show. Baseball to him is just hard fun. Sometimes the long season can bore him; his Reds were one game under .500 in their final 117 games. Deferred gratification, phooey.
But put him in the spotlight, up the ante, roll the dice -- egg on your face or Miss America on your arm -- and Lou's in heaven. He hit .305 in five playoffs and .319 in four World Series. Only a guy like Piniella, who's proud not to be too brilliant, could convince himself and his team -- against all logic -- that they could beat La Russa's Athletics. And beat 'em good.
To know Piniella, walk with him to the mound in the last inning of the Series. Two more outs and the Reds are champs. Ahead by one run. Nobody on base. Jose Rijo, working on a two-hitter, has retired the last 20 men.
Lou, what are you doing? Go back. Don't mess this up. Lou, don't hang yourself out to dry. Don't make everybody say: Dumbest Managerial Move Ever -- Lou Piniella, Oct. 20, 1990, hooked Rijo so La Russa could hit Jose Canseco.
"How do you feel?" asked Piniella, noncommittal and totally undecided.
"Do whatever you think is best," said Rijo.
In a second, Piniella called for Randy Myers. Canseco dribbled out. But on the previous pitch, Canseco fouled one straight back with a monster home run swing. We're talking a fraction of an inch. But, hey, that's Lucky Lou. That's how he manages. By the seat of his pants. On instinct. On 30 years of baseball experience, plus a sense of what makes people tick. Rijo had a blister. He'd gone over 100 pitches. He knew the Nasty Boys were ready. Some tiny part of Rijo wanted out. And that's all Piniella needed.
When they do a book on Piniella, it'll have to be "Boys at Play." He's passionate, but not technical. He loves the emotion of the game, the gamble, and he goes for the solar plexus..
If you lay down an 0-2 bunt with the Series on the line, like Herm Winningham did, Lou loves you. Piniella gets a kick out of "putting on plays," especially at wacky times. It'd drive a computer crazy. Which may be what happened to Oakland. "Take it to 'em," he will say, just the way he used to take it to those umpires, wallowing in the dirt and smashing his hand on home plate until he was dragged off.
One time Piniella stood beating on the umpires' locker room door, screaming obscenities for 10 minutes when a rainout washed away his team's big lead. And Piniella was just a player then. The other Yankees looked at him. Lou, let's go. What's the big deal? But Lou cared. That made him different -- a leader.
Piniella knows more about a ballclub's soul than he does about its stats. "I know the A's," he said. "That'll help."
He knew that everybody in the American League was scared of the A's -- didn't want to pitch their big sluggers inside for fear of brawls and didn't want to dive into the plate against Oakland's big brushback pitchers. But Piniella knew he had the pitching staff -- Rijo, Tom Browning, Danny Jackson, Jack Armstrong and the Nasty Boys -- to puncture the A's macho. In a season the A's don't see as much smoke on the fists, followed by sliders away, as they did in a week from the Reds.
As for the Reds' right-handed hitters, they took their health insurance policies into their hands and dove into the plate. The A's caught on and started buzzing Barry Larkin, Chris Sabo and Billy Hatcher, but only Hatcher ended up visiting the hospital.
While La Russa changed pitchers by formula, thus leaving Dennis Eckersley well-rested for the 1991 Series, Piniella went by feel. And he has a lot of it. Why? Because Piniella knows so much about hitting. When his pitchers start throwing pitches he, at 47, would still like to hit, Piniella gets 'em out of there. The pundits call it Piniella's sixth sense about pitching changes. Heck, he just knows when a guy's ripe to get creamed.
Where La Russa is honest, but guarded, Piniella can be expansive but misleading. After 15 years' exposure to George Steinbrenner, Piniella tends to say what serves his purpose. In this Series, it served his purpose to call the already self-infatuated A's the greatest team in creation. "I've told my team to be gracious," said Piniella after Game 3.
The real Lou, who beats on umpires' doors, surfaced after Game 4 when the A's sour-grapes chorus reached him. "What do you mean 'The best team didn't win?' " boomed Piniella. "We dominated two games. We won two close games. We swept Oakland. The best team didn't win? Somebody's doing something wrong. You can take that back over there and . . ."
Now, now, Lou. Just because half the A's claimed they were "still the best team" and "had more talent than the Reds." For Christmas, you can always send the A's 25 copies of "The Hustler" where Fast Eddie says to Minnesota Fats, "Even if you beat me, I'm still the best."
We all know that the workaholic with the computer, the intense expression and the law degree can get to the top. But it's nice to know that, sometimes, Louie the Hook -- the maverick, the sweet goof-up -- can get there too.