SweetSpot: Lou Piniella
--Catchphrase for the 2001 Seattle Mariners
Every Mariners fan has his or her favorite game from 2001. After all, we watched nearly every one or followed online the ones we couldn’t see on TV or attend in person.
I have two. The Mariners had romped through the first half, going 63-24 and leading the division by 19 games. By fortuitous circumstance, Seattle hosted the All-Star Game that year and it had been a Mariners celebration, with eight players named to the roster, including starters Ichiro Suzuki, Bret Boone, John Olerud and Edgar Martinez. The American League won the game 4-1, with Freddy Garcia earning credit for the win and Kazuhiro Sasaki recording the save.
Relax? The Mariners would go 17-6 in their first 23 games out of the break.
My other game came a couple of weeks later. The Mariners led the Twins 3-2 in the eighth inning when Lou Piniella sent out little-used utilityman Charles Gipson as a defensive replacement in center field. Sure enough, later that inning Gipson threw out the potential tying run at home plate. That was the 2001 Mariners -- Piniella making every right move, all 25 guys contributing and delivering clutch throws and big hits. Baseball is a team game made up of individual talents. But I've never seen a baseball team where the sum of the team exceeded the individuals like the 2001 Mariners. They were a team in perfect harmony.
* * * *
"I haven't seen him hit the ball with any authority."
--Mariners manager Lou Piniella on Ichiro Suzuki, late in spring training
The Mariners had lost to the Yankees in six games in the 2000 American League Championship Series, but then Alex Rodriguez signed with Texas as a free agent. The Mariners countered that loss by winning the posting process for Ichiro Suzuki and signing him to a three-year, $14 million contract. In a less-heralded move, the team also signed free-agent second baseman Bret Boone. Still, nobody knew exactly what to expect from the club.
Spring training got off to a bad start. Jay Buhner, third on the team in home runs in 2000, suffered a torn arch in his left foot in his first at-bat and would miss most of the season. More troublesome was the performance of Ichiro, whom Piniella had initially planned on hitting third in the lineup. But Ichiro wasn’t hitting the ball with any power and the Seattle papers wondered if he was overmatched by major league pitchers who threw harder than the pitchers he'd regularly faced in Japan. Piniella and hitting coach Gerald Perry expressed their concerns that teams would just bunch their defense to the left.
Finally, in late March, Ichiro smacked a home run. "I shook his hand when he got to the dugout, just like I would with anyone else," Piniella said. "He had a big smile. I know it was good for him to hit the ball hard in that direction."
It was a small turning point for the Mariners. Maybe their Japanese import would be OK after all. Still, Piniella decided to install Ichiro as his leadoff hitter.
Like all of Piniella’s moves that year, it was the right one.
Ichiro got two hits in the season opener. A few days later he went 4-for-6 with two runs, a double and a two-run, game-winning home run in the 10th inning in Texas. A couple of days after that came The Throw. Ichiro had started a go-ahead Mariners rally in the top of the eighth with a pinch-hit single. In the bottom of the inning, facing the boos and taunts of Oakland fans who had been hounding him throughout the series, he sent his own message when he gunned down Oakland’s Terrence Long at third base with a laser beam from right field.
Just like that, Ichiro was a national sensation. He hit .336 in April, with hits in 23 of 25 games. The Mariners, meanwhile, went 20-5, including a three-game sweep in the Bronx. After the Mariners thumped the Rangers in one series, A-Rod predicted with complete insincerity but amazing accuracy that the Mariners would win 115 games. On May 23, Bell hit a home run in the eighth inning to beat the Twins, kicking off a 15-game winning streak. Ichiro and then Boone appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Later, Ichiro, Boone, Cameron and Martinez appeared on the cover of ESPN The Magazine, under the billing "ALL WORLD."
* * * *
"It wasn’t supposed to end like this. It wasn’t supposed to end here."
--Bret Boone, after losing the ALCS to the Yankees
The Mariners never let up. Ichiro would win the batting title with a .350 mark and lead the league in hits and stolen bases. Boone had one of the greatest seasons a second baseman ever had, hitting .331 with 37 home runs and a league-leading 141 RBIs. The beloved Martinez, 38 years old, hit .306 with a .423 on-base percentage and 116 RBIs. Slick-fielding first baseman John Olerud had a .402 OBP and scored and drove in more than 90 runs. Cameron knocked in 110. Mark McLemore played all over the field and scored 78 runs and swiped 39 bases. With Ichiro, Cameron, Boone and Olerud, it was one of the best defensive teams I've ever seen. The pitching was the best in the league, as well. Garcia led the league in ERA, Jamie Moyer won 20 games and Sasaki, Arthur Rhodes and Jeff Nelson provided a dominant bullpen trio.
The team went 18-9 in June and July and 20-9 in August. They were selling out every game -- the M's would lead the AL in attendance that year, outdrawing the Yankees, a team that had won three straight World Series titles. Local TV ratings were off the charts. The team clinched the division title soon after the return to action after the 9/11 attacks halted play for a week. A champagne-soaked celebration didn’t seem appropriate. Instead, the team gathered near the pitching mound for a prayer. Somebody brought out a flag and the players walked the flag around the stadium, thanking the fans for their support. As Seattle newspaper columnist Art Thiel would write, "They found a way to honor their achievements, fans and country without histrionics, triteness, or bad taste. A season of greatness found a seminal expression apart from the game."
Maybe Piniella pushed too hard. Maybe the team was gassed from the record drive. Maybe the pressure to match their regular season was too great. Or maybe the playoffs are just a crapshoot. The Mariners, of course, aren’t regarded as one of the greatest teams of all time. They’re not mentioned in the same breath as those ’98 Yankees or the ’86 Mets or ’75 Reds. They didn’t win the World Series; they didn’t even reach it.
They beat Cleveland in five games in the Division Series, rallying to win the final two games after getting bombed 17-2 in Game 3. But there were problems. Shortstop Carlos Guillen had contracted tuberculosis, and there were fears he’d infected the entire clubhouse. He missed the Cleveland series and played sparingly in the ALCS against the Yankees. Martinez had pulled a groin against the Indians and was ineffective in the ALCS. In the first two games, Andy Pettitte and Mike Mussina pitched gems. Seattle won Game 3 14-3 and led Game 4 1-0 on Boone’s homer in the eighth, but Bernie Williams homered off Rhodes to tie it and then Alfonso Soriano hit a two-run walkoff homer off Sasaki. Game 5 was an anticlimactic 12-3 blowout.
* * * *
"I'm tired of [expletive] losing, I'm tired of getting my [expletive] beat, and so have those guys. We gotta change this [expletive expletive] around and get after it. And only we can do it. The fans are [expletive] off, and I'm [expletive] off, and the players are [expletive] off. And that's the way it is. There's no [expletive] easy way out of this, can't feel sorry for ourself, we gotta [expletive] buckle it up and get after it."
--Mariners manager John McLaren, June 2008
The decline wasn’t immediate. The 2002 club was in first place as late as Aug. 18 and won 93 games, but missed the playoffs. Piniella, in part to be closer to his family in Florida and in part because he was angry management hadn’t added any reinforcements at the trade deadline, left after the season to manage Tampa Bay. The 2003 club led the division by five games on Aug. 15, but Oakland got hot and the Mariners faded. Once again, 93 wins wasn’t enough to make the postseason.
By 2004, the team was aging and in decline and general manager Bill Bavasi, who had replaced Pat Gillick, was ill-equipped to handle the transition. Still, the downfall was excruciating. The Mariners had arguably become baseball’s premier franchise. They were filling Safeco Field. They were fun to watch. They had some of the highest revenues in the sport. Maybe they weren’t the Yankees -- but they were the next-best thing.
Since 2004, the team has gone 566-714, including 100-loss seasons in 2008 and 2010. The offenses the past two years have been two of the worst baseball has seen in decades. Attendance, once more than 43,000 per game, has fallen to 23,489. The decline in popularity is evident in the team’s radio broadcasts. The only commercials with player endorsements involve Jay Buhner, who has been retired 10 years, and Seattle-area native Travis Ishikawa, who has never played for the Mariners.
So what happened?
The foundation for demise was set in the Gillick era. Due to free-agent signings, the Mariners had no first-round pick in 2000, 2001 and 2003 and failed to sign 2002 first-rounder John Mayberry Jr. Those four drafts produced just two major leaguers of significance -- Adam Jones, who was traded to Baltimore in the Erik Bedard trade; and Eric O’Flaherty, who the club released after the 2008 season.
The team did suffer some bad luck with a slew of pitching prospects in the early part of the decade. Ryan Anderson, compared to Randy Johnson for his 6-foot-10 stature and blazing fastball, was a top-10 prospect but blew out his shoulder and never reached the majors. Jeff Heaverlo tore his labrum. Clint Nageotte battled injuries. Gil Meche had pitched well as a rookie in 2000 but missed all of the 2001 season with a frayed rotator cuff -- yes, the 2001 club could have been even better. While Meche eventually returned, he was never the star his rookie season indicated he had a chance to become.
Current rookie Dustin Ackley looks like the first good hitting prospect the Mariners have developed since A-Rod. Actually, that’s not completely accurate; they developed Shin-Soo Choo and Asdrubal Cabrera, but Bavasi gave them away to Cleveland in ill-advised trades for Ben Broussard and Eduardo Perez in 2006. Those two combined for nine home runs that year and the Mariners finished 78-84. Bavasi brought in past-their-prime veterans like Scott Spiezio (.198 average over two seasons) and Rich Aurilia (.241 average before being sent back to the National League). Later, Bavasi would do unmentionable things like signing Carlos Silva and trading Rafael Soriano for Horacio Ramirez.
In recent years, nearly every hitter the Mariners have produced has reached the majors with no concept of the strike zone -- guys like Jose Lopez, Yuniesky Betancourt, Wladimir Balentien and 2011 graduates Greg Halman and Carlos Peguero. You’re not going to win with guys like that.
So now the Mariners are headed for another season of 90-plus losses. They suffered through a 17-game losing streak in July. They’ve had some bright spots like Ackley and fellow rookie Michael Pineda. They still have Felix Hernandez. At one point recently, 12 of the 25 players on the roster were rookies, a sign that a complete rebuild was in order. But Ichiro is getting old, Franklin Gutierrez has regressed, Justin Smoak remains a question mark and third base and left field remain problem areas. The rookies strike out too much, the bullpen is thin and Felix's body language often suggests that he'd like to pitch with more than two runs of support.
I’ll be honest: It makes a Mariners fan want to re-watch that "Sweet 116" videotape again.
Follow David Schoenfield on Twitter @dschoenfield.
- Lou Piniella is retiring as manager of the Chicago Cubs effective at the end of the season, the Daily News has learned.
The 67-year old Piniella, who led the Cubs to NL Central division titles in 2007 and 2008, is in the last year of his contract, but has endured a particularly stressful season in which the team is mired in fourth-place, 10 1/2 games out.I think this is probably the end of the line for Piniella's managerial career ... but I also think we should be clear about the terminology here. Is Piniella retiring ... or is he simply leaving the Cubs? There is a difference.
Granted, at 67 Piniella is old for a manager. But Bobby Cox is 69. Joe Torre was 67 when the Dodgers hired him. Jack McKeon managed the Reds until he was 69 ... and managed the Marlins until he was 74. So while 67, historically speaking, is old for a manager, in the 21st century it's not particularly old.
So I'm not sure that "retiring" is the right word, because I'm not sure that Piniella isn't going to manage again and I won't be sure until he's gone a few years without managing.
Once we're sure, Piniella will become a popular Hall of Fame candidate. He'll probably have to wait a while, though, because he'll inevitably be compared to his contemporaries, and those comparisons won't serve him well.
If Piniella doesn't manage after this season, for at least four years he'll rank 14th on the all-time list with something like 1,860 wins. But Tony La Russa, Bobby Cox, and Joe Torre currently rank third, fourth, and fifth on the all-time list. The Hall of Fame has elected a lot of managers, but it usually doesn't happen quickly. Cox will go in first, then Torre, and finally La Russa (assuming that he actually retires someday).
Then, probably, Lou Piniella.
With the exception of Gene Mauch, every manager with more wins than Piniella will be in the Hall of Fame. And Mauch finished his career with a losing record and never won a World Series; Piniella has a winning record and a World Series ring.
On the other hand, the manager in 15th place is Ralph Houk. Like Piniella, Houk played for and managed the Yankees. Like Piniella, Houk managed a number of teams. Piniella's and Houk's career winning percentages are practically identical. Where Piniella won one World Series, Houk won two.
But I think Piniella gets (and will continue to get) more credit for his team's successes than Houk has for his. Houk's first team was the '61 Yankees, coming off 10 American League championships in 12 years. There was definitely a sense then -- or is now, anyway -- that Houk was simply fortunate enough to take the helm of a powerhouse team that essentially couldn't be beat. Houk managed the Yankees to three straight pennants, was kicked upstairs so Yogi Berra could manage, returned to the dugout after two seasons ... and managed for most of the next 20 years without a single first-place finish.
Piniella's been successful in New York, in Cincinnati, in Seattle, and in Chicago. My guess is that it's the broad-based nature of his success, rather than the raw numbers, that will eventually get him in.
Richards certainly did not invent the swap, though. As Peter Morris notes in "A Game of Inches: the Game on the Field," the practice goes back as far as 1880 -- yes, even then the platoon advantage was well-known -- and Morris documents another instance in 1909. Apparently the practice died after 1909, though, when the rule required a pitcher -- even one who was already in the game, playing the field -- to face at least one batter (at the time, the distinction between "pitchers" and "hitters" wasn't nearly as distinct as it is today, and managers were more comfortable with sending a pitcher into the field). This was the rule that Tony La Russa had to clarify with the umpires the other night, as he wanted to make sure that Sean Marshall, upon taking the mound for the second time, couldn't immediately be lifted if La Russa turned to a pinch-hitter (which he did).
Anyway, I haven't been able to document a single use of the Waxahachie Swap in the majors between 1909 and 1951, when Richards essentially reintroduced the tactic. From 1951 through last Sunday night -- and again, thanks largely to your help -- I've been able to document 21 employments of the Swap (which isn't to say I haven't missed a few). If you don't mind an off-day data dump ...
• Richards seems to have done it four times in the majors (there are reports of a fifth, but I've not been able to find it). The last was the oddest, as Richards shifted starter Bill Wight to first base for three batters in the fourth inning, after which Wight returned to the mound and finished the game (a loss). The number for Richards is significant (at least to me) because four Waxahachie Swaps would tie him for the all-time lead with two other managers ...
• Whitey Herzog did it four times, too, and every time the first pitcher was Todd Worrell. Three times he swapped out Worrell for lefty Ken Dayley; the other time it was lefty Ricky Horton.
• Richards and Herzog did not surprise me. Alvin Dark did, because I don't particularly think of Dark as any sort of innovator (which probably speaks more to my ignorance than Dark's managerial style). In his memoirs, Dark tells a funny story about a Waxahachie Swap:
- Sam McDowell was one of the worst fielding pitchers in baseball, and one of the best pitchers. We (the 1971 Indians) were playing the Angels one night, leading by a run in their half of the eighth inning. Rick Reichardt was up with one man on. I couldn't afford to let Sam pitch to Reichardt because Reichardt's a good fastball hitter and he might just hit one out. So I brought in Dean Chance, just for the one batter, and moved McDowell to second base. I had to think the chances of Reichardt hitting the ball to McDowell, or of McDowell having to catch the ball at second base, were nil. Sure enough, Reichardt hit the ball to third -- but the third baseman threw to second. To McDowell. I about choked. It was not even a good throw. But somehow McDowell came up with it for the force-out. In the ninth he set down the Angels one-two-three.
• So Richards, Herzog, and Dark account for 12 of 21 Swaps, leaving only eight other managers: Bill Rigney (1957), Chuck Tanner (1979), Davey Johnson (1986), Tom Trebelhorn (1989), Don Zimmer (1990), Tommy Lasorda (1993), Bobby Cox (2008) and Lou Piniella twice (1993 and 2009).
I'm not sure if Davey Johnson should count. As I mentioned Monday (or meant to), Johnson swapped Roger McDowell and Jesse Orosco back and forth between pitching and outfielding in a marathon game, but Johnson was essentially out of players and didn't have much choice. Chuck Tanner's case might be questioned, too, as the first pitcher in the swap -- righty Kent Tekulve -- didn't actually return to the mound. But that's almost certainly just because his replacement -- lefty Grant Jackson -- got the game's last out ... which was recorded by Tekulve in left field! If Jackson hadn't retired Darrell Evans, Tekulve would presumably have returned to the mound to face Mike Ivie, a right-handed hitter. So that one counts in my book.
Does the Waxahachie Swap make sense? In his book about managers, Bill James figures it's basically a wash, especially when you consider that when a manager makes the move, he loses a hitter at the same time. Even the managers who have used it more than once don't seem to have been particularly enamored. Richards did it four (or five) times in five seasons, but never again in his remaining seven seasons as a manager. Dark did it four times in four seasons, but never again in his remaining four seasons. Piniella has done it twice ... 16 years apart.
Unfortunately, I can't seem to find my copy of "The Book," but a commenter writes that the authors "bring up (and actually endorse) the two-pitchers-in-the-game-at-once strategy."
My guess? The Waxahachie Swap doesn't often make sense ... but makes sense a lot more often than it's actually employed.
So why do we see it so rarely? Because most of the time, a manager's fear of doing something unorthodox and looking foolish overpowers momentary tactical considerations.
- Cubs manager Lou Piniella made all the right moves in the top of the ninth inning of Game 2 on Sunday.
After Sean Marshall walked Nick Stavinoha to load the bases, Piniella moved the left-hander to left field for one batter, removing Alfonso Soriano from the game. Aaron Heilman was summoned to face right-handed hitter Brendan Ryan and struck him out.
As it happens, just yesterday a new book came over the transom: "The Wizard of Waxahachie," a forthcoming biography of legendary baseball man Paul Richards. According to author Warren Corbett, Richards invented this odd tactic in 1949, when he was managing the International League's Buffalo Bisons:
- Richards introduced another stategem that became one of his trademarks -- and this one actually happened. On August 25 Buffalo held a 3-2 lead over Toronto in the eighth inning when a Toronto batter singled off right-hander Bob Hooper. The next hitter was the left-handed Bill Glynn. Richards shifted Hooper to first base and brought in lefty Jim Paxton. After Paxton retired Glynn on one pitch to end the inning, Hooper returned to the mound in the ninth. Richards had gained the platoon advantage without removing his starting pitcher. The incident drew little attention at the time, but when Richards used the same ploy in the majors two years later, it burnished his reputation as an innovator.
Richards managed in the majors for a dozen seasons, and employed the move at least a few more times. He managed against Whitey Herzog, and he managed the Baltimore Orioles a few years before Davey Johnson played for the O's. Richards might be mostly forgotten now -- he never managed a pennant winner, isn't in the Hall of Fame -- but he probably was the most influential manager of the 1950s (you might think Casey Stengel, but nobody at the time could really understand what Stengel was doing).
I don't know that anybody made the move in the 1970s, before Johnson and Herzog brought it back in the '80s. We know it happened in the 1990s, at least with Les Lancaster (managed by Don Zimmer). It's a true rarity now, though, mostly because of the lack of necessity. When Richards managed, he might have had four or five relievers in his bullpen. When Herzog managed, maybe five or six. Lou Piniella, though? He's usually got seven relievers, and some managers have eight. Occasionally a manager -- like Lou Piniella, right now -- will have just one left-hander in the bullpen, but usually they'll have two or even three.
I've said it before and I'll say it again: the bigger the rosters, the less interesting the game. Something to think about tonight, when you watch Charlie Manuel and Joe Maddon deploy their 33-man squads ...
- Manager Lou Piniella didn't realize the Cubs had blown 11 saves in 26 chances entering Wednesday, putting their save percentage at 58 -- third-worst in the National League. What he did notice was the six home runs allowed by closer Kevin Gregg, the most by a Cubs full-time reliever.
"One thing about this young man, he gives up a lot of home runs in the closer spot," Piniella said before the game against the Detroit Tigers -- a day after Gregg blew his third save by serving up a two-run, walkoff home run to pinch-hitter Ryan Raburn. "Look, you don't like to see that out of your closer too much, I'm going to be honest with you. Usually when you give up home runs late like that, they end games."
Gregg edging out Carlos Marmol for the closer's job has been a hot topic since the decision was made late in spring training. So Piniella was quick to stress there is no closer controversy -- yet.
2. He's not giving up a lot of home runs. He has given up a lot of home runs, this season. Sort of.
Gregg has given up six home runs in 32 innings, which does seem like a lot. Per nine innings, he's given up roughly twice as many homers this season as in his career as a whole. But you know what the difference is, in terms of actual home runs?
We're talking about three more long fly balls over the course of nearly three months. That's nothing, and otherwise Gregg's stats are fine. He's walking slightly fewer batters than he did last year, and he's striking out plenty. Gregg's never been a great pitcher and I was one of those who thought Marmol should have been the closer this season, but a) Marmol's walked a batter per inning, and b) even if Marmol's fundamentally better than Gregg, as long as he's getting his innings it doesn't matter much whether they're eighth innings or ninth innings.
Overall, the Cubs' relievers have been decent this season. Their 4.12 ERA ranks just 12th in the National League, but a bunch of teams are clustered between 3.90 and 4.15, so being 12th is little different from being sixth or seventh. The Cubs are seventh in strikeouts and second in batting average allowed (though thanks to Marmol, they're 14th in walks).
Point being, the bullpen isn't the problem. The Cubs are 13th in the league in scoring. Last year they were first. Until they close that gap, it's not going to matter much how many fly balls Gregg gives up.