With Piniella gone, M's begin life under Melvin

Since last spring, an In-N-Out burger stand opened near the Mariners' spring training complex, flanking a Krispy Kreme that opened a couple of years earlier. An In-N-Out stand and a Krispy Kreme near each other? Good Lord. When do they complete the development by installing a drive-thru defibrillator? By the end of spring training, Ichiro could outweigh Mo Vaughn.

The most notable change in Peoria, Ariz., this spring, however, is not an addition, but a departure. The Mariners began spring training Monday without Lou Piniella as their manager for the first time since the first Bush administration.

Cancel the base-throwing fundamental drills.

How long did Piniella manage Seattle? The last season Piniella wasn't the Mariners' manager, Lance Parrish was their catcher, Jeff Smulyan was their owner and the Kingdome was their home. Heck, it was so long ago that Ken Griffey Jr., actually smiled that season.

Piniella won 840 games with the Mariners, guided them to their first division championship and only playoff appearances, won a league-record 116 games in 2001 and generally oversaw the greatest stretch of baseball in Seattle's history. Tired of making the excruciatingly long trips back to his Tampa, Fla., home via clipper ship around Cape Horn, however, Piniella asked out of his contract a year early last fall and signed on to manage the Devil Rays.

The man replacing Piniella is Bob Melvin, who is managing his first team after 10 years working as a scout, minor league instructor and, most recently, as bench coach to Bob Brenly in Arizona. Melvin and Oakland's Ken Macha (the Athletics also open spring training early, since they and the M's play a season-opening series in Japan) will be the first of the 10 managers hired over the winter to put on their uniforms, walk onto the field, feel the spring sun warming their body, listen to fastballs popping into catchers' gloves and think, "This sure as s--- beats the eight-hour bus drive to Scranton.''

"One difference is people start calling you 'skipper.' That feels nice,'' Melvin said of his new gig. "I'm still feeling my way into the job. In the situation I'm coming into, I can do that. Everything is in place and running well. Sometimes guys come into a situation where they have to turn things around and go a different direction. Not here.''

Despite blowing a first-place lead and finishing third in the AL West, the Mariners still won 93 games last year, second-most in club history. So while there are plenty of questions this year -- among them: can the new manager relax third baseman Jeff Cirillo enough so that his hair doesn't fall out in chunks? -- it's not as if Melvin is taking over the Milwaukee Brewers. That burden is Ned Yost's.

Will all the new managers who will still be with their team in 2005 please step forward? Not so fast, Ned.

Until Piniella reached Seattle, being hired to manage the Mariners was a bit like being named "Dishwasher of the Quarter'' at Pizza Hut. It wasn't exactly an honor you wanted to win.

Everyone remembers Maury Wills, fired after he got caught doctoring the batters box, but he was merely one of many disastrous Seattle managers. What with Wills, Bill Plummer, Chuck Cottier, Jimmy Snyder and even Dick Williams in his final season, the Seattle managerial situation was so tainted that when Jim Lefebvre finally guided the Mariners to the first winning season in team history, they immediately fired him, probably out of reflex.

Piniella changed all that. He turned the Mariners into one of the finest teams in baseball. He made the Seattle managerial job one of the most coveted in the game (Dusty Baker was among the many who would have loved to have taken over for Lou). Piniella is the only Mariners manager most Seattle fans know. His success and regular tirades made him the club's most popular figure next to Edgar Martinez (people still smile about the night last year when Lou buried home plate to protest a bad call).

Melvin is filling shoes large enough that Bob Lanier would have wiggle room, but at least those shoes carried his new team from the brink of despair to the edge of greatness.

"The good thing about it is Lou wasn't fired,'' Melvin said. "He left on his own merit, he had a good track record and he left me a good club. Lou is one of the great managers in the game, but he left on his own so it won't be like the fans will be saying, 'We never should have fired Lou.' "

Melvin (41) is barely as old as starter Jamie Moyer (40), and his only managerial experience came in the Arizona Fall League, but he was instrumental assisting Brenly on the bench when the Diamondbacks won the World Series in 2001. He spent the winter getting to know his players, reviewing video, tinkering with lineups and generally envisioning his first season, the first of the post-Lou era.

He will make shrewd decisions this season, and he will make bum ones, and he will second-guess himself nearly as often as the media. So will Macha, Yost, Detroit's Alan Trammell and everyone else beginning their big league managerial careers this season.

Some will succeed, some will fail and all will be fired at some point down the line. But give them time. Why, even Lou needed a couple of years before finally deciding it was better to throw first base into right field than center field during his ejections.

Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com.