Mariners' Piniella took placid path to playoffs

Wednesday, October 11th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

By Steve Krasner / The Providence (R.I.) Journal

NEW YORK -- The losses were piling up.

By the time the Seattle Mariners reached Fenway Park late this summer, they had lost 14 of 17, and their once safe lead in the American League West had shrunk to 2 1/2 games.

They then dropped a 6-2 decision to the Boston Red Sox on Sept. 1 for their 15th loss in 18 games.

All eyes were on Seattle manager Lou Piniella, also known as Mount Vesuvius in a baseball uniform.

As a player, there was no one more demonstrably intense. This is a guy who once, upset at making the final out of a game when he was playing for Kansas City, raced down the first-base line and right out of the stadium, running directly to his hotel room, still in uniform.

As a manager, Piniella's fiery nature has resulted in numerous memorable arguments with umpires -- debates punctuated by him kicking his hat with hang time that makes NFL place-kickers jealous, kicking dirt on home plate, yanking a base out of the ground or all of the above in a given spectacle.

So here were the Mariners, once a lock for the playoffs, struggling mightily with only one month remaining.

Would Piniella erupt? Would he smash a television, as he had done several times over the years? Would he turn over the postgame spread of food in the middle of the clubhouse, lighting the carpet on fire with a tipped-over Sterno, as he had done in the past?

Well, maybe the old Lou Piniella might have done those things. But this a more mellow Piniella.

He held his temper. The next day, Piniella called his veteran players into his office for a calm, give-and-take chat. Piniella told the players to relax and have fun, that he believed in them. The players got a few things off their chests.

And, voilae! The Mariners took off. They won two of the next three games in Fenway, finishing the season with a 19-9 run that netted the wild-card berth. Despite its hot finish, Seattle finished a half-game back of the even-hotter Oakland Athletics in the A.L. West.

Piniella's calmness paid great dividends.

"Even when we were in that bad stretch, he stayed positive," said hitting coach Gerald Perry, who had been the Red Sox' minor-league hitting coordinator last year.

"If you're the manager and you panic, it makes it easy for the players to panic there, too," he said.

Piniella, 57, appears to be more serene than at any time in his professional career, which dates back 1962.

Along the way, Piniella has won the Rookie of the Year Award with the Royals (1969), earned a World Championship in his 11 years with the Yankees, had two tours of duty as Yankee manager, won a World Championship as manager of the Cincinnati Reds in 1990 and is now completing his eighth year as skipper of the Mariners, with free agency beckoning.

He's no less competitive. But his legendary tantrums appear to be a thing of the past.

"My wife (Anita) has been the biggest influence. She said, 'When are you going to grow up, for God's sake?' " said Piniella yesterday before his Mariners tangled with the Yankees in the first game of the American League Championship Series at Yankee Stadium.

"It's the new me. My God, I'm 57 years old. It's about time," said Piniella with one of his patented mischievous grins.

Right now, Piniella is having the time of his life.

His team has more than made up for the loss of Ken Griffey Jr. by adding pitching (Aaron Sele, Kazuhiro Sasaki) and clubhouse leaders (Mark McLemore, John Olerud). Seattle finally has depth in its pitching staff, the one problem over the years that seemed to have Piniella in a constant need of antacids.

And here they are, in the ALCS.

"His reputation was that he didn't know how to handle a bullpen, but if you don't have a bullpen how can you handle one?" asked third-base coach Larry Bowa, who joined the Mariners this year. "He has done a great job. He is very underrated."

No one knows Piniella better than bench coach John McLaren, who has been with Piniella for his final year in Cincinnati and his eight years in Seattle.

McLaren, who was the Red Sox' bullpen coach in 1991, says Piniella has become emotional when having to release players, is a great story-teller and a sharp, intelligent baseball man.

"I think he is more mellow this year," said McLaren. "He realizes we have a real good ballclub. Everyone works well together. The players, the staff. And he delegates authority to the staff. He knows we'll get things done."

But Piniella, who boasts a career managerial record of 1,110-1,020, isn't bashful when it comes to playing mind games or planting suggestions.

For instance, he called time during the Mariners' win in the openng game of the division series against Chicago to talk to Mike Cameron, who was running at first base in the 10th inning. The unusual chat seemed to unnerve reliever Keith Foulke, who was tagged for homers by the next two hitters, giving Seattle a tone-setting win.

In the decisive Game 3, he told Carlos Guillen it wouldn't be a bad idea to drop down a bunt with Rickey Henderson on third in a tie game in the ninth. Guillen did, and Seattle earned its trip to this round of the playoffs.

Everything is going smoothly for Piniella these days.

"I enjoy managing," said Piniella. "I still have the intensity to win. And I like my new self."