As usual, spring training hasn’t even started and former Mariners manager Lou Piniella is in mid-season form when it comes to captivating an audience at Safeco Field.
Looking exceedingly younger than his almost 70 years on the planet, most of them hitting or catching baseballs, arguing with umpires and throwing things after being thrown out of games and giving Seattle 10 memorable seasons, Lou returned to the Emerald City this week as the Keynote Speaker at the annual Hutch Award luncheon.
“I am really, really happy and thrilled to be back in Seattle,” he said, “and I’m honored to be here to support the Fred Hutchinson Foundation.”
The Hutch Award, created in 1965, is presented each year to a Major League player who best exemplifies the honor, courage and dedication of Seattle native Fred Hutchinson, who, like Piniella, managed the Reds to a World Series championship.
Whereas Hutch Award winner Barry Zito was the main attraction at the event that drew close to 1,000 people, Lou spoke last and stuck around for more than 45 minutes after the lunch to sign hundreds of autographs and pose for numerous pictures. He turned away no one.
“I had 10 wonderful years of my life here with the Mariners, starting in 1993 at the old Kingdome,” Piniella said. “I remember the first year I took over the club. We lost our first 10 spring training games and driving back (to Peoria) with my pitching coach Sammy Ellis, we were going by the airport in Phoenix and I said, ‘why don’t you just drop me off and I’ll fly back to Tampa.’”
Ellis kept driving, Lou kept managing, and the Mariners soon became one of the most powerful and entertaining teams in the Major Leagues.
“Thank God I didn’t (fly, fly away). Things turned out quite well,” he said. “I have some fantastic memories here.”
A speech from Lou is not complete without a story or two about former Yankees owner George Steinbrenner. Sure enough, Piniella had one ready for the crowd on Wednesday.
“The best thing that ever happened to me as a player was getting traded from the Royals to the Yankees in 1974,” he said. “I show up for spring training in Ft. Lauderdale (Fla.,) ready to get started and I go to my locker. There isn’t a uniform in there.
“(The equipment manager) said, ‘Mr. Steinbrenner saw you walking in from the parking lot and he asked me to tell you that he wants to see you in his office,’” Lou recalled. “I walked over to Mr. Steinbrenner’s office, introduced myself as the player they had traded for from Kansas City and I was anxious to get started.
“He said, ‘young man, we are happy to have you here, but your hair is too long. We have a strict haircut rule here.”
Lou liked the length of his hair and didn’t think it would have a negative impact on the way he performed on the field.
“The amazing thing,” he told George, “our Lord Jesus Christ, the greatest person who ever lived, had long hair. He didn’t say a word to me, grabbed me by the hand and took me across the street to the Ft. Lauderdale swimming pool. He pointed to the water and said, ‘if you can walk across that water you can wear your hair any way you want it.”
Lou got his hair cut.
Piniella also referred to his reputation as a fiery skipper, one who would throw his baseball cap, kick a baseball cap and, on two occasions, throw a base.
“When I became the Yankees manager,“ he said, “George called me into his office and said, ‘Young man, you’re main job is to try and win a World Series. Your second job, which is almost as important, is to help put fannies in the seats. So when you get kicked out of a game, put on a good show and I’ll pay your fine.’
“I took it to heart.”
His heart now is in Tampa, Fla., where he lives with his wife, Anita, kids and grandkids. “I play some golf, do some fishing and thank the Good Lord for being so good to my family” he said.
“The past few days I had the wonderful, wonderful opportunity to see a lot of people in Seattle and reacquaint myself with old friendships. Yesterday, we went to the Hutch School and what a job they do over there.”
Lou said he had a great time talking to the kids and teachers, and was told that there is a lot of stress in that kind of environment. He retrieved a prop to demonstrate one way of dealing with the stress – a colorful contraption that bends and folds into different shapes.
“If you are having stress, are angry and mad, you put this in front of you, open it, take a deep breath, and then you exhale. You do that three or four times until your stress goes away. That’s what I needed when I went out and argued with all those umpires.”
Lou mentioned that he and Zito visited the Hutchinson Cancer Center laboratory earlier on Wednesday.
“We met some very impressive scientists there,” he said. “They are doing amazing things to save lives. One thing I learned there is that I am not very smart. These people are exceedingly smart. But one thing I did take out of there for the rest of my life is how to wash your hands properly.
“It takes, according to them, 20 to 25 seconds. They say you should sing the happy birthday song twice while you are washing your hands. That’s fine, but I told them, ‘after you have three martinis, it’s easy forget the words.’”
On a more serious note, Piniella said, “I got a chance to know about Fred Hutchinson because I grew up in Tampa and the Cincinnati Reds had their training camp right there. I remember the really good teams he had. I know Fred was a fiery competitor and enjoyed his tussles with the umpires.
“He managed the Reds to the World Series title in 1961 and I did the same in 1990. But I think Fred was a little more fiery than me.”