Finally continuing the countdown, the 31st Greatest Royal of All-Time is Lou Piniella.
700 G 45 HR 348 RBI
Today's baseball fans know Lou Piniella as a fiery manager and the star of Aquafina and DirecTV commercials. Although his base-throwing tirades have turned Lou into a bit of a caricature of himself, he has assembled an impressive managerial resume that includes playoff appearances with three different ballclubs, over 1700 wins, and a World Championship in 1990 with the Cincinnati Reds.
Many of those fans missed Lou Piniella, the ballplayer. And as a ballplayer, Lou was a competitor who maximized his talents. He put together an eighteen year career with over 1700 hits, all after four teams gave up on him and labeled him a career minor leaguer. He was a lefty-masher who hit for average with good gap power. He had notoriously bad plate discipline, but still hardly struck out. He displayed a lot of effort in the outfield, despite being one of the slowest outfielders in the league. He was a fan favorite in both Kansas City and in New York. And just as he is known for his temper as a manager, he was known for his temper as a ballplayer.
I suppose some may find it hypocritical that a manager who was known for smashing water coolers as a player would, as a manager, reprimand a player who is known for smashing water coolers. They may be right, but as a parent now, I totally understand the "do as I say, not as I do" attitude. I mean, just because I spent my college years in a drunken stupor without any ambition or thought to the future, doesn't mean my son should make the same mistake.
Louis Victor Piniella grew up in West Tampa, Florida, the grandson of Spanish immigrants. In Pony League, he played alongside Tony LaRussa. Each would go on to win more than 1500 games as a manager. After one season at the University of Tampa where he was named All-American, Lou signed with the Cleveland Indians in 1962. Just a few months later he was drafted by the Washington Senators.* He hit .310 as a 19 year old kid in A ball, but the following year the Senators dealt him to the Baltimore Orioles where he made his Major League debut, getting into four games in 1964 at the age of 20.
*-In 1962, in an effort to curb bonuses to amateurs, MLB allowed teams to draft first year players from other organizations for just $8,000 unless that player was on the MLB roster. Just one of many stupid ideas by owners.
Lou developed his reputation as a firebrand at an early age. After committing an error for a low level minor league team in Aberdeen, South Dakota, a fan rode him hard jeering that Lou would soon find his way back in the bush leagues. To which Lou responded, "Where in the fuck do you think I am?"
In 1966, the Indians re-acquired Piniella, but they would let him languish in AAA for three years, despite two .300 seasons. In 1969, the American League introduced two new franchises to the league - the Kansas City Royals and the Seattle Pilots. Piniella was left unprotected for the expansion draft and one club snapped him up - the Pilots. Piniella had a great spring training, but was unliked by manager Joe Schultz and was soon made available in trade discussions.
Lou Piniella has the red ass. He doesn't think he's been playing enough...He says he knows they don't want him and he's going to quit baseball rather than go back to Triple-A. He says that once you get labeled Triple-A, that's it.
-Jim Bouton, "Ball Four"
Royals Director of Player Development Lou Gorman was familiar with Piniella from his days with the Orioles and advocated that General Manager Cedric Tallis acquire the outfielder. At the end of camp the Pilots shipped him to Kansas City for outfielder Steve Whitaker and pitcher John Gelnar. It would be one of many costly mistakes the Pilots would make that year.
Piniella not only made the Royals opening day roster, but he was the first batter in franchise history, doubling in his first at-bat with the club. The left-fielder would go 4-5 in the Royals inaugural game with a walk, run and RBI, and would win the hearts of Royals fans with his hard-nosed play.
Sweet Lou's bat turned red hot in July as he went on a thirteen game hitting streak where he hit .491 (26-53) with three home runs and 15 runs batted in. Piniella ended the year hitting a team high .282 with 11 home runs and 68 runs batted in. He led the team in doubles and triples and was second in runs batted in. For his efforts, he was named American League Rookie of the Year.
Lou avoided the sophomore jinx and got off to a sensational start in 1970. He reached safely on a hit in 23 of his first 26 games with eleven multi-hit games. A foot injury would cause him to miss some games in May, but by the end of the month he was among the top five in hitting with a .343 average. He finished the year with a .301 average - the first .300 hitter in team history - tops on the team and eighth in the league. Amazingly, Piniella never went more than two consecutive games without a hit. He slammed eleven home runs and was second on the club with 88 runs batted in.
Piniella would start slowly in 1971, missing nearly the entire month of May with a broken thumb. A career high eighteen-game hitting streak in July would lift his average from .244 to .270 where it would hover much of the remainder of the season. It would still be a down season for Lou however. He would hit .279, but with just three home runs and 51 runs batted in. A notorious "bad ball" hitter, Lou would draw just 21 walks.
He's so anxious to hit the ball, he swings at everything. Good pitches, bad pitches, inside, outside, high or low. He doesn't let anything go by. Every time he's on base, he has earned his way with the bat. He never walks.
-Royals coach George Strickland
Lou worked with Royals hitting coach Charley Lau that winter in Venezuela and tore up the winter league with a .330 clip. He went into that spring with renewed confidence.
This is the year I will find out just how well I can play baseball. I feel I'm at the point where I either remain an average player or turn the corner and become a really good one. I have to go out and prove I can become a good one.
Lou easily had his best season in a Royals uniform in 1972. He hit .312, second in the league only to Rod Carew. He finished with eleven home runs and 72 runs batted in. He led the league with thirty-three doubles on the fast new surface of Royals Stadium and was named to his only All-Star team. He also grounded into a league-leading twenty-five double plays.
Instead of turning a corner, however, Lou suffered a major decline in 1973. A dreadful May would sink his season as his average slumped to just .250. He would hit nine home runs and drive in 69 runs, but would post just a .291 on-base percentage. That winter, the thirty year old outfielder was traded to the New York Yankees for thirty-seven year old reliever Lindy McDaniel.
"Getting traded to the Yankees was the best thing that happened to me. I wasn't happy initially because I played five years in Kansas City. I lived in town and had a lot of friends in the area. It was basically a young team that was growing up together, so a lot of my teammates were still from the original expansion team, and Kansas City was a nice place to live. At the same time, coming to New York was the best thing that could've ever happened to me. If you can play in New York, you can play anywhere."
McDaniel had been a solid reliever for many years, but he was at the end of his career, and Royals fans never forgave him for being dealt for one of their favorite players. Royals General Manager Cedric Tallis made many brilliant trades in the early days of the franchise. This trade was not one of them. Lou would hit .305 in his first season in New York, winning the hearts of Yankee fans. A few years later, he would face his old teammates in Kansas City as the Yankees and Royals faced off in the American League Championship Series in four out of five years.
Lou would spend the next eleven seasons in the Bronx before retiring in 1984 with a career .291 average. He would be named Yankees manager in 1986, replacing Billy Martin. In 1988, he was removed and named General Manager as owner George Steinbrenner hired - Billy Martin. When Martin was fired mid-season, Piniella stepped back in the dugout as manager. Ah, those were the Yankees.
Lou was a television analyst in 1989, and when Steinbrenner refused to let the Blue Jays hire Piniella, Lou decided he had enough of the Bronx. The following year he took over the Cincinnati Reds and led them to a World Championship. After three seasons in Cincinnati, Piniella took over the Mariners, leading the moribund franchise to four post-seasons, including a record-tying 116 win season in 2001. He would leave in 2003 to manage the Devil Rays, and after three losing seasons would take over the Chicago Cubs in 2007.