Thursday, January 27, 2022

Despite an Impressive Managerial Career and Missing Hall of Fame Election by a Single Check Mark, Lou Piniella Faces a Tough Road to be Voted into Cooperstown on a Future Ballot


In 2003, the Hall of Fame began releasing voting percentages for the Veterans and Era Committee elections.  Since that time, seven candidates—Dick Allen, John Fetzer, Marvin Miller, Tony Oliva, Lou Piniella, Allie Reynolds, and Ted Simmons have each missed gaining entry into Cooperstown by a single vote.  Of those seven candidates, Miller, Oliva, and Simmons were elected on a later ballot while the remaining four candidates still sit outside of the Hall of Fame.  The elections of Oliva and Simmons were particularly notable as they were voted in on the next ballot they were eligible to appear on after falling a single check mark shy.  With a cycle of elections for the Early Baseball and Golden Days timeframes recently completed, the Today’s Game epoch will be the next focus of the Era Committee when the voting body convenes later this year.  On the previous Today’s Game Era election, Piniella fell one tally short of being voted in.  Piniella’s near miss at Cooperstown immortality was overshadowed by the controversial election of Harold Baines who collected the exact 75% required for election by the Today’s Game Era Committee.  After coming so close to election, Piniella will undoubtedly be included on December’s Today’s Game Era ballot.  Like Oliva and Simmons, Piniella could have some momentum due to coming a single vote away on the previous Today’s Game Era ballot.  However, Piniella may have missed his best chance at being elected as he faces a tough road to Cooperstown with a solid slate of candidates set to become eligible for December’s Today’s Game Era ballot.  Nevertheless, Piniella’s long and distinguished managerial career gives the former skipper a strong Hall of Fame case that is worthy of a long look from Era Committee voters.

Prior to taking the managerial reigns, Piniella had a fine playing career that spanned parts of 18 seasons.  Piniella won the 1969 AL Rookie of the Year as a member of the expansion Kansas City Royals but spent the majority of his career with the New York Yankees.  Piniella primarily played left field and was a part of four pennant winners and captured two World Series rings as a member of the Yankees.  Nicknamed “Sweet Lou” to describe his swing, the moniker proved to be somewhat paradoxical for him as he was known for his fiery temperament that occasionally resulted in the slugger destroying water coolers, batting helmets, and other inanimate objects.  However, Piniella’s competitiveness and drive to win endeared him to teammates.  Yankees second baseman Willie Randolph said of Piniella, “He was one of the most fiery and competitive players you'd ever want to be with.  He was a total team player and his attitude and will to win rubbed off on a team.”

As his playing career was winding down, Piniella joined the Yankees coaching staff.  In 1986, at age 42 and less than two years removed from taking his final at bat, Piniella replaced his former manager Billy Martin as the Yankees skipper.  Piniella took over a Bronx Bombers team that had finished second in the AL East during the prior year, having been narrowly edged out for the division title by the Toronto Blue Jays despite winning 97 games.  Under Piniella, New York repeated as AL East runner-up with a 90-72 record in 1986.  The following season, Pinella steered the Yankees to a similar 89-73 mark but slid back to fourth place in the division.  At the conclusion of the 1987 campaign, Yankees owner George Steinbrenner moved Piniella to the front office to serve as the club’s general manager and brought Martin back to skipper the team for a fifth time.  Piniella soon became unhappy with the confinement of the office job which took him away from the field and, in late May 1988, stepped down as general manager and moved into a scouting and player evaluation role.  Yet, less than a month later, Piniella found himself back at the manager’s helm when Billy Martin was fired on June 23.  Martin had once again worn out his welcome with the Yankees as his mishandling of the pitching staff, clashes with the front office and all too familiar off-the-field controversies once again culminated in the volatile manager’s dismissal.  Piniella inherited a second place Yankees team that was just two and half games out of the AL East lead with a 40-28 record but was coming off an abysmal stretch in which the club had lost six of its last seven games.  Piniella was unable to right the ship as the Bronx Bombers went 45-48 following the managerial change to finish the season at 85-76, in fifth place, three and a half games behind the division champion Boston Red Sox.  At the conclusion of the campaign, Piniella was relieved of his manager duties and replaced by Dallas Green.  Still under a personal services contract to the Yankees, Piniella was moved into a broadcasting role by the organization.  New York’s AL East rival Toronto attempted to hire Piniella after firing manager Jimy Williams early in the 1989 season but was blocked by Steinbrenner when the two teams were unable to agree on which player to send to the Yankees as compensation for letting Piniella out of his contact.  However, a few months later, Piniella permanently left Steinbrenner’s managerial circus when the controversial owner let him out of the final year of his personal services contract to manage the Cincinnati Reds for 1990.

Piniella assumed leadership of a Reds club which had finished second place four consecutive seasons, from 1985 to 1988, under the direction of franchise icon Pete Rose.  Most recently though, the Reds had slumped to a 75-87 record during the tumultuous 1989 campaign in which Rose was banned from baseball for gambling.  In Piniella’s first year as Cincinnati’s skipper, the Reds not only rebounded but finally got over the hump—leading the division from the first day of the season onward and taking the NL West crown with a 91-71 record.  After defeating the Pittsburgh Pirates in the NLCS, Cincinnati faced the 103-win defending World Series champion Oakland Athletics in the Fall Classic.  Piniella and the Reds shocked the baseball world by not only defeating the heavily-favored A’s but sweeping them in the process.  The Reds experienced a post-championship malaise in 1991, sliding back to a 74-88 mark.  The club re-emerged the following season, nearly matching their 1990 record with a 90-72 finish.  However, Cincinnati’s 90 wins were not enough to capture the NL West as the team finished eight games behind the Atlanta Braves.  Despite winning a championship and producing a second-place finish in his three years at the Reds’ helm, in a surprising move, Piniella rejected Cincinnati’s contract extension and left the franchise to become manager of the Seattle Mariners.

Piniella had always been known as an intense competitor during his playing career and further solidified this reputation as a manager.  Piniella’s animated, often amusing tirades directed at umpires became legendary as the sight of the quick-tempered skipper storming out of the dugout to argue with officials, tossing and kicking his cap, dislodging and throwing bases, and kicking dirt on both home plate as well as on the men in blue all provided fodder for highlight and blooper reels.  However, Piniella’s temper led to a couple of infamous incidents during his tenure with Cincinnati.  Late in the 1992 season, Piniella engaged in a locker room wrestling match with closer Rob Dibble that was witnessed by reporters and recorded by television cameras.  Despite the tussle, the two combatants patched things up the next day with Piniella even putting his arm around Dibble and kiddingly throwing fake punches at Dibble’s stomach after the hurler closed out the game and earned the save.  The fracas proved to be an isolated incident as Piniella was generally well-liked by his players—even Dibble.  "We butted heads once.  It's way more famous than it should be.  We've been family ever since,” Dibble reflected years later.  “During batting practice every day, Lou would go to every guy just to see how you were doing—not as a player, but as a person.  I'll always respect him for that.  I always thought that was one of the best qualities about him, that he always cared about you as a person first, a baseball player second."

While the Piniella/Dibble locker room battle will forever live on as part of the fiery manager’s highlight reel of outbursts, an incident the previous year had a much more lasting impact on Piniella’s tenure with the Reds.  During a 7-4 loss on August 3, 1991, Piniella was ejected from the game after home plate umpire Gary Darling overruled Dutch Rennert’s call of a home run by Cincinnati second baseman Bill Doran, saying the ball was foul.  Piniella criticized Darling after the game, stating: “I honestly feel that Darling has a bias against us and won’t give us a call all year.  It’s time he gets his act together now.  We have more complaints against him than against any other umpire.”  A few days later, Darling and the Major League Umpires Association filed a $5 million lawsuit against Piniella, contending that the Reds manager “severely damaged” his reputation.  Piniella found himself forced to pay for legal services as the notoriously cheap Reds owner Marge Schott refused to assist with the lawsuit.  Ultimately, an out of court settlement was reached during the offseason.  Nevertheless, the lack of support Piniella received from Schott resonated with the skipper and played a key role in his decision to leave Cincinnati when his contract expired after the 1992 campaign.  “When I got sued by the umpires, I got no backing from the organization,” Piniella explained.  “That started the wheels turning.  I think any organization would back their manager.  I got nothing, financial or anything.  I went back in '92 and fulfilled my contract, but when it came time to extend, I chose not to."

Unlike the Yankees and Reds, the Mariners club Piniella took over in 1993 had no real track record of success as a franchise.  In fact, the Mariners had just one winning season—an 83-79 campaign in 1991—in their 16-year existence and were coming off a disastrous 64-98 record.  Seattle’s roster featured a young nucleus of future Hall of Famers in Ken Griffey Jr., Edgar Martinez, and Randy Johnson who had been teammates since 1989 yet had achieved little success together.  Intent on changing the losing culture that existed within the Mariners franchise, Piniella brought the club back above .500—going 82-80 during his initial season at the helm.  Just three years into his tenure with Seattle, Piniella led the club to its first postseason, winning the AL West in a one-game tiebreaker against the California Angels to advance to the ALDS, where the fiery manager faced his old team, the Yankees.  After dropping the first two games on the road in New York, the Mariners roared back to win the final three games—the third in dramatic fashion with Edgar Martinez’s bottom of the eleventh inning double driving in Ken Griffey Jr. to score the Series-ending run.  Seattle subsequently fell in six games to the 100-win Cleveland Indians in the ALCS.  Nevertheless, with their division title and ensuing playoff run, the 1995 Mariners are often credited with saving baseball in Seattle.  Piniella drew praise for leading the franchise to its first postseason and was named AL Manager of the Year.

Piniella and Seattle won their second AL West crown in 1997 but were defeated by the Baltimore Orioles in the ALDS.  Piniella then watched as the Mariners lost three of its core players in successive years as staff ace Randy Johnson was dealt to the Houston Astros in July 1998, Ken Griffey Jr. was traded to the Cincinnati Reds at the conclusion of the 1999 season, and young phenom Alex Rodriguez left to sign a record-setting free agent contract with the Texas Rangers following the 2000 campaign.  Despite losing these key players, Piniella was able to weather the storm and lead the Mariners to the playoffs as the AL Wild Card in 2000 and AL West champions in 2001.  Seattle’s 2001 campaign was particularly impressive as the team put together a dominant 116-46 mark—easily capturing the division title and tying the record set by the 1906 Chicago Cubs for most wins in a season.  However, the Mariners were unable to capture the pennant as the club was defeated in the ALCS in both 2000 and 2001 by the playoff-tested Yankees who were in the midst of an incredible run which saw the Bronx Bombers win five pennants and four World Series championships between 1996 and 2001.  Nevertheless, Piniella was once again recognized for his leadership abilities as the fiery skipper picked up his second AL Manager of the Year Award in 2001.  Piniella and the Mariners just missed the playoffs in 2002 despite winning 93 games.

However, after a series of family events, including a 2002 car accident involving his daughter and granddaughter, Piniella expressed a desire to manage a team closer to his West Tampa home for the 2003 season.  Seattle agreed to let Piniella out of the final year of his contract to manage his hometown team, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, after the two clubs worked out a deal which sent Piniella and prospect Antonio Pérez to the Devil Rays in exchange for one of Tampa Bay’s best players, center fielder Randy Winn.  In ten seasons with Seattle, Piniella posted an excellent 840-711 record and played a key role in helping the Mariners evolve from a struggling franchise that regularly finished towards the bottom of the division into a perennial contender.  Since the departure of Piniella, Seattle has been unable to return to the postseason and currently has the dubious distinction of having the longest playoff drought, not only in MLB but, among the four major North American team sports.  Thus, the Mariners’ quartet of postseason appearances under Piniella are the only ones in the 45-year history of the franchise.

With his move to Tampa Bay, Piniella, for the second time in his career, assumed control of a team with no history of winning as the Devil Rays had finished last in the AL East during each of the franchise’s five seasons in existence—the most recent of which was a 106-loss campaign.  In Piniella’s first season at the helm, Tampa Bay made a modest improvement, increasing from 55 to 63 wins.  The following year, Piniella led the Devil Rays to a franchise-best 70-91 record and their first finish outside of the AL East cellar.  However, when new ownership bought into the Devil Rays during the 2004 season, the franchise decided to build for the future rather than improve the current team.  As Tampa Bay took a step back and struggled in 2005, Piniella became fed up with the mounting losses and the lack of commitment from ownership to increase the club’s payroll—which was by far the lowest in the major leagues.  Tampa Bay went 67-95 in 2005 and slid back into the AL East cellar.  At the end of the season, Piniella and the Devil Rays decided to mutually part ways with the team buying out the final year of the veteran skipper’s contract.

After sitting out the 2006 campaign, Piniella returned to the managerial ranks when he signed with the Chicago Cubs for 2007.  In his first year on the Northside, Piniella improved the club from 66-96 to 85-77 and won the NL Central.  Although the Cubs were swept by the Arizona Diamondbacks in the NLDS, Piniella proved he was still capable of leading his team to the playoffs.  The following season, Piniella joined Tony La Russa, Bobby Cox, and Jim Leyland as the fourth skipper to be named Manager of the Year in both leagues when he was bestowed the honor after piloting the Cubs to an NL-best 97-64 record.  Despite their excellent regular season, Piniella and Chicago were once again swept in the NLDS, this time by the Los Angeles Dodgers.  Even though the 2008 campaign ended with another quick playoff exit, it marked the first time since 1908 that the Cubs had made the postseason in consecutive years.  After sliding back to 83-78 in 2009, the club struggled in 2010.  With Piniella in the final year of his contract, the 66-year old skipper announced in July that he intended to retire at the conclusion of the season.  However, on August 22—with the Cubs well out of the NL Central and wild-card races—Piniella decided to step down as manager to go home to care for his ailing mother.

Piniella finished his managerial career with an overall record of 1835-1713.  The longtime skipper’s lofty win total ranks 16th all-time and places him ahead of several Hall of Fame managers including Tom Lasorda, Dick Williams, Earl Weaver, and Whitey Herzog—each of whom were still piloting teams when Piniella made his managerial debut.  Moreover, only three non-Hall of Fame managers—Bruce Bochy, Gene Mauch, and Dusty Baker—have a higher career win total than Piniella.  In addition to his impressive victory mark, Piniella is one of eight skippers to be named Manager of the Year three or more times.  The crowning accomplishments of Piniella’s career were leading an underdog Reds team to a shocking sweep over the heavily-favored A’s and transforming the woefully uncompetitive Mariners franchise into a consistent winner.  What’s more, Piniella guided three different franchises to the postseason and engineered eight 90-win campaigns spread across four organizations.  The only managerial stop in which Piniella failed to find any measure of success was Tampa Bay where he found little support from ownership.  If Piniella’s three difficult seasons with the Devil Rays are omitted from his ledger, his career record would be 1635-1428 and improve his win-loss percentage from .517 to a more illustrious .534.

However, Piniella was a contemporary of Tony La Russa, Bobby Cox, and Joe Torre—the respective second, fourth, and fifth-winningest managers of all-time and in many ways his career suffers in comparison to those three legendary skippers.  Piniella also had the misfortune of becoming eligible for the Hall of Fame at the same time as La Russa, Cox, and Torre.  As a result, Piniella was not included on the December 2013 Expansion Era ballot in which La Russa, Cox, and Torre were unanimously voted into Cooperstown.  Three years later, Piniella was selected to appear on the Today’s Game Era ballot.  With La Russa, Cox, and Torre each already elected, Piniella shared the ballot with just one other manager, Davey Johnson.  Like Piniella, Johnson had a World Series championship to his credit, having led the 1986 New York Mets to a memorable Fall Classic victory over the Boston Red Sox.  Johnson held a significant edge in career win percentage over Piniella—.562 to .517—though Johnson’s superior mark came in just 2,445 games managed, more than 1,000 fewer than Piniella’s 3,548 total.  Piniella picked up 7 of 16 tallies for 43.8% of the vote, the third highest drawing candidate—trailing former executive John Schuerholz and former commissioner Bud Selig who were easily elected with 100% and 93.8% of the vote, respectively.  It appeared the electorate had valued the sum of Piniella’s lengthy career over Johnson’s higher win percentage as his managerial peer was listed among the remaining seven candidates as having received fewer than five votes.

Piniella returned to the ballot when the Today’s Game Era Committee convened for their second election in December 2018.  Once again, Piniella was joined on the ballot by Davey Johnson along with a second manager candidate, Charlie Manuel.  Similar to Johnson, Manuel had a better career win percentage than Piniella while equaling his one World Series championship.  However, Manuel managed just 1,826 games—barely half of Piniella’s total.  As the highest drawing holdover from the December 2016 Today’s Game Era ballot, Piniella seemed to have the advantage over the other returning candidates.  Moreover, with John Schuerholz and Bud Selig—the two top vote getters from the December 2016 ballot—elected and no longer on the ballot along with Lee Smith being the only newly eligible candidate with strong BBWAA support, Piniella appeared poised for at the very least an increase in support.  In the ensuing election, Piniella picked up 11 votes leaving him just one tally shy of Cooperstown.  Piniella once again drew the third highest total, finishing behind the unanimously elected Lee Smith and one check mark behind the controversially elected Harold Baines who garnered exactly 75%.  Piniella easily outpaced his managerial peers, Johnson and Manuel, who were among the seven candidates listed as having received fewer than five votes.

After falling a single vote shy of Cooperstown, Piniella will undoubtedly be included on the ballot when the Today’s Game Era Committee meets again this fall.  However, Piniella may have missed his best chance at election as the next Today’s Game Era ballot could potentially include a couple of impressive new manager candidates, Bruce Bochy and Jim Leyland, who will both eligible for the ballot.  With three World Series championships, four pennants, and 2,003 victories on his Hall of Fame résumé, Bochy should not only supplant Piniella as the top drawing manager candidate but will almost certainly be elected by the Today’s Game Era Committee the first time he appears on the ballot.  Leyland could also meet or exceed Piniella’s support as his Hall of Fame credentials rival the Tampa-born skipper’s.  Leyland and Piniella each have three Manager of the Year Awards to their name.  Leyland trails Piniella in both victories—1,835 to 1,769—and winning percentage—.517 to .506.  Nevertheless, Leyland was able to capture three pennants to Piniella’s one while matching his World Series triumph by taking the Florida Marlins all the way in 1997.  Leyland was technically eligible to be included on the previous Today’s Game Era ballot but was curiously excluded.  Leyland retired from managing following the 2013 season but returned to the dugout to lead Team USA to the 2017 World Baseball Classic championship.  Perhaps the Historical Overview Committee, which screens and selects the candidates for the Era Committee ballots, felt that by taking the helm of Team USA, Leyland could possibly come out of retirement and manage a major league team again.  Bochy had planned to return to the dugout to manage Team France in the 2021 World Baseball Classic but with that event now postponed indefinitely, there is no telling how or if that will affect Bochy’s eligibility.  In addition, Bochy’s name still periodically pops up for managerial openings and the former skipper himself has not completely ruled out returning to the dugout one day.

Along with the possible additions of Bochy and Leyland, controversial player candidates Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Curt Schilling, and Sammy Sosa who recently aged off the BBWAA ballot will each be eligible for the first time.  The similarly controversial Rafael Palmeiro is newly eligible as are impressive player candidates Fred McGriff, Bernie Williams, and Kenny Lofton.  Unfortunately for Piniella, this influx of fresh candidates may stall any momentum the former skipper brings as the top returning holdover from the previous election and could potentially create a crowded ballot and backlog similar to the one that affected the BBWAA vote for a number of years.  Bonds, Clemens, Schilling, and Sosa were not initially slated to be eligible on the upcoming ballot, however, when the Golden Days and Early Baseball Era Committee ballot elections were canceled in 2020 and pushed back a year, these four candidates, along with Lofton, each became eligible.  In addition, depending on how the next few BBWAA ballots play out, Gary Sheffield and Jeff Kent could both potentially be eligible for the December 2024 Today’s Game Era ballot.  Also, by this point, a prominent front office figure or another manager such as Dusty Baker or Terry Francona could have retired and become eligible which would further crowd the ballot.

With so many prominent candidates set to hit the Today’s Game Era ballot over the next two elections, Piniella faces a tough road to be voted into Cooperstown.  But, regardless of how many impressive new candidates become eligible, Piniella put together a solid managerial career and has a strong enough Hall of Fame case that he will continue to remain a relevant candidate on future Today’s Game Era ballots.

----by John Tuberty 

Follow me on Twitter @BloggerTubbs

Stat links to main players mentioned: Lou Piniella, Dick Allen, Tony Oliva, Ted Simmons, Pete Rose, Ken Griffey Jr., Edgar Martinez, Alex Rodriguez, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Sammy Sosa, Curt Schilling, Gary Sheffield, Randy Johnson, Fred McGriff, Jeff Kent, Bernie Williams, Kenny Lofton, Allie Reynolds, Lee Smith, Harold Baines, Terry Francona, Dusty Baker, Bruce Bochy, Jim Leyland, Rob Dibble

Sources: Baseball Reference, New York Times articles~March 1974, May 1988, June 1988, June 1988, May 1989, August 1991, September 1992, February 1993, Los Angeles Times June 1988, Los Angeles Times August 1991, Chicago Tribune, Deseret News, Seattle Post-Intelligencer December 2001, Seattle Post-Intelligencer October 2002, Tampa Bay Times September 1992, Sports Illustrated Vault March 2001, Sports Illustrated Vault March 2003, ESPN October 2002, ESPN June 2005, ESPN September 2005, ESPN July 2010, The Spokesman-Review, The Columbus Dispatch, Baltimore Sun, Sportico

Cards: Lou Piniella 1988 Topps, 1990 Kahn's, 2002 Keebler, 1975 Topps, 1984 Topps, 1987 Topps, 1990 Topps Traded, 1991 Topps, 1992 Topps, 1993 Mother's Cookies, 1994 Mother's Cookies, 2001 Keebler, 2004 Topps, 2009 Topps Heritage, 2008 Topps, 1996 Mother's Cookies; Jim Leyland 1987 Topps, Bruce Bochy 2012 Topps Heritage

Other Articles by Tubbs Baseball Blog:

My Three Favorite Baseball Cards and Thoughts on the Hall of Fame Case of Thurman Munson

My Three Favorite Baseball Cards and Thoughts on the Hall of Fame Case of Mainstay Era Committee Ballot Candidate Tommy John

How Dwight Evans Overcame a Mid-Career Crisis to Evolve into a Hall of Fame-Caliber Player



  1. Don't have the time to read this post tonight... but I've bookmarked it. Excited to read it during my prep period tomorrow.