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Commentary : Piniella Certainly Deserves a Better Fate

The Washington Post

Say goodby to Lou Piniella. It’s like the old saying: He managed good, but they played bad. So, he’ll get fired someday pretty soon and George Steinbrenner will have collected his 13th managerial scalp in 13 years as owner of the New York Yankees.

Earlier this season, Piniella was in a bar and overheard a conversation at the next table, where people were playing Trivial Pursuit.

The sports quiz read: “Who said, ‘Some people say I got a bad break. But today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.’?”

Piniella expected to hear the obvious and famous answer--that those were Lou Gehrig’s tearful farewell words in Yankee Stadium when he was dying.

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Instead, the guy in the bar said, “I know. That’s what Ed Whitson said the day he was traded from the Yankees.”

Piniella broke up laughing.

When you’re a Yankee, even the manager, you wonder if your lucky break might not be getting traded or fired. Who says your ship can’t come in the same day your train goes out?

These days, Piniella should be a long-shot candidate for manager of the year. Instead, he’s in Steinbrenner’s crosshairs as scapegoat of the hour.

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Steinbrenner isn’t speaking to Piniella these days and he’s been leaking word to his New York media sources that he thinks Piniella has cost the team 10 to 12 games this year.

That’s a convenient number, since the Yankees are about 10 games behind the Boston Red Sox. Gee, if it just hadn’t been for that blundering Piniella, the proud Yankees would be right in the pennant race where their owner believes they rightfully belong. No need to cancel those season tickets, folks. No need to switch allegiance to those miserable mighty Mets. Soon as Piniella is out, everything will be all right again.

Will Piniella be rehired? Do the Yankees have to finish strongly to save his job?

“I don’t know,” says Piniella.

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Sweet Lou, in his rookie year as manager, has taken a club that easily could have finished with a losing record and, instead, may yet bring it home in second place.

“He gets a vote of confidence from me,” says Dave Winfield, who’s feuded with the owner in past years. “Does that help?”

“Lou has done a good job,” says .350-hitting Don Mattingly. “It’s not his fault at all. . . . We don’t need change. We need to stop changing so much. We’ve had the ’84 Yankees, the ’85 Yankees and the ’86 Yankees. But it’s never just the Yankees. It’s a different club each year. We don’t know each other well enough to do all the little things together.”

Fourteen of the 24 Yankees from last year’s basic roster aren’t around now.

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“We probably were not as good as a lot of people said before the season,” says coach Roy White. “We have a lot of guys with big offensive numbers, but we haven’t hit in the clutch at all. If Dave Righetti hadn’t had a great year, we’d have finished dead last. . . . People say trading Don Baylor hurt us. Well, Baylor doesn’t pitch.”

Consider what Piniella has overcome to get to 83-69: The New York team ERA of 4.34 is the worst by a Yankees pitching staff since 1950. Don’t forget, that’s in Yankee Stadium, a distinct pitcher’s park. At times, in the heat of what was a pennant race (of sorts), Piniella’s starting pitching rotation was Scott Nielsen, Bob Tewksbury, Doug Drabek, Alfonso Pulido and Dennis Rasmussen. Four were rookies who entered the year with zero major league wins while Rasmussen, the ace, had a 12-11 career record. The Yankees have been forced to use a dozen starters, including Brad Arnsberg, No. 68 in your program.

They have used six shortstops, none of whom excels at fielding batted balls; they don’t hit much either. Pity second baseman Willie Randolph, who has now played alongside 28 shortstops in his career. Last year, the Yankees couldn’t win on the road (39-42, 58-22 at home); this year they can’t win at home (38-36, 45-33 on the road). Strong on paper against left-handers, the Yankees are 20-32 against them in reality. On one memorable day, Piniella had to field a lineup that included such heirs to Ruth and DiMaggio as Leo Hernandez, Wayne Tolleson, Bryan Little, Ron Kittle, Joel Skinner, Henry Cotto. To start spring training, Piniella thought his rotation would be Britt Burns (18-11), Ron Guidry (22-6), Joe Niekro, Whitson and one rookie.

Burns never pitched an inning and his career may be over (hip injury). Guidry, as usual, has shown the effects of overuse the previous season by Billy Martin and is 9-10. Niekro, also 9-10, hasn’t pitched in six weeks because his 41-year-old shoulder is tender. Whitson was booed so badly by fans who recalled how he beat up Martin in a brawl last September that he had to be traded. When the Yankees dealt for old Tommy John, even he caught a season-ending injury.

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About everybody agrees that the Yankees need to trade one of their everyday stars for several pitching propects.

“We could trade Rickey Henderson to Oakland for Jay Howell, Jose Rijo, Eric Plunk, Tim Birtsas and Stan Javier,” said one Yankees coach dryly. “Then we’d have three young pitchers who throw 90 and another top relief pitcher.”

Of course, if was the Yankees who, two winters ago, traded Howell, Rijo, Plunk, Birtsas and Javier to Oakland for Henderson. The wondrous Rickey may be the greatest leadoff man in history; he could end this year with 30 homers, 90 walks, 90 steals, 135 runs and 80 RBIs.

But wouldn’t the Yankees, who may score 800 runs this year, be better off with all those homegrown arms?

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“The nucleus is certainly good here but there’re going to have to be changes again,” says Piniella. “It’s been one thing after another. Things just haven’t worked out. We’ve hung in. I’m pleased with the attitude. But we’re just going to have to trade for starting pitching. We’ve had two complete game wins all year.

“Two,” repeats Piniella, eyes wide.

Will Steinbrenner show patience with a man who has done the Yankees’ best managing job since Dick Howser won 103 games in 1980 (and was fired)?

Will the man who fired Yogi Berra after 16 games of a season, and Bob Lemon after 14 games, suddenly discover the virtues of calm?

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Will the man who fired Billy Martin four times (then erected a plaque in center field to him) overcome the impulse to pass the buck to others as he did last September when he called Winfield “Mr. May” and said, “Don Baylor isn’t a money player”?

Will George Steinbrenner lay the blame for the Yankees’ last five barren seasons at his own feet, or will he fire another manager?

Will the sun forget to rise?


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