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Piniella Enjoying His Freedom to Run the Reds

NEWSDAY

It is three hours before game time and Red outfielder Paul O’Neill, already in full uniform with his glove on his right hand, marches to the office of Lou Piniella. He does not enter. He stops at the doorway, crosses his arms on his chest, tilts his head and doesn’t say a word. Piniella knows why he is here.

“I’m just giving you a day off, that’s all,” Piniella says.

“I don’t need a day off,” O’Neill counters. “We’ve got one tomorrow.”

“I just want you to relax, get your head together,” Piniella says. “Don’t worry, you’re not platooning.”

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O’Neill hangs his head and leaves.

He is obviously displeased with the night’s lineup. But this much he can be sure of: It is Piniella’s lineup all the way, just as it is his clubhouse and it is his team. It is the first time Piniella can make that claim, though he managed 417 games before he signed a three-year contract Nov. 3 to manage the Reds. Of course, all of those other games occurred while he was under the employ of George Steinbrenner, the Yankees owner whom Dallas Green came to call “Manager George.”

Only now is Piniella finding out what it is like to be a big-league manager. What he did before was work for Steinbrenner. The difference is the same as sitting on your father’s lap as a boy in the driver’s seat of a car, your hands clutching the steering wheel -- “Look, you’re driving!” -- and actually operating an automobile for the first time and marveling at the power and freedom at your disposal.

Piniella has his first set of wheels. Sporty, fast and shiny red. So far, it is the best thing going on the National League streets.

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“The one major difference,” Piniella said, “is over here I make the decisions and they stand. I control the lineup and I control the clubhouse situation. That’s paramount for a manager. There hasn’t been any interference.

“I write out the lineup card I want. If people need rest, I rest them. I didn’t have that luxury in New York. You have to win right now, today, every day over there. It’s important for the players to understand the manager is in control of the situation. And we might send some people out from time to time, but we won’t have a minor-league shuttle just for the sake of a shuttle.

“George is tough. He’s a good friend. I liked him. I just didn’t like managing for him. I was physically and mentally tired.

“George is mean. George’s demands are unrealistic at times. But I learned a lot there. I’ll tell you, no managing job is easy. But is this one easier? Yes.

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“See, the big thing over there is that as a manager you lose control. Everybody who goes there thinks it’s going to be different. I did. But invariably, you come to realize that so many things are out of your control. It really becomes disillusioning.”

Piniella fires up another cigarette and begins pulling on his Reds uniform. His wardrobe no longer includes pinstripes, which for recent Yankee managers have become associated more with imprisonment than tradition.

He won’t say whether his freedom will make him a better manager. “Time will tell,” he said. But clearly, he is a happier one.

“I think so,” said his wife, Anita. “He’s happy because he really has full control over what he wants to do. He’s in control. That’s what a manager should feel.

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“You know, I don’t think he ever would have forgiven himself if he hadn’t tried this. He had a good job (broadcasting and advising) with the Yankees and had a guaranteed contract and we have a home in New Jersey. We knew how much difficulty this would create in our lives. But I think he wanted this one chance to be in control, to see how he does. I’d be so happy if he would just go out and win it all and that would be enough.”

Piniella has jumped headlong into his new job, not bothering to stick a couple of toes in first to check the water. As shortstop Barry Larkin said, “Lou Piniella has made a tremendous difference here. Ever since day one of spring training, it’s been his team. He calls the shots.”

When the Reds played poorly in the second game of spring training -- that was just one week into camp -- Piniella ordered the club to run in the outfield while he fumed near the foul line.

“Relax, skip,” coach Sam Perlozzo told him. “It’s only the second game.”

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Piniella shot back, “Damn it, these guys have been here a whole . . . week.”

“Then,” Perlozzo recalled, “he realized what he’d just said and just started laughing. But it just goes to show you what he demands from his players.” The Cincinnati players have welcomed his intensity. They were a sorry lot last season, watching their season fall apart under the weight of numerous injuries and the troubles of their manager, Pete Rose. A first-place team on June 10, they went 40-53 thereafter to finish 75-87 and in fifth place.

It turned out that Rose was more of an albatross than a manager. He spent much of his time defending himself while the national media rummaged through his life, hunting for clues to his gambling habits and his choice of friends. Rose often took sanctuary behind the closed door of his office.

After that act, the Reds were all the more eager to welcome Piniella, a complete newcomer to Cincinnati and the league. They don’t even like to talk about Rose now. The only clubhouse reminder of Rose is an engraved silver tankard on Piniella’s desk that Rose received for being named a Sports Illustrated player of the week in 1984. It is used as a pencil cup.

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“Lou’s in the game all the time,” outfielder Eric Davis said. “He talks to us constantly. The major difference is he prepares us to play. We go over the other team’s hitters all the time, things like that. He keeps us focused instead of just writing out the lineup card.”

Said reliever Rob Dibble: “Lou’s fantastic. He sets up everybody’s role. Everybody knows their job. He gave me a day off the other day. Last year, I’d have to ask for one -- and even then I might not get it.

“Instead of people coming out to see the Big Red Machine and Pete Rose and his coaches, they’re coming to watch us play. People are coming to watch the Cincinnati Reds, a team out there on the field, not the Big Red Machine sitting on the bench. That was like a circus atmosphere. It was a sideshow.

“We’ve got our own identity for a change. We know it and other teams know it.”

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Piniella, out of the Yankees organization for the first time in 17 years, is searching for his own identity, too. With the Yankees, he was criticized for mishandling his pitching. But as Piniella said, “I didn’t have pitching.” Now he does, even if starters Danny Jackson and Jose Rijo still are struggling to overcome injuries. And so far, he has found the right balance of work for his talented relievers.

Indeed, this is a different team than the Yankees and Piniella is a different manager. The Reds lead the league in hitting, are second in stolen bases and third in sacrifice bunts. And Piniella, who sometimes saw his manager’s office in New York as a bunker, is a hands-on manager here, whether it be helping Chris Sabo rediscover his power or just keeping the clubhouse loose, though this bunch of guys doesn’t need much help with that.

“I’ve seen the need to communicate more,” Piniella said. “The way things go in New York you can get in a foul mood sometimes. You withdraw a little. That’s a mistake. The players have to know who the boss is. At the same time, you want to create a good, healthy atmosphere in the clubhouse.”

The problem in New York was that Piniella’s players knew exactly who the boss was. And it wasn’t the manager. Steinbrenner often hounded Piniella through the red desk telephone in the Yankee manager’s office. The same model telephone sits on Piniella’s desk in Cincinnati. Right there, all similarities end between Piniella’s former and current jobs. “This phone,” Piniella said with a smile, “doesn’t light up.”

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