BY Art Thiel 09:10PM 01/30/2013

Thiel: Lou is back — after fences are coming in

In town for a speech at the annual Hutch Award luncheon, former Mariners manager Lou Piniella was a captivating figure for fans who remember days of contention and excitement.

The line was long to get a moment or two with former Mariners manager Lou Piniella after the Hutch Award luncheon at Safeco Field Wednesday. / Art Thiel, Sportspress Northwest

Lou Piniella was back in town this week. Seattle couldn’t get enough of him.

From the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center to the Metropolitan Grill to a Safeco Field fundraiser luncheon, nearly everyone he passed smiled, or reached out a hand for a shake or fumbled for a camera phone and a picture.

I once wrote that Piniella was one of the few characters in modern Seattle sports or civic culture who was authentically larger than life. Now a decade gone as Mariners manager, somehow he has grown. Or maybe Mariners baseball has shrunk.

Nearly 70 and mostly gray now, slimmer, tanned, a regular wearer of glasses, Piniella remains an enthralling figure, happily retired to his Tampa home, sepia-toned in the minds of Mariners fans who who were there when he threw himself into the manager’s job by getting himself thrown out of games in spectacular ways.

Piniella’s histrionics were what most remember. But Piniella had a way about him that generated a mix of intimidation and empathy that captivated players and his other many audiences, be they one or 70,000 at Yankee Stadium. A rare feat, that.

Piniella let us in. He is a caring, but not a careful, man. And as circus owners around the world have come to know, the customers cannot take eyes off a man who works without  net.

He was in town for the 48th Hutch Award Luncheon at Safeco Field, which annually honors the Major League Baseball player who embodies the honor, courage and dedication of Fred Hutchinson, the Seattle kid who made it big in the bigs as player and manager, and who died of lung cancer at 45 in 1964.

This year’s award went to Barry Zito, the pitcher who, after a 15-8 regular season, won two games in San Francisco’s sweep of the Detroit Tigers for the Giants’ second World Series win in three years.

After Zito’s gracious acceptance of the award, in the form of a Dale Chihuly original glass artwork, Piniella took the podium to address the outdoor gathering of nearly a thousand with stories, reminiscences and an appreciation for the work done by the scientists and  researchers at the Hutch.

After he left the podium to warm applause, a long line of lunch patrons formed who wanted an autograph, a photo or a chance to tell a story about how Piniella’s teams made them so excited.

Just a couple of hundred feet away was the club’s new way of bringing excitement — moving in the Safeco fences to accommodate the more offensively feeble Mariners.

As Piniella finished and walked toward the home dugout, we talked about the day in 1998 when several Mariners hitters first experienced Safeco Field, during a photo op about a year ahead of the July 1999 opening of the Kingdome’s successor.

The real fences weren’t up yet, so the grandstand fascia was the nearest target, about 350 feet away. Even hitting batting practice lobs to a temporary home plate, Ken Griffey, Jr., Edgar Martinez, and Jay Buhner couldn’t believe how far away the stands seemed in the cool, dense air of a Puget Sound summer.

When they returned to the Kingdome clubhouse, Piniella remembered the complaints.

“They thought it was too big,” Piniella said. “We had a power team — Edgar, Buhner Griffey. We had guys who could hit ball out of the ballpark. To go from the Kingdome to Safeco was a shock to them. Balls would rattle the seats in the Kingdome were making it to the warning track here.”

It was Piniella’s job to shush the players’ criticisms of the new $517 million park, given the controversies attendant to its funding and construction.

“I had to tell them that when this place is finished, the fences are up and the fans are in here, the balls will carry better, but I have to think none of them believed it,” Piniella said. “I had nothing to do with the dimensions of the park. My job was to tell the players to cool it. Let’s make the best of it.”

They tried, but  didn’t work out. A team built for the tidy dimensions of the Kingdome was a small match for the national park of Safeco. In the final three years of the Kingdome (1996-98). they averaged 922 runs a season. The first three full years in Safeco the average was 849. After that, the sluggers had left or retired, all with stories to tell their brethren around the game how hard it was to reach the seats.

The Mariners haven’t had an 800-run season since. Last year they had 640, the best total of the past three years, and still last in the American League. Piniella, who left Seattle after the 2003 season, knew the team had to be remodeled after the Kingdome.

“You could tell after a couple of months (at Safeco), it was a pitcher’s park,” he said. “What you weren’t sure of was what would happen when the weather turned warmer in June. Didn’t seem to help. The balls hung. The ball carried best to right center, and our right-handed hitters started to develop a little of that inside-out approach so they could drive the ball that way.

“I did recognize we had to change over from a power-power-power team to more of an athletic team that could pitch and catch more balls. We needed more balance. That’s what we did, and we had some really good years here.”

But things came apart after the departures of Piniella and GM Pat Gillick. Seven of the past nine seasons have been losers, and Safeco was judged the most pitcher-friendly park in baseball last year. 

Since premier veteran free-agent hitters have looked upon Safeco in the manner of a leper colony, the bosses decided the only cure was fresh plywood a little closer.

“It would have been nice if they had thought of that when I was here,” Piniella said, smiling. “But I think it will help, and I wish them well.”

Ten years after his departure, the Mariners have gotten around to the recommended fixes. Perhaps for his 80th birthday, Piniella can be brought back to throw out the first pitch for the Mariners’ first World Series.

San Francisco Giants pitcher Barry Zito receives the Hutch Award, a Dale Chihuly glawork, from Costco’s retired chairman Jim Sinegal. / Phototainment


YourThoughts

  • Jamo57

    A World Series at Safeco in 10 years? Stop being a ‘homer’, Art!

  • Michael Kaiser

    Those were the glory years of the Mariners, all five years or so. But the whole PIniella ride was good in different ways. HOWEVER, I am surprised he also bitched about Safeco, in that SOMEHOW we still had a team at Safeco that won 116 games and in fact was the second of two teams to make it to the ALCS. Come on Lou. Safeco ultimately is not why we did not even get to a World Series. Also, on a more general note, Colorado also has had “extreme” homepark–geographic–issues to deal with, and they already have been to a World Series.

    • art thiel

      Lou never said it was the reason the Series never came here; he was responding to my specific questions, since the work was underway during his appearance at the field. He will freely admit can’t explain 2001.

      As far as Denver, a glance at a map will tell you it is lots closer to the rest of America than Seattle is. Can’t seem to fix that without some severe continental drift.

      • Michael Kaiser

        I am sorry. Perhaps you misunderstood me, as I possibly was not that clear, or perhaps you did understand me and you just took my point in another direction. I meant that Colorado has had to deal with the issue of balls flying out of the park, in part because of Denver being mile high, etc., but Denver still has managed to overcome its “handicap,” or outlier issue, and at least make it to one World Series. And I know that Lou did not proactively dissect Safeco for you, although he does appear to hold a definite number of opinions that he was not afraid to express, or perhaps that he has expressed to you before but that you did not publish, but took this opportunity to get him on the record with some stuff. Who knows. That latter issue is a very minor point, almost not mentioning.

  • dinglenuts

    Or, heaven forbid, they could build a team that’s successful in a pitcher’s park. (See Giants, San Francisco; 2010, 2012)

    • RadioGuy

      Won’t happen. People would rather pay to see a batter jogging out a home run than legging out a triple even though the triple’s more exciting to watch happen. The game is a lot different now than it was 100 years ago, and so are fans. And I like pitcher’s duels.

      • Effzee

        Actually, they tried to build a team that was successful in a pitchers park, but failed miserably for an entire decade.The only reason it “Won’t happen” is the incompetence of the incompetents at the top. Ultimately, people would rather pay to see wins, whether they come by home runs or a flurry of singles. The M’s lead the league in attendance playing small ball in 2001. Moving in the fences has nothing to with winning (from the Mariners upper management’s perspective, as nothing has anything to do with winning from their perspective) but rather, its designed to make the product actually entertaining in order to lure some fans back to Safeco. Desperate times call for desperate measures, so they are sacrificing the pitching (not just by removing the advantage of the field itself, but by depleting the staff and relying on unproven kids) and bringing in marginally improved hitting that will result in another 90-loss season. Only this time instead of losing 4-1 every night at home, they’ll be losing 13-10. How many times have we had 3 or 4 hot young untouchable arms in the system, and how many of those guys have ever panned-out? Maybe 1-in-10? This franchise is still being run (into the ground) by non-baseball people trying to tell baseball people how to do baseball right. Its never, ever, ever, ever going to get better until the big two leave. You know who.

      • art thiel

        What hasn’t changed since Ruth hit 60 is most baseball fans like feats of power and strength because they are often so decisive and so swiftly change games. It’s the power of the sudden.

    • Liggie

      Or the 1980s St. Louis Cardinals.

  • dinglenuts

    Or, heaven forbid, they could actually build a team that might have some success in a pitcher’s park. (See Giants, San Francisco; 2010, 2012

  • Stacy Sheets

    For my 50th, I took an Amtrak from Seattle to Chicago’s Wrigley Field to watch a Padres, Cubs game on August 19th, 2010. Seeing Lou on his routine trips to the mound was a treat for me. The Padres mngr Bud Black was on a potential “playoffs” winning streak, (After, the Padres went on a long loosing streak.) Lou, picking up the pieces of another bottom feeder, was about to hit a 4th straight loss. ( Padres won 5 to 3 ) I was unaware that Lou would be leaving the Cubs shortly there after due to his mother being ill.

    Point being, so many days of our lives are not remembered, this one for me, I won’t forget.
    A classic summer day of baseball, at a traditional ball park, with a traditional player / manager. Hats off to Mr Piniella.
    On another note Art, with all your writing & social skills, when the hell are you going to pull off the Robin & Maynard reunion thing, we’re all counting on you, surely you’re capable of……. & after that the Israel / West Bank thing, you know……..
    Holding My Breath

    • art thiel

      I have several memories of Lou similar to yours, Stacy. It probably will take less than half a drink to pull them out of me.

      Regarding R&M, sad to say a reunion is unlikely. The radio world is going the way of the print-newspaper world, doing with less people and salary and more automation. I might be able to get Richard Peterson a gig, but only as an executive in charge.

  • Will

    What an ugly piece of broken neon to give as an award.

    • art thiel

      C’mon, Will. It’s a step up from having to go to the recycling bin.

  • jafabian

    I don’t believe the the club ever built the team it could have or should have since they moved to Safeco. In the beginning they did, getting contact doubles hitters like Ichiro, Boone and Olerud and pitchers like Sele, Garcia, Sasaki and Charlton. But since then they tried to build a team like what the rest of the AL West had and that just doesn’t work in Safeco. Didn’t surprise me that players like Beltre and Sexson didn’t work out. They went after hitters but never the RIGHT kind of hitters and NEVER went after good pitchers like they said they could/would once Safeco was built. The exception would be Cliff Lee and that didn’t last long. (But whoa…he sure looked good when he was here)

    You build a team according to your park, not the other way around. Be interesting to see how moving in the fences affects not only the hitters but the pitching staff as well.

    • art thiel

      Not sure anyone can explain how 116 happened — cosmic serendipity maybe. But Seattle has been paying for it since.

  • http://www.facebook.com/herb.huseland Herb Huseland

    How many of you remember Lou being drafted by the Seattle Pilots. He was traded shortly thereafter and didn’t come back until his playing days were over.

    • Michael Kaiser

      Well, when you figure that 64% of the Seattle population arrived in the past seven years, I am betting not many.

      • art thiel

        Some of know the Lou lore, and some of us know the here and now. The Lou chroniclers are happier.

        • Michael Kaiser

          I thought you were going to question my figure of 64% over seven years. Then I would be able to say, “I pulled it out of my rear.” LOL.