Lou Piniella’s in town again, swinging for fences

Barry Zito accepts the 48th Annual Hutch Award. Credit: Photo: Art Thiel

Lou Piniella was back in town this week and 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. Piniella remains sepia-toned in the minds of Mariners fans, 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 his unique mix of intimidation and empathy captivated players and his other many audiences. 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 their eyes off a man who works without a 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. Hutchinson was a 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. Zito graciously accepted the Dale Chihuly original glass artwork, and turned the podium over to Piniella. 

Piniella charmed the nearly-thousand-person crowd, sharing reminiscences and an appreciation for the work done by the scientists and researchers at the Hutch. Afterward, a long line formed in hopes of an autograph, a photo or a chance to tell a story about how Piniella's teams made them so excited.

Just a couple 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. It was 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.

Piniella remembers the complaints when they returned to the Kingdome clubhouse.

"They thought it was too big," Piniella said. "We had a power team — Edgar, Buhner, Griffey. We had guys who could hit the ball out of the ballpark. To go from the Kingdome to Safeco was a shock to them. Balls that 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 it didn't work out. A team built for the tidy dimensions of the Kingdome was a small match for Safeco. In the final three years of the Kingdome (1996-98), the Mariners averaged 922 runs a season. The first three full years in Safeco, the average was 849. After that, the sluggers left or retired, all with stories to tell their brethren around the country just 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 thee 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 finally 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.

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