PEORIA, Ariz. – Lou Piniella held court Tuesday, reminiscing about his days in Seattle, the players he had and talking a little about cows and hot air balloons.
Now managing the Chicago Cubs – a team he’s taken to the postseason in each of his first two years there – Piniella said wife Anita had offered him two options for a scheduled off day today.
One, he could fly to the Grand Canyon, ride a raft down the river and fly back. Or two, he could take a hot air balloon ride.
“I think we’ll stick with the hot air balloon,” he said.
Where would the balloon take him?
“As long as they get me down before Juarez, I’m happy,” Piniella said.
Someone asked about the spring of ’95, when Ken Griffey Jr. lost a bet – a steak dinner – and paid off by planting a cow in Piniella’s office.
“I had the remnants of that cow for about two weeks,” Piniella said. “No more pranks, please.”
That brought the conversation to Junior and his return to the Seattle Mariners.
“He had so many great years in Seattle. When I had him, he was the best player in baseball. It’s a fitting tribute for the Mariners and Junior that he finishes his career in Seattle,” Piniella said.
“If Junior hadn’t gotten hurt, we’d be talking about him being the one to threaten the home-run record, no question at all. He’s got – what? – 610 homers? That’s not bad, and he’s probably missed three years or so with injuries. Even at 30 a year, you’re talking about more than 700.
“What a great career. I hope he continues to play as long as he wants and as productive as he wants,” Piniella said. “And he has stayed clean of all the problems that baseball has had. To me, that’s just as important.”
Piniella told stories and was interrupted several times by former players, including Ronny Cedeño, Griffey and first-base coach Lee Tinsley. Each got a big hug from Piniella.
“We had Randy (Johnson), Junior, Alex (Rodriguez), Edgar (Martinez), (Jay) Buhner to name a few. That’s a pretty impressive array of talent,” Piniella said, adding quickly: “I didn’t screw it up.”
Griffey laughed when asked about Piniella.
“Lou is baseball. He loves to compete,” Griffey said. “He makes the kids better and the veterans play to the best of their ability. You always knew who was in charge, although he let me get away with a lot.”
“My only disappointment is we never got to a World Series. We couldn’t get by the Yankees. We wanted to play the best team, we wanted to play New York and we just didn’t quite get by them.”
Piniella’s eyes grew moist at that point, and he shook his head.
“We had a lot of fun and we put a lot of people in the ballpark,” he said. “That’s what it’s all about. I hope they can do it again.”
Griffey remembers much of that fun was initiated by Piniella.
“The hat-kicking ejection in Cleveland was a good one, but there was the time in Detroit where he kicked a water cooler and destroyed the nail on his big toe,” Griffey said. “The next day, the trainers took it off with pliers. And there was the time in Boston where Norm (Charlton) gave up the lead in the ninth and Lou tried to kick out the lights in the tunnel to the clubhouse.
“He missed and fell flat on his back. Jay and I walked around him, one on each side, and just kept going.”
Piniella added: “Seattle is a wonderful, wonderful city. Look at me, I get emotional.”
Someone asked about a few other former Mariners still in the game – Rodriguez and Johnson.
“Alex put a lot of pressure on himself because of that huge, huge contract,” Piniella said. “Alex likes to please, and when you like to please the temptations are there. When it’s there, the temptations are hard to escape. I hope he’s learned from it.
“Randy is going on 46 years old, and he’s got greatness all over him. My agent is Randy’s agent, although he makes a lot more commission off him than he does off me.”
Ichiro Suzuki’s name came up.
“Ichiro is a special athlete,” Piniella said. “He’s blessed with great hand-eye coordination and he works exceedingly hard. He’s always in great shape and he’s got speed to boot.
“That first spring, I asked him to pull the ball one time – let me just see it, I told him. First pitch he hits it out of the ballpark and he says, ‘See?’ I said, ‘you can do what you want the rest of the spring.’
“Funny story,” Piniella said. “And it happens to be true.”
In closing, Griffey said, “Play hard for Lou, he’d run through a wall for you, He looked good today. He’s lost a little weight. If you don’t love Lou, you don’t love baseball.”
MARINERS SPRING UPDATE
Two candidates to close for Seattle – Miguel Batista and Mark Lowe – gave up six runs and the Chicago Cubs beat the Mariners, 8-1.
Seattle plays Kansas City in Surprise, Ariz., at 1:05 p.m. Probable starting pitchers: Erik Bedard vs. Gil Meche.
Garrett Olson started, pitched three scoreless innings and then went out to work a fourth. He didn’t get an out, put two men on base and watched reliever Batista give up those two runs and three of his own. ... Josh Fields threw in a simulated game to Ken Griffey Jr. and Mike Sweeney and is tentatively penciled in to pitch in Tucson on Friday or Saturday. It would be his first game action since the College World Series last year. When Fields was done pitching, Sweeney took him aside and told him he was “tipping” his curve. “He saw me do something a little different when I came set,” Fields said. “There was a little hitch in there. It was really cool. I’ve wondered if I’ve done that for a while, even in college. Nobody’s ever said anything to me about it, so I just assumed I was all right. It was good to hear that. It’s something that I get to keep working on.” ... If you’re keeping a daily closer watch and wondering who looked best, consider this: rookie Shawn Kelley pitched 1 innings and struck out three. ... The Mariners had only six hits, two by Yuniesky Betancourt. “As we begin facing more major league pitchers, you start to see a difference in the hitting,” manager Don Wakamatsu said. ... Ronny Cedeño has had quite a few managers in his career – most of them in the minors – but says he’s never encountered one like Wakamatsu. “He talks to every player,” Cedeño said. “He’s great at communicating, and he wants you to tell him if you need a break, if anything is going on. When he asks ‘how are you?’ he means it.” ...Wakamatsu and his coaching staff met after the game to talk about the first cuts of spring, and today a few pitchers and at least one catcher are likely to be dispatched to minor league camp. Among the candidates: Chris Seddon, Eric Hull, Denny Stark and catcher Israel Nuñez. Even with split-squad games on the horizon, the team wants to begin shrinking the number of players in the clubhouse. Position players haven’t yet reported to minor league camp, so the Mariners have nowhere to send position players yet. ... The lone Seattle run came on back-to-back doubles in the seventh inning by Matt Tuiasosopo and Russell Branyan. The hit left Tuiasosopo batting .455. ... The Mariners dropped $4.5 million last season, the first time the club has lost money since moving into Safeco Field. With 101 losses, the team drew 2.3 million fans, Seattle’s lowest home attendance since moving to the retractable-roof ballpark. That, coupled with a team-record $120 million player payroll, made 2008 a forgettable year for the Mariners. The team filed documents Monday as part of an annual requirement to the Washington State Major League Baseball Stadium Public Facilities District, which built and arranged the financing for Safeco Field’s construction. The loss was for the fiscal year ending Oct. 31, and the figure did not include depreciation of the stadium, player signing bonuses totaling $14.6 million in ’08 and capital expenditures. The Mariners reported a profit of $17.8 million in 2007.
Griffey, on Cubs manager Lou Piniella: “He loves the game, he loves his players. Every one who plays for him is an extension of him.”
Brandon Morrow will miss his scheduled Friday start, and his tight right forearm has now become a timing problem. A week of rest wasn’t enough, so the Mariners are now left to ponder a starting rotation without Morrow when the season opens. ... Infielder Callix Crabbe has tendinitis in his right shoulder and has been shut down for a day or two, though it’s not believed to be serious.
By Larry LaRue and Ryan Divish
The Associated Press contributed to this report.