John McGrath

McGrath: Lou Piniella is proof there’s life worth living after baseball

For the first time since 1961, Lou Piniella is spending a summer detached from pro baseball. You'd think Piniella, whose 53-year career included stints as a player, manager, broadcaster and consultant, would react to the cold-turkey split with the restlessness of a man deprived.

You'd be wrong.

Almost 71 — he'll celebrate his birthday on Aug. 28 — Piniella plays golf on those afternoons he doesn't spend fishing. He's watching his grandchildren grow up and traveling to such exotic destinations as Africa, which he and wife Anita recently visited for a safari.

Piniella, who lives on the Gulf Coast of Florida, returned to Seattle this weekend for his Saturday-night induction into the Mariners Hall of Fame. Tanned and fit and immeasurably more relaxed then when he was kicking up dust storms during arguments with umpires, Piniella provides convincing evidence there is life after baseball for baseball lifers.

"The only problem is you spent a hell of a lot more money when you're retired than what you think you're gonna spend," Piniella said Friday with a laugh, "because you've always got time on your hands."

Some of that time is devoted to baseball, but only as a dispassionate observer on the couch.

"Nothing frustrates me anymore because I'm not in it," he told reporters at Safeco Field. "I watch baseball from a fan standpoint.

"But boy, when I see the bases loaded and a shift on a hitter and he's not taking a shot the other way, I wonder what the hell is going on? They're giving you a base hit, you know what I mean? That's the way the game has changed."

Another way the game has changed is a preponderance of strikeouts, which have been on a steady increase since 1980 and now are at an unprecedented level. Over the 114 games they played through Thursday night, for instance, the Mariners struck out 891 times — ten fewer than they did over a full season in 1993, Piniella's first year as the Mariners' manager.

An obvious culprit is the proliferation of hard-throwing pitching specialists: starters give way to middle relievers, who typically are replaced by setup men and a closer.

Piniella, who served as a sort of second hitting instructor during his days as a manager, offered another theory.

"You see a lot of hitters take strike three on the outer half of the plate," he said. "When we played, that was almost taboo. You protected the outside part of the plate with two strikes and you made the pitcher jam you.

"You had to put the ball in play, unless you were a person who could hit 35 or 40 homers, which I wasn't. You had to be able to put the ball in play and be productive because if you weren't, the manager would sit you on the bench for a little bit and give somebody else the opportunity to play."

As for the most significant rules change Major League Baseball adopted for 2014 — the replay-review challenge system — Piniella looks at it from the perspective of an unabashed old-school graduate.

"How would I be with this flag — or whatever it is — that you throw?" he wondered. "This is just my opinion, nobody else's, but baseball is a sport, and it's a business, and it's entertainment. They're taking a little of the entertainment aspect out of it by using instant replay back in New York."

Video clips of Piniella's most explosive tirades, as both a player and manager, were shown on the Safeco Field scoreboard screen Friday for his Hall-of-Fame luncheon. The clips were hilarious — they never get old — and suggested his intolerance for umpires bordered on psychotic.

Not true. Piniella actually got along well with them, as they did with him.

"I respect umpires, I've always respected them," he said. "Whenever I had a particular argument, I'd go into their locker room the next day and tell them, 'Listen, I'm sorry for the ruckus last night, it's nothing personal.' I probably shouldn't say this, but I've sent them over to restaurants to eat."

That recollection triggered another.

"Sometimes I'd go out there and argue with the umpire and yell ‘Where are you going to eat tonight?' " he said. "Fans thought we were really getting into it, and we were just talking about having dinner somewhere.

"Which is true."

He paused and smiled before adding:

"But a lot of times, that wasn't the case."

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