John McGrath

John McGrath: Lou Piniella stands tall at Safeco Field one final time

Lou Piniella knew the odds of standing in front of a microphone and keeping his composure Saturday were substantially longer than escaping a no-outs, bases-loaded, winning-run-at-third-and-everybody-in-for-a-play-at-the-plate jam in the bottom of the ninth.

But Piniella hasn’t lost his competitive edge. There was a Mariners’ Hall of Fame acceptance speech to make, and the manager of the franchise’s only four playoff teams had to be a stand-up guy in Seattle one last time.

“It’s going to be hard for me,” he said Friday. “I’ll tell a few stories and try to keep it light, but it’s not easy. I’m not the best speaker in the world as it is, and I am emotional. It’s easy for me to get teary-eyed.”

Piniella was introduced to the tune of a “Looou!” cheer during a five-minute standing ovation, and he couldn’t have been blamed for wilting amid the affection. Instead, he talked with ease about what he called “10 wonderful years of my life,” following through on his game plan to keep the mood festive.

Piniella’s voice broke only when he referred to Dave Niehaus, the late broadcaster and fellow Mariners’ Hall of Fame member, and when he concluded his remarks by thanking the fans. Otherwise, the recollections Piniella shared about a few of his favorite players found him flashing that charming smile of his, which can be as disarming as his stare is withering.

Piniella told the crowd of 40,122 about spring training in 2001, when he was becoming familiar with a Japanese rookie named Ichiro Suzuki. During the first five or six Cactus League games, Ichiro focused on hitting the ball the other way — between third base and shortstop for a left-handed hitter.

Piniella had seen enough of that, and wondered if the vaunted product of the Japan League was capable of pulling the ball.

“I talked with the interpreter, and the interpreter explained to Ichiro what I wanted,” said Piniella. “Sure enough, his next time up he hit a home run over the right-field fence. When Ichiro got done circling the bases and returned to the dugout, he walked up to me and asked: ‘Are you happy now?’ ”

(Before the bottom of the fifth inning, the video board showed tape of Ichiro sharing an amusing anecdote about the time Piniella kissed him on the cheek after one of the Mariners’ 116 victories in 2001. Not knowing American culture, Ichiro wondered if a kiss from the manager was commonplace after victories.)

Piniella played on two Yankees world-championship teams, managed Cincinnati to its 1990 World Series upset of Oakland, and twice advanced to the playoffs with the Cubs. But the role he played in transforming the Mariners from a team with an uncertain future in Seattle to a team responsible for the construction of Safeco Field is as satisfying to Piniella as anything he accomplished during a career that could be recognized by another Hall-of-Fame induction.

“I came here at the right time, with a good nucleus of players. My general manager did a real nice job of augmenting our talent,” Piniella said Friday of his longtime friend and former boss, Woody Woodward. “My only regret is that (we) never went to a World Series. There is no other negative I have at all. We did everything we set out to do except get the damn World Series here.”

Piniella’s legacy with the Mariners hasn’t been lost on current manager Lloyd McClendon.

“I mean, listen, what he did here was just tremendous,” McClendon said after a Friday charity luncheon honoring Piniella at Safeco Field. “Don’t think I don’t think about that every day that I put this uniform on. I don’t want to embarrass him. I want to make him proud.

“He laid a tremendous foundation and, hopefully, we can get it back to where he had it. That would be pretty good.”

When he’s home in Florida, Piniella rarely watches all nine innings of a Mariners home game because of the three-hour time-zone difference. (Games at Safeco Field tend to end around 2:30 a.m. EDT, and as Piniella noted: “That’s pretty late to be staying up for somebody who is going to be 71 this month.)

But Piniella still considers himself a member of the Mariners’ extended family, and he follows the standings.

“You’re a half game out of the wild card,” Piniella said as he gestured toward the players standing in the first-base dugout. “Now let’s kick some butt and get this done!”

Typical Lou. The guy who was afraid he’d get teary-eyed punctuated his speech with a battle cry.

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