Going Deep: Lou Piniella

Piniella ready to win right away in Chicago




We all knew that the Cubs' hiring Lou Piniella as manager meant they were going to go out and get some veteran talent. But this is ridiculous.

As if to reassure Piniella that Chicago was not Tampa Bay, general manager Jim Hendry opened his suddenly bursting checkbook and re-signed Aramis Ramirez (five years, $73 million) for third base, Mark DeRosa (three years, $13 million) for second base, and in the most stunning purchase of all, Alfonso Soriano (eight years, $136 million) for the outfield. This all left Piniella one happy man--happy enough to spend a half-hour talking about this Northside spending spree, what went wrong in Tampa Bay, and whether he could be the next Jim Leyland.

ALAN SCHWARZ: Everyone wants to know, Lou--how much of Soriano's $136 million are you kicking in?

LOU PINIELLA: (Laughs.) I'm not helping out, but I helped recruit him. Myself and Jim Hendry went over to Alfonso's suite in Naples, met with his people, and really impressed on him how much we wanted him to be a Cub. He would be a big piece in turning our fortunes around. When we left we really felt good about the meeting, and in short order the deal was done.

Alfonso fits the defense, speed and power mold as well as anybody. He's really adapted well to the outfield.

SCHWARZ: Is he a center fielder, where some believe you'll play him?

PINIELLA: We didn't talk about that specifically. What we talked about was the fact that he felt more comfortable at a corner position, and he liked hitting on top of the lineup. I think he liked the fact that the teams that I've managed in the big leagues are very aggressive. We've always been up there in stolen bases; I give people the green light. I like stealing third base--things he likes.

SCHWARZ: And just for the record, you didn't have to tell the Trib that you'll pick up his luxury tax or something?

PINIELLA: The only concern I had was, "Boy, is there any money left over for some starting pitching?" Jim Hendry assured me there was.

SCHWARZ: That's the interesting thing here--the Cubs, for the past four years or so, at least from afar, have always been about Kerry Wood and Mark Prior and if-they-make-34-starts. Every year, with frustrating results. Is the re-signing of Aramis Ramirez, the signing of DeRosa, and the signing of Soriano a way of breaking with that past and saying, "We're starting a new era--it's not just about Prior and Wood anymore"?

PINIELLA: That's the way it seems, but that was not really our aim or our goal. With Kerry Wood, I talked to Kerry personally about the possibilities of moving into the bullpen. We felt he could stay healthier. We thought he could be more dominant. We told him we'd give him all the time in spring training he needed to make those adjustments. He was very pleased with that. So we're really not counting on Kerry as a starting pitcher.

With the other kid (Prior), the Cubs have had disappointments. We're going to bring him into camp and give him every opportunity to pitch in our rotation. Are we counting on him? Not as much as before. And the reason is, it's been hard keeping Prior healthy. So if he comes to camp and he's healthy, it's almost like signing another top, top pitcher. That's the way we're looking at it.

Jim's working really hard to add some starting pitching to this mix--whether it's through free agency, whether it comes via trade. Whether it comes from a kid who's posted in Japan.

SCHWARZ: What about the kids who have come up through the system recently, the Rich Hills and Sean Marshalls? The Tigers resurrected themselves largely by developing guys like Justin Verlander, Jeremy Bonderman and Joel Zumaya--that young injection.

PINIELLA: Remember, Detroit brought in Rogers also. That experience. And they brought in the closer, Todd Jones, who had experience. They added some experience to their young mix. You can't just put it on young pitchers, the full load.

We've got some good arms over there, there's no question. You look at the Cubbies' pitching staff, they led the National League in strikeouts. That tells you they have good stuff. The problem is they led the National League in walks, too.

SCHWARZ: And we know how much Lou Piniella loves young guys going to ball four.

PINIELLA: No, no. If you look at my history as a manager, we give young kids opportunities. I like young kids. I like the enthusiasm they bring, the work habits they bring. I'll give guys a lot of chances. The problem is, if they're not ready to perform in that arena, you're almost doing them a disfavor.

SCHWARZ: You got a bit of an overdose of young kids in Tampa Bay. A friend of yours told the Chicago Tribune, "I've seen people in prison less depressed."

PINIELLA: That's not true. I enjoyed it there. I really did. But when I left Seattle to go there, I was told that there were resources and that the organization wanted to win. The intentions were good on both sides. The problem is the club was sold, and the new ownership group was interested in building from the bottom up. I'm too old to sit around and wait for that type of situation, one, and two, it's embarrassing managing in your hometown and getting your ass beat.

I'm probably about the only guy out there, of the guys who have had success and have been managing a long time, that would take on a challenge like Tampa Bay. I don't think Bobby Cox or Tony La Russa or any of these other guys--Joe Torre--would take that type of challenge. I did.

SCHWARZ: A lot of managers and coaches, like Joe Torre and Chuck Daly, have told me that spending a year or two in the broadcast booth made them better managers. Did you learn anything from working at Fox?

PINIELLA: It gave me a different perspective--it really did. It lightened it up a heck of a lot. As a manager and player you get in that dugout mentality all the time competing at the highest level. And sometimes you take it just a bit too seriously. I knew that if I got away from the game for a year, it would be good for me.

I went to these different ballparks, including Wrigley Field, and walked through the parking lots before and after the ballgames. I'd go to the concession stand for a cold one and a hot dog or something.

SCHWARZ: That was probably your first summer away from the field since the early '60s or something.

PINIELLA: I've never had a summer off, no. I worked out--I had a personal trainer. Since the Cubs I haven't been doing that.

SCHWARZ: Well, you'll soon be throwing bases instead of medicine balls.

PINIELLA: (Laughs.) I hope people don't expect that part of me. I don't really like that part of me too much. It comes out once in a while. What's a little bit amusing but a little bit frustrating is when they show a Tony La Russa, for instance. Or a Joe Torre. They show them pensive and studious. When they show me it's animated. You know, you don't win 1,500-plus games in the big leagues because you're animated.

You can reach Alan Schwarz by sending e-mail to alanschwarz@baseballamerica.com.