Near the end of his Mariners’ Hall of Fame acceptance speech, Lou Piniella transformed from gracious retired legend to motivational skipper once more.
He had reminisced Saturday for the bulk of his 25-minute speech about the good ol’ days, telling classic stories, making witty remarks and contorting the language as only he can. But now he wanted to address the current, playoffs-striving Mariners. It felt like he was speaking to his own team.
He started by complimenting manager Lloyd McClendon: “Lloyd, you and your staff are doing just an outstanding job. I’m so happy.”
Then he spelled out the mission: “I think you’re, what, a half game out of the wild card? Let’s kick some butt the rest of the year and get to the playoffs.”
And finally, the only manager in Mariners history to lead the franchise to the postseason, spoke from experience: “It can be done. You guys are good. Believe in yourselves.”
Consider it a verbal passing of the torch.
Piniella left Seattle 12 years ago. It has been 13 years since that amazing 116-win season in 2001, the last of four Mariners playoff teams that Piniella managed. If the Mariners maintain their level of play this season, it will be only the fourth winning season they’ve had since Sweet Lou left.
At last, the down times could be ending. With a talented, pitching-dominant team led by superstars Felix Hernandez and Robinson Cano, the Mariners appear set up to be relevant for years to come.
They’ve never done anything special without Piniella, though. But here was Piniella, standing behind a podium on the infield grass, declaring that it’s time for a new era of Mariners excellence.
During a news conference Friday, Piniella expounded on what it takes, beyond talent, to win.
“It’s easier to lose than it is to win,” he said, stating the obvious in a way that somehow seemed novel. “Winning is difficult. Basically, you have to be conditioned for it. Everybody wants to win. It’s just that every person, when they’re not winning, doesn’t want to dig a little deeper, play a little harder, a little smarter.
“Winning is an attitude, and what you have to do is develop an attitude for your team that winning is the most important thing. You look at teams that win. All the players are successful. When teams win, people have good years. When they have good years, they make more money. It’s all tied together. I remember just about every player I managed on the teams that were good. On the ones that didn’t win, not so much.”
The entire Mariners team stood on the top step of the dugout during Piniella’s pregame ceremony, and they should have considered it a valuable gift this late in the season. In celebrating Piniella, the opportunity existed to relive all the glory of the Mariners’ 38 seasons. The best stuff is bunched together in the 10-season Lou era, from refusing to lose in 1995 to not knowing how to lose in 2001. Ken Griffey Jr., Randy Johnson, Edgar Martinez, Jay Buhner, Ichiro — he managed them all.
He even saw the best of Alex Rodriguez, and even though A-Rod was predictably booed when Piniella brought him up during his speech, it speaks volumes about Piniella’s grace that he was willing to reference that elephant. Why? Because Piniella wouldn’t dare forget anyone, no matter how controversial, who helped him along the way. He couldn’t forget anyone. Not on this day. He was too grateful.
“I’m very sad to see what’s happened to his career,” Piniella said after praising Rodriguez.
His speech was everything you would expect from Piniella. He was fearless and funny. He got a few facts wrong, but no one cared. He started wiping at the wet stuff three minutes into the program.
He described pitcher Jamie Moyer, who won 145 games with the Mariners after age 33, perfectly.
“He put people to sleep at home plate,” Piniella joked. “He was a master of knowing what the hitter was looking for and doing the opposite.”
Piniella saved his most emotional moment for the end, when he thanked Mariners fans. He saw the Mariners grow from merely one of many Pacific Northwest entertainment options to a main attraction. The franchised surpassed the 3.5 million mark in attendance — an average of more than 43,000 fans per game — during both the 2001 and 2002 seasons. He saw the Kingdome go from empty and cavernous to full and raucous. And he saved his most dominant seasons for Safeco Field, which opened in 1999.
“I’ve thanked everybody, except for the most wonderful fans in all of baseball,” Piniella said to the crowd before submitting to all his emotions.
He cried. The crowd shouted “Loooooouuuuuuu!” And the manager who made Mariners baseball exciting officially became one of the franchise’s unforgettable greats.
It seems only one thing would make him happier: A continuation of what he started.
The Mariners are due. And on Aug. 9, 2014, Piniella set the agenda.