The fateful call came after a sumptuous dinner at Salish Lodge, where the new owners of the Mariners, mostly young execs from Microsoft, McCaw Cellular and Nintendo, got to know Lou Piniella, whom they were considering hiring to be the manager of the 1993 Mariners.
Piniella wasn’t sold. After he returned home to Tampa, John Ellis, then Mariners CEO who was at the dinner, called to play one final card.
“You scared, Lou?” Piniella recalled Ellis saying. “You think you’re going to fail?”
Ellis, retired chairman of the then-Puget Power electrical utility, never delivered the Seattle market a bigger jolt.
“He challenged me,” Piniella said about taking the job. “I like challenges.”
His challenge Saturday night at Safeco Field was to keep from blubbering. He didn’t quite make it, which only made him and the evening more endearing for the 40,122 on hand.
Piniella’s 10 years in Seattle, a move most of his baseball colleagues advised against, was celebrated with his induction into the Mariners Hall of Fame. Accompanied by his wife, Anita, and children Derek, Lou Jr. and Kristi, and and their spouses and children, baseball fans glimpsed again the passion that drove a Mariners decade and helped save baseball in Seattle.
Near the end of a 40-minute ceremony, half of which was his speech, Piniella teared up again at the final of several standing ovations.
“I love you, salute you, I’ll never forget you,” he said, waving his arms as “Loooou!” rang out across the greensward his labors helped create.
Piniella guided the Mariners to their only four playoff appearances. The franchise never has been the same since his 2002 departure. Many others contributed mightily to the success and subsequent fade, but to hear the video tributes from his former players and rival managers, Piniella was the vortex.
Never in Seattle’s modern sports theater has there been a figure so committed to winning and so unabashed in the expression of that passion. The only regret, and it’s a small one, is that his histrionics were so memorably comical they tended to obscure how good were his strategic baseball skills and his understanding of human nature.
So many times a small move here or a key word there was the difference in a Mariners win or loss.
Lee Elia, Piniella’s bench coach from 1993 to 1997 who was in town for the ceremony, recalled during the fabled 1995 stretch drive that consumed a 13-game Angels lead, Piniella’s concentration was almost scary.
“It was like he was another person,” Elia said. “He was so focused on studying statistics and the other team’s tendencies that we were really prepared for each game and anything that would happen.”
True to his dedication, Piniella, the AL Manager of the Year in 1995 and 2001 with Seattle and the NL Manager of the Year in 2008 with the Cubs, used his platform to thank by name or job all the significant figures in his Seattle tenure.
He mentioned fellow HoFers in attendance Jay Buhner, Dan Wilson, Edgar Martinez (“after this, Edgar and I are going to his cantina and have a couple of cervezas”) and absentees Randy Johnson and Ken Griffey Jr. (he was being inducted into the Reds Hall of Fame at the same time).
He also mentioned other stalwarts of the 1990s: Omar Vizquel, Tino Martinez, Jamie Moyer (“he’d put people to sleep at home plate”), Norm Charlton, Ichiro, Mike Cameron, Mike Blowers and even Alex Rodriguez, whose mention drew boos. Piniella seemed taken back a bit, saying he was “sad to see what’s happened to his career.”
He saluted GMs, coaches, trainers, front office personnel and broadcasters, including the late Dave Niehaus, which brought a catch to Piniella’s voice.
He also addressed the current Mariners, who stood along the dugout rail for the ceremony for a look at a legendary manager most know only through YouTube.
“Let’s get this thing to the playoffs and make Seattle proud,” Piniella said/ordered/commanded.