Piniella faces challenge

BOB ELLIOTT -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 1:04 PM ET

MESA, Ariz. -- Manager Lou Piniella has walked into lousy situations before.

As legendary hoops coach Jack Donogue used to say, "You don't move into a good situation. If the job was any good the previous guy wouldn't have left."

Piniella takes over the Chicago Cubs, whose faithful fans are set to begin their 99th consecutive "wait-until-next-year" season. The Cubs have not won a World Series since Orval Overall blanked the Detroit Tigers 2-0 to win the 1908 Series.

In 1993, Piniella was hired to manage the Seattle Mariners. The M's played inside the worst building in baseball -- the Kingdome. A losing atmosphere surrounded the club. A losing culture surrounded the clubhouse. There was little interest in the team.

"The Seahawks were No. 1, basketball was second and we were a distant third," Piniella said. "My first year (coach) Lee Elia and I were in a breakfast shop. I went up pay and the cashier asked, 'You the new manager of the Mariners ... when does your season start?' Which was nice, but we'd already played 14 games."

The franchise was 16 years old and had one winning season. Meanwhile, its expansion cousin, the Blue Jays, put up their 11th straight plus-.500 mark and second World Series win in 1993.

"There's a losing culture with the Cubs," Piniella said at Fitch Park yesterday. "They haven't won in an awful, awful (97 more awfuls and he would bang on) long time.

"You know I have no idea why. The Cubs have had really great players, Hall of Fame players."

The Cubs had losing records seven of the previous 11 seasons and in 2006 lost 96 games. One reason might be the way Cubs fans come to their neighbourhood park, Wrigley Field. Rather than "Why didn't they win?" the post-game questions often are, 'How many beers did you have?" and "How are we getting home?"

Wrigley has a party atmosphere, as fans skip work to make day games. Going to Wrigley is a good time, win or lose. Did Ferris Bueller skip school for a White Sox game at U.S. Cellular?

The Tribune Company, owners of the Cubs, got serious this off-season, committing $310 million US in salaries. In Piniella's three seasons with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, 2003-05, there was a combined team payroll of less than $60 million.

"This organization has lost longer than Seattle, we have to develop a kind of Cubby swagger," Piniella says with a laugh.

He says he's mellowed since 1993 when he took over the M's. Early that spring he cut off food in the players' lounge for a few days. "I wanted to get rid of the country club atmosphere," Piniella said.

Once, while stuck in rush-hour traffic returning from a game, he ordered the bus driver to pull to the side of the freeway. Then, he strode to the middle of the bus, put his hat on backward and pointed to a park where kids were playing ball.

"See those kids? Next you're playing them. They'd kick your butts."

NO FOOLING

"I like to fool around," Piniella said. "Did they know I was kidding? Probably not, they didn't know me."

While their new complex was being constructed in Peoria, the M's played only road games.

"We started the spring 0-10, so one day my pitching coach Sammy Ellis is driving to the game, we're both in uniform, when we go by the airport," Piniella said. "I told Sammy to drop me and I'd fly home."

Piniella turned it around that spring, and turned around Seattle, too: 90 wins in 1997, 91 in 2000, 116 in 2001 and 93 in 2002.

When the Jays opened the 1993 season at the Kingdome, Piniella was introduced before the game.

We've never heard a longer, noisier ovation for a manager and that includes Joe Torre at Yankee Stadium in the post-season.

And the 56,120 fans were almost as noisy when Ken Griffey took a Jack Morris pitch into the upper deck in the bottom of the first for a three-run homer.

Piniella could still run for mayor and win in Seattle.

In the city of broad shoulders he'll have to win.

We have no doubt he will.


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