Lou Piniella has announced he will retire at the end of the 2010 season, bringing an end to a very notable managerial career. As with all great, long-time managers, the question of whether or not he should be in the Hall of Fame can now be looked at, particularly since baseball is inducting its latest manager, Whitey Herzog, this weekend at Cooperstown.
The case against Piniella mainly involves other managers, as well as Piniella's apparent struggle with building up young talent.
While Bobby Cox, who is also retiring at the end of this season, is a no-brainer for induction into the Hall, it is also a no-brainer that he would be elected before Piniella. Joe Torre and Tony LaRussa would likely get in before Piniella as well, unless they end up coaching another 15-20 years.
There are two managers that rank around where Piniella does in terms of managerial wins who are not in the Hall. The first, Gene Mauch, managed a long time, but finished his career with a sub-.500 record and no World Series appearances, let alone wins. So, it's no question that he does not belong.
The second is the now late, great, Ralph Houk, who is a much tougher person to compare and question partially due to the similarities between the two, and also because now is not the time as baseball mourns his passing. The two have similar win percentages (.514 to .519), World Series rings (two to one), and a similar number of winning seasons. Piniella had 14-of-23 seasons with a winning record, while Houk had 12-of-21.
What keeps Houk out of the Hall, it seems, is that his three pennants and two World Series rings came in his first three years, when he was basically handed the amazing Yankees teams of the early 60s; his win-loss record falls under the .500 mark if you take out those three seasons.
With the exception of those two above, every top-20 manager by wins is either in the Hall or will be. Nonetheless, Piniella seems to be a borderline case. Despite leading some very good teams ('95 Mariners, '01 Mariners, '08 Cubs), he only has one pennant to his name with the Cincinnati Reds of 1990.
Let's say Piniella is a borderline case based on his managerial skills though, and that his tenures with the Yankees, Reds, Mariners, and Cubs (there was not much he could have done with the Devil Rays) didn't amount to enough. Let's say that his winning Manager of the Year three times just is not enough.
If this is true, then his career as a player should be taken into account, which pushes him into Cooperstown.
I call this the Joe Torre rule, where if a manager is a borderline case and he had a very good playing career, then that bumps him into the hall. In other words, a near-HoF career combined with a near-HoF career makes for an HoF career.
Joe Torre had 2,300 hits and won an MVP trophy, which puts him close but not quite into Cooperstown. He did, however, stay on the ballot the full 15 years. Four World Series rings later, I don't think anyone questions that Torre belongs in Cooperstown. Piniella was a career .291 hitter with 1,705 hits, a Rookie of the Year Award, multiple All-Star bids, and some very good seasons with the Yankees.
Piniella was on the ballot for one year, and it was the right call. He was not a Hall of Famer. Yet. After 1,800 wins as a manager and being very successful with three organizations (you cannot base his Cubs tenure solely on this year), it puts him over the top and makes him a very good candidate for the Hall of Fame.
Joe Sheehan of Sports Illustrated said it best: "Since 1986, Lou Piniella has been making his teams better, and that kind of track record deserves not just our acknowledgment and our appreciation today, but the highest honor baseball can confer upon him: Hall of Famer."
He's not Bobby Cox, or Joe Torre, or Tony LaRussa. He's Lou Piniella. That does not make him any less worthy of being enshrined with the greats of baseball.