Lou Piniella is home.
Sweet Lou, the manager of the Chicago Cubs and four other teams since 1986, has called it a career. And what a career it has been.
Piniella ranks 14th on the all-time wins list for managers: he’s been a three-time manager of the year, and he won the World Series as manager of the Cincinnati Reds in 1990.
As a player, he was the American League Rookie of the Year in 1969 and an All-Star in 1972 with the Kansas City Royals. He ended his playing career with the New York Yankees in 1984, but not before winning two World Series championships with the Bronx Bombers in 1977 and 1978.
Piniella has lived in the public’s light for over 40 years. During that time he’s been a winner and an enigmatic personality. He will be remembered for his famous tirades on the field as much as anything else; he’s been known to rip first base right out of the ground and toss it across the field. Not to mention, his post-game press conferences are the stuff of legend.
Yes, Lou Piniella wore his heart on his sleeve, and there was never a moment he couldn’t be called genuine. He loved the game of baseball, and I’m sure, still loves it; but he has to walk away.
In a profession where he only needs to desire a job and it is his, no matter the salary, he left for something more important. Sweet Lou has come home to take care of his mother.
Throughout the history of sport, instances of sickness and death in a family have crippled even the greatest atheltes. Others, like Lou Piniella and his mother, drew fanfare, praise, and predictably, a few tears.
There was Olympic speed skater Dan Jansen, who fell twice in the 1988 Olympics after learning of his sister Jane’s death to leukemia. Jansen ended up winning a gold medal in the 1994 Olympics in a world record-setting time. He dedicated the skate to his departed sister and took a victory lap with his one-year-old daughter, Jane.
For me, the biggest example was Brett Favre’s performance in a Monday Night Football game in December of 2003. The Green Bay Packers were facing the Oakland Raiders. The day before, Favre’s father was taken by a stroke, but taking what he knew of his father, Favre played in that game, knowing his father would have wanted it that way.
From the start of the game, you could feel something special was happening. Favre was crisp and focused, and even on the plays when he wasn’t, his players seemed to make unbelievable plays for their mourning leader. Packer receivers caught touchdown passes that seemed impossible to grab in what could only be described as divine intervention.
Favre threw four touchdowns in the first half alone in the 41-7 Green Bay victory. Even Raider fans, known for their brashness and hatred of all things not wearing the Raiders' silver and black, were compelled to cheer for Favre. I would dare say that anyone who witnessed that final tribute from son to father and didn’t get choked up must have an empty space where their heart should be.
It’s been a strange marriage between grief and sports. We see athletes as icons: sometimes infallible models of what can be achieved when a person is truly dedicated. We cheer with them when they succeed, and we weep when they fail.
Sometimes, more often than we would care to admit, tragedy strikes, and we see our heroes as one of us. We feel their pain and in our own way try to lift them up as if they were our own family, because in a way, they are.
67-year-old Lou Piniella has come home to take care of his ailing 90-year-old mother. He did it without fanfare, just a quick press conference to let people know that Sunday, August 22, would be his last game as manager.
A somber Piniella made his announcement, and while he wept at the thought of leaving the game he’s loved for all these years, we wept with him. Not for leaving the game, but for the realization of some facts we all know to be true...we are all mortal, and we will all suffer sad times.
Above fame and accolades and money comes family. Many of us have already felt what Piniella is going through, and the rest of us know one day the pain will be ours. We wish him a peaceful and loving resolve to this transitional time in his life.
Sweet Lou is no longer a player in the majors, nor is he a manager in the majors. He’s once again become one of us, a boy from West Tampa who loves his mother.