Lou PiniellaMarch 7, 2011
According to the Gods: a 2011 Team-By-Team Preview
New York Yankees
There may have been a brief time when this card did not repulse me, depending on whether I came into possession of it before the 1976 brawl between the Red Sox and Yankees that began when Piniella plowed into Carlton Fisk at home plate. I started hating Lou Piniella as soon as I became aware of that brawl (via a Sports Illustrated article), and from that point whenever I had the misfortune of catching a glimpse of this card barely able to contain Lou Piniella’s big fat face, it wrenched my stomach into knots. Things only got worse, Piniella hitting a career high .330 in 1977 to help the Yankees to a narrow division win over the Red Sox (and a second pennant in a row, and a World Series title), then in 1978 topping the .300 mark again and performing heroics (more on this later) in the Yankees’ season-ending one-game playoff win over the Red Sox, which catapulted the Yankees to their third pennant and second World Series title in a row. The following year, the Yankees didn’t win, for the first time in what seemed like an eternity (years being much longer, clearer units of time in my childhood than the quick muffled arrhythmia produced by the passing years now), but the tendency of Lou Piniella to jam his big fat face into my life continued by way of Sparky Lyle’s description in the 1979 book The Bronx Zoo of Piniella’s nervous, constant habit of twirling a finger in his hair and then smelling his finger. I found the detail vaguely, intimately disturbing. It was more than I wanted to know. In fact, I would have been fine if my knowledge of Lou Piniella had stopped with what was available on this 1976 card, specifically the back of the card, which features a portrait in numbers of a pretty good hitter who had played for several second-division teams, including his current team, the Yankees, who hadn’t amounted to anything since long before I was born (so it seemed to me then). Piniella had hit just .196 with 0 home runs in his most recent year, and at age 31 entering the 1976 season these meager stats would seem to imply that Piniella would soon go away altogether and the Yankees would continue on indefinitely as also-rans.
Instead, of course, the opposite occurred. In the Yankees’ 1970s dynasty, the most visible figure and self-appointed leader was Reggie Jackson, and the actual team leader was Thurman Munson, but Lou Piniella was, at least to me, the definitive Yankee. Consider his game-saving play in the bottom of the ninth of the one-game playoff in 1978. After a one-out single by Rick Burleson, Jerry Remy hit a fly to right that Piniella lost in the sun. Instead of panicking, he pretended that he was preparing to make a routine, nonchalant catch, then when the ball came down in front of him, he happened to be close enough to it to stick out his glove and snare it on one bounce. Burleson, fooled along with everyone into thinking that Piniella would make easy work of Remy’s fly ball, had stayed close to first and was only able to make it to second base, unable to score on the long fly out produced by the following batter, Jim Rice. The Bucky Dent home run from earlier in the game has always gotten far more attention as the pivotal moment in the game, but Piniella’s play was vital, too, and was more representative of the Yankees for its infuriating combination of smarts, skill, guts, and good luck (Dent’s improbable gust-lifted pop-up leaning much more heavily on the last of those elements).
It’s always a good sign to Yankee haters when the Yankees as an organization seem to be straying from the dynastic blueprint of augmenting their high-priced superstar players not with other high-priced superstars but with legions of Lou Piniella types. Of course, the superstar-choked Yankees won the World Series just a couple years ago after shoveling the biggest free agents on the market onto their already loaded roster, so who knows if the presence or lack thereof of “gritty” Scott Brosius types actually amounts to anything. I do know that it’s a bad sign in the context of using old baseball cards to predict the 2011 season that I randomly pulled from my shoebox the Lou Piniella card that always made me cringe, shudder, and then want to go punch something. You can sit around hoping that this won’t be true, but let’s face it: in 2011 the big fat face of the Yankees will be all up in your grill.
How to enjoy the 2011 baseball season, part 8 of 30: read Bronx Banter, where you can get thoughtful takes on what the Yankees are up to and also read about art, music, food, Doris from Rego Park, and whatever else piques the curiosity of Alex Belth and his fellow contributors