DETROIT - After every baseball season there emerges a managerial candidate who is the pick of the litter of would-be replacements.
Lou Piniella is that man of the moment, with his name surfacing early and often as the favorite to replace the fired Felipe Alou in San Francisco, Frank Robinson in Washington and Dusty Baker with the Chicago Cubs.
Heck, for the early part of this week, it was said the onetime Yankees manager was again being measured for the pinstripes - even though Joe Torre still occupied the manager's office at Yankee Stadium.
One job Piniella was not being linked to was skipper of the Philadelphia Phillies. Not a word. Not a whisper. And that, Piniella said Wednesday, was a testament to his friend Charlie Manuel and the job he did in the second half of the season for the once-embattled Phillies manager.
"I know Charlie well; I saw him a few times during the course of the summer, once in Houston and once in San Francisco, and we had nice talks," Piniella, an analyst with Fox Sports, said Wednesday. "And I told him, 'Hey, keep your chin up. You guys will get it going.' And they did."
Piniella, of course, was referring to how the Phillies, and Manuel, charged back from the brink with a 45-30 second half - the best in baseball.
That turnaround - and a serious flirtation with the wild-card playoff berth before losing out to Los Angeles by three games- saved Manuel. Within days after the end of the Phillies' 85-77 season, general manager Pat Gillick informed the 62-year-old Manuel that the team would honor the final year of his contract.
That Manuel got the new lease on life from Gillick is key to the Piniella story. For Gillick and Piniella are close, - have been ever since they were GM and manager, respectively, while with the Seattle Mariners. "Pat is a very, very good friend," said the 63-year-old Piniella. during an interview in Oakland before Game 2 of the American League Championship Series between the Detroit Tigers and A's.
For that reason, Piniella will always be associated with Gillick, especially when the GM 's name will always link up quickly with Gillick's. If Piniella is between managerial jobs. If Gillick has an open position, or merely a manager perceived to be in trouble.
Manuel seemed perilously close to being in trouble the latter positionaround the all-star break. And a close associate of Piniella's, who requested anonymity, recalls that Piniella's curiosity about the Phillies appeared to peak about that time.
The associate picked up on that over dinner with Piniella during the all-star break.
"We talked a lot of baseball all night, and 90 percent of the conversation was about the Phillies," the person said. "He clearly liked that team a lot."
"That's true," Piniella said Wednesday. "I was very impressed with that team. I thought that sooner or later they would get it going because they had some darned good talent. And they did once they got their pitching a little healthy.
"And they did. They got themselves in position for post-season, but they just fell a little short. But they're a talented bunch of kids over there."
The kind of kids he'd like to manage?
Piniella smiled, knowing the very mention of his name had already caused his good friend, Torre, to squirm in the Bronx. This week, he is a somewhathounded interview target in the Bay Area because of the Giants' opening. It has turned Piniella cautious.
So he wanted to make something very clear Wednesday.: "I was happy for Charlie, happy to see it turn around for him," he insisted. "Because he is a good man, he really is. Now he's got next year to look forward to."
So instead of replacing Manuel, might he eventually have to match managerial wits with him?
Piniella laughed. "Could be," he said the man who once managed the Yankees, Reds, M's and Devil Rays and has a 1,519-1,420 record, said, before declining to reveal where he would favor resuming his managerial career.
All Piniella would confirm is that he does have more than one option and
a decisioncould come soon, perhaps as early as next week.