Thursday, October 12, 2006

Piniella: Sweet on Job Done By Manuel

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.

Motown? Try Snow Town

DETROIT - No, it was not quite this bad. But baseball is coming to Detroit and it better be ready for a cold dose of reality.

Through chattering teeth, let's just say that just because you're heading to the Fall Classic doesn't mean your town will be ready to provide classic fall weather.

The Detroit Tigers learned that today when they returned home to weather that had even Motowners scratching their heads. Because all the gods did to ready Detroit for its first possible World Series since 1984 was hit this area with sleet, hail, rain, snow flurries, more sleet, more flurries and then sunshine. And, oh, did I mention the 50 Mph winds?

The passengers on the flight I took from Oakland (via Phoenix) to Detroit cheered the pilots, because after much wrestling, they were able to put that bucking bronco of ajam-packed jet liner down on the ground safely.

While airborne, the winds above the Windy-City-for-a-Day tossed the plane around like a kite. Then the gusts threw the plane towards the runway like a 500-ton knuckleball.

It was scary, especially given the rough ride came on the heels of Yankees pitcher Cory Lidle's fatal plane crash Wednesday.

Friday night, the temperature is expected to be 57 degrees when the A's and Tigers take the field for Game 3.

Lidle Death Stirs Memories of Munson

OAKLAND, Calif. - Lou Piniella remembers the body blow as if it hit him yesterday.

It was Aug. 2, 1979. Piniella, then a leftfielder with the New York Yankees, was enjoying a day off at his home in North Jersey, helping his wife, Anita, celebrate her birthday.

"I was in the swimming pool and got a call," Piniella said.

It was George Steinbrenner, owner of the team.

"Mr. Steinbrenner said, 'Thurman passed away,' " Piniella recalled. "I couldn't believe it."

Thurman Munson, the grizzled Yankees catcher and team captain, had used his off day to fly home to Ohio. Piloting his private jet, Munson died when he crashed short of a runway at Akron-Canton Regional Airport while practicing touch-and-go landings.

"You play sports, and sometimes you feel infallible because you take care of yourself so well," Piniella said quietly. "It's obviously a dangerous passion that can have bad endings."

Never was that more true than yesterday. The shock and sadness in Piniella's voice illustrated his point as the analyst with Fox Sports addressed the latest air-related tragedy to touch baseball.

Earlier in the afternoon, Cory Lidle, a much-traveled pitcher who split time between the Phillies and Yankees this season, perished when the plane he was in crashed into a high-rise in Manhattan.

"It's eerie . . . tragic," said Piniella, who was in Oakland to cover Game 2 of the American League Championship Series between the Detroit Tigers and the A's.
And, for Piniella, it was déjà vu. "We lived it firsthand, in New York . . . 1979 . . . Aug. 2. It was so difficult, but this thing here, oooh," he said, moaning.

Just feet away in the press box of McAfee Coliseum, television screens showed a live feed of the news coverage from New York. Overhead, the voice of Tigers manager Jim Leyland was being piped in from a news conference. Leyland was extending condolences. "It gives you a little bit of a flashback," Piniella said. "Different circumstances but the same sad ending."

The death of the pitcher, who also played for the A's, cast a pall here. Piniella was certain that would hold true throughout what he termed the greater baseball family.

"He had a lot of teammates in a lot of places, both in the American and National Leagues," said Piniella. "And I am sure that everybody is in mourning."

No one likes to be taken back to one of the worst days of his or her life. Piniella was, and all he could think of was Munson, "a really, really good friend."
He was a friend, who, like Lidle, had a passion for flying, which he proudly shared with teammates.

"I flew with Thurman a lot," he said, quietly. "Never in the jet, but in his King Air."

The 1979 Yankees, unlike the now-idle 2006 team, had to mourn their teammate, then play.

Also, many members of the '79 squad had come of age with Munson and had long teamed with the larger-than-life heart of the team.

It is often said that the '79 Yankees, trying to repeat World Series titles won by the organization in '77 and '78, never recovered from the Munson tragedy.

Already numbed by the death, the team was forced on its own harrowing journey on Aug. 6, to Canton for the Munson funeral, then back to the Bronx for a game that night against the Baltimore Orioles.

Piniella, along with Munson's best friend, Bobby Murcer, had delivered a eulogy.

Many a Yankee, including Munson foil Reggie Jackson, wept during the somber pregame salutes.

Then the game was played in a Yankee Stadium rife with emotion.

The Yankees won, 5-4, that night. A distraught Piniella did not play, but Murcer did, driving in five runs and ending the draining night with a game-winning two-run single in the ninth inning.

That Aug. 6 night had inspired many. But the shock that set in four days before never did go away.

"It lasted the rest of the summer," Piniella said,

Now the player-and-manager-turned-commentator imagines that those feelings will course through the playoff games on both coasts this week because of Lidle, even for those players and uniformed personnel who did not know the 34-year-old pitcher.

"It's going to take a lot of luster off these games," he said.

As for Lidle's friends, the level of grief is guaranteed to reach a whole different level - just as it did 27 years ago for the Yankees.

Lidle's Death Hits A's Hard

OAKLAND, Calif. - Cory Lidle was remembered as a man who pursued his love of games, hobbies and competition with all his might during his brief stay with the Oakland Athletics.

Yesterday, the A's, who shared a locker room with the pitcher in 2001 and 2002, mourned him after learning of Lidle's death after a plane he piloted was aboard crashed into a Manhattan high-rise yesterday afternoon.

But perhaps no one put the 34-year-old Lidle in better perspective than Ron Washington, the A's veteran third-base coach.

"He was a gambler, a big competitor who loved playing games, whether it was playing golf, playing cards, whether it was on the baseball field," a shaken Washington said while sitting at the end of a bench filled with somber A's coaches and players.

Like the rest of the Oakland team, Washington was preparing for the second game of the American League Championship Series against the Detroit Tigers. But his heart and mind were elsewhere - to be precise, 3,000 miles to the east, where Lidle died.

"When Cory put his mind to doing something, there was nobody who could convince him to do otherwise," said Washington, dealing with yet another tragedy after the March death of his best friend and former teammate, Kirby Puckett.

"He was definitely headstrong," Washington said of Lidle. "And I guess he was still competing up there, with the air. Sadly, the airplane won."

Ken Macha, the A's manager, could not recall whether Lidle's passion for flying began in Oakland. What he did remember was that the pitcher enjoyed some of his finer moments in Oakland.

"I remember the August he had for us: His ERA was like 0.05," said Macha, referring to an August 2002 run in which Lidle threw 32 consecutive scoreless innings.

"He pitched a one-hitter against the Rangers when they had a very potent lineup."

Both Macha and Washington addressed how Lidle's death would affect the A's who played with him.

"I don't think it's going to affect us when it comes time to go out and compete and play baseball," Washington said. "But I think right now, we definitely have some sympathy for his family.

"He had a kid and a wife he left behind. They will be taken care of, but they will be alone, too. And I don't think they envisioned having to be without their dad, their husband. That's a hard pill to swallow."

"I imagine our chapel guy will be around," Macha said. "I'm sure people are going to have their feelings about it, just maybe put the game in perspective. I know myself, personally, this thing could end at any second, and sometimes that is the way life does end."

Every Tiger Bearing Fangs

OAKLAND, Calif. - When Placido Polanco, the former Phillie-turned-invaluable table-setter for the Detroit Tigers, singled to start the fourth inning, he was on his way to a 3-for-4 effort tonight.

Detroit, happy to draft along behind yet another unsung player-turned-October hero, was on its way to a 8-5 victory over the Oakland Athletics.

Polanco & Co. had provided enough offense to overcome the A's vaunted pitching. They had overcome Milton Bradley's two-homer explosion. And because they did, they came away with an edge of two games to none in the American League Championship Series.

The ravenous Tigers had devoured what had been Oakland's home-field advantage. Now the best-of-seven series now moves to Detroit, where the next three games are scheduled this weekend.

The Tigers' ace, Kenny Rogers (1-0, 0.00 ERA in the playoffs) will take the mound Friday to try to pull Detroit to within one victory of its first World Series since 1984. He will be opposed by A's righthander Rich Harden, who has yet to pitch in the playoffs.

Polanco, now 11 for 25 in six playoff games thus far, is one of only seven Tigers who had experienced the postseason before this October.

After tonight, no one will dare call any of the Tigers novices.

That is how well-rounded Detroit's attack continued to look against A's pitching.

Leftfielder Craig Monroe, designated hitter Alexis Gomez and third baseman Brandon Inge - the seventh, eighth and ninth batters in Jim Leyland's lineup - drove in seven runs themselves in the first six innings.

"When you start to get down to the bottom, you think you can kind of mess around with these guys," said Monroe. "well, it doesn't matter. The guys definitely believe., and we like being down there. There's no break in our lineup, top to bottom."

Gomez, a player'd been designated for assignment twice, made the first postseason appearance of his career, memorable, accounting for four of those runs, thanks in part to a two-run home run in the sixth.

"today they give me the biggest chance I had in my life, in my career," Gomez said. "I've been in situations that I go down, go up [from the minors], but I never put my head down.

"In all the time that I got sitting down, I said I've got to be ready for when you need me."

He was. And that was not quite the result sought by the A's, a team that desperately needed some of the young Tigers to start acting their age. If not, Oakland knew, the consequences could be immense in a series in which Detroit had already filleted the A's ace, Barry Zito.

Justin Verlander, Detroit's 23-year-old rookie-of-the-year candidate, initially seemed to be Oakland's man.

The righthander, making his second start of the postseason, did so in poor fashion. The A's had a run in before he had secured two outs in the first inning, thanks to a Mark Kotsay double, a wild pitch and a Bradley single.

But in keeping with Detroit's now-familiar recurring theme of October, the run proved to be no problem. The Tigers erased it by the second inning on a Carlos Guillen double and a Monroe sacrifice fly.

Things would worsen for Esteban Loaiza two innings later, and not just because the Tigers kept coming at him with the tenacity that belied postseason rookie jitters.

The third inning was bad for the A's starter because he once again could not thrive after being given yet another lead, 3-1, on a double by Kotsay and a two-run homer by Bradley (a prelude to his seventh-inning solo).

Polanco led off the fourth with a single and the merry-go-round was set in motion. Before Loaiza could halt the Tigers' dizzying rotation around the basepaths, four runs scored.

The rally involved the usual suspects responsible for making Detroit arguably the most balanced attack in the postseason. That much was evidenced by what followed Polanco's hit.

Magglio Ordoñez, single.

Ivan Rodriguez, one-out walk.

Monroe, RBI single.

Gomez, two-run single.

Inge, the Game 1 hero who had homered and driven in two runs off Zito?

Sacrifice fly.

Because they could strike that quickly and, unlike Oakland, make the lead hold, the Tigers have two wins in the books.

All they need are two more in the five games left in the series to secure a World Series berth.

The Tigers couldn't have returned home in better shape. And the A's couldn't have hit the road in a bigger state of shock.