Lou Piniella – Sweet Swinging in the Sunshine State

Apparently, when most people think of Lou Piniella, they think of him getting into an argument and kicking his cap around.  Lou even alluded to this during our conversation about his youth career when he described himself as “a little more reckless and little wilder, probably a little more temperamental,” all the while laughing at the story he was telling. My memory of Lou from when I was a kid was those early 1970s Topps baseball cards when Lou was with the Kansas City Royals. Those cards showed Lou for what he was, A HITTER of the baseball. Take a look at this 1973 card; he’s practically smacking you up-side the head with his bat, letting you know, I’m the hitter here!

Well, let me cut right to the chase, Lou is great! A funny storyteller who was extremely accommodating to me … Me, the guy that wanted to talk with him about his youth baseball career for some alleged book this guy was putting together! Below is the story of how I arranged our interview, and the one regret I have that still haunts me.

Lou was my 11th interview, and I was already three years into this project; I don’t have to tell you, progress was moving like molasses. As I tried to figure out a new path to contact players, the idea hit me; maybe I should work through player agents. As I turned my cataract corrected eye (if you don’t get the reference, then you need to go back and read my Phil Roof post) to the search of player agents, I came across Lou’s representative, found a contact number and made the call. My call went to voice mail, and I left my “elevator pitch” message, not expecting but hoping to get a return phone call. Soon afterward, I got my return phone call, explained my project, and just like with Jim Hickman, waited for the “green light” that Lou would meet with me.

Lou agreed to meet with me. Through just a few text messages, I was able to schedule a sit-down with Lou at his home golf course. With this positive mojo going for me, I scheduled interviews with two former Negro League players that I will review later. I will say this; I almost fell out of my seat when one of the players casually dropped the name Paducah, Kentucky.

I arrive at Lou’s golf course and meet him in the clubhouse restaurant. The restaurant is empty other than the two of us, and as we begin our conversation, Lou asked me if I wanted to eat lunch and honestly, that’s the only, out-of-the-ordinary event that occurred. The interview was perfect and Lou was telling me thoughtful and funny stories from his childhood, and from my perspective, seemed to be enjoying reliving these stories. At least I hope he was enjoying himself.

Generally, when I meet with someone for work, I review and prepare for the meeting, so I have a plan and a certain amount of understanding of the company. For my player interviews, I didn’t want to dig too deep to prevent me from leading the conversation, I’ve found I allow the conversation to flow and my questions are freed up to follow whatever path the player wants to travel down. Because of this, I learned a few things about Lou. First thing is that Lou and Tony La Russa were youth baseball teammates. Two of the winningest managers in baseball history, playing on the same PONY League team, WOW!

As a player, Lou was dominating, but one thing he couldn’t dominate was a mountain; obviously, the confidence of a kid that grew up in the flatlands of Florida couldn’t overcome the power of Mount Baldy, although Lou fought back best he could. Lou teaches us how to size baseball cleats, the “pitching pennies” way of trading baseball cards, and the pick-up games he played with his friends.

As we finished up the interview and lunch (key point here), Lou began listing the many former players that lived nearby and played at his home course, players that would almost complete this project in one-fell-swoop, when he said the one sentence that made my brain go blank … “I’d be happy to call them and see if they would meet with you.” I’m not entirely sure, but I think I said something like, “That would be great, I would really appreciate that.” Then I shook Lou’s hand and left, and as I drove to Jacksonville, Florida, for my evening interviews, I was thinking about how great it would be to interview some of these former pros.

Here’s the problem, somewhere around Ocala, I remembered that I had told Lou I would pay for lunch. “Oh, no!!!” I immediately called Lou, got his voice mail, and apologized for leaving without paying the bill. I made a few mistakes during this project, but, in my mind, this is the worst. Hopefully, the day will come when I can correct my “screw-up” and buy Lou a tasty lunch or dinner. He is a super addition to Just Like Me: When the Pros Played on the Sandlot and his stories really illustrate what it was like growing up in Tampa, Florida, in the 1940s and 50s.