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How the Seattle Pilots Saved Lou Piniella’s Baseball Career

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At the end of 1968 Lou Piniella was ready to quit baseball. In 1969, he won Rookie of the Year. A brief layover with the Pilots changed the course of his career.

Lou Piniella

“Piniella is a case. He hits the hell out of the ball. He hit a three-run homer today and he’s got a .400 average, but they’re easing him out. He complains a lot about the coaches and ignores them when he feels like it, and to top it off he’s sensitive as hell to things like Joe Schultz not saying good morning to him. None of this is supposed to count when you judge a ballplayer’s talents. But it does.”

- Jim Bouton on Lou’s spring with the Pilots in Ball Four

At the end of the 1968 baseball season Lou Piniella was 25 years old and had been in professional baseball for seven years. He had played for three different organizations: Cleveland, Washington, and Baltimore. He had appeared in a whole ten games, seen seven plate appearances, and earned zero hits in the major leagues. He lamented that during those seven years his wife, Anita, made more money teaching school that he did playing professional baseball.

Expansion loomed for major league baseball in 1969. Four new teams were joining: the Kansas City Royals, the Montreal Expos, the San Diego Padres, and the Seattle Pilots. Piniella saw expansion as his chance to finally break through. He believed that his last shot at a baseball career hung on his being chosen by the Royals or the Pilots (expansion teams only chose players from their league). He decided that if he wasn’t chosen he would retire and go about the rest of his life. As you may know, Lou Piniella would go on to win the Rookie of the Year award in 1969 as a member of the new Kansas City Royals. But the Royals didn’t pick him.

Piniella was plucked from Cleveland (a team that had nearly relocated to Seattle in 1965) in the middle of the draft by the nascent Seattle Pilots. Piniella was anxious to know if he would be taken by one of the expansions teams, and relates in his book Lou: 50 Years of Kicking Dirt, Playing Hard, and Winning Big in the Sweet Spot of Baseball that he spent draft day calling the Tampa Tribune to find out if he had been drafted. Having spent time playing against Seattle while he was in the Pacific Coast League, Piniella was happy to be picked to play there. He believed the Pilots would invest in him and give him a real shot during spring training.

Major league baseball was rife with changes as 1969 dawned. In addition to the four new expansion teams, baseball took steps to increase offense and try to temper the dominance of pitchers. The mound was lowered by five inches and the strike zone was shrunk. The save was introduced as an official statistic. The MLB logo that is still in use was unveiled. The League Championship Series was introduced after the teams were realigned into two division in each league, bringing World Series playoffs into baseball for the first time.

Although it was still about a year until Curt Flood would start the process of ending the reserve clause in baseball, in the winter of 1968 the players negotiated their first collective bargaining agreement with the owners. The players were still demanding more money being put into their pension plan from television revenues. The players union asked players not to sign contracts until the issue was resolved. A boycott was organized for spring training. Commissioner Bowie Kuhn pushed both sides to reach an agreement, and by the end of February spring training was finally underway.

Also in 1969, Jim Bouton was beginning work on his book, the classic Ball Four. It would end up as an invaluable history of the Seattle Pilots. Bouton seemed to take a liking to Piniella and wrote quite bit about Lou’s spring with the team.

So, here we are at the beginning of spring training. A plethora of changes are being implemented in baseball and Lou Piniella arrives at the Pilot’s camp in Tempe, ready to make an opening day roster and finally get his shot in the major leagues. However, Piniella noticed right away that most of the batters the Pilots had selected in the draft were right-handed. He notes that he “wondered privately how this was going to work out.” At a time when the average major league salary was under $20,000 a year, the Pilots had paid a $175,000 fee for each player taken in the draft. It’s possible (and considering the ultimate fate of the team, likely) the Pilots organization hadn’t thoroughly thought this through.

At the helm of the Pilots was Joe Schultz, a guy who had been around baseball for a long time. Piniella says in his book that he liked Schultz and got along with him just fine, but he quickly ran into trouble with the manager. Piniella had problems with his arm during 1968, and according to Bouton in Ball Four, he wanted to nurse it along during spring. Some of the players had overheard Schultz telling a reporter that Piniella wouldn’t make the team throwing the way he was. Piniella, as is his nature, confronted Schultz over this in a heated discussion. Bouton sympathizes with him writing, “I can understand why was upset. He’s only been here two weeks and that’s not enough time to get your arm ready or for them to decide that someone could make the club or not make it.” He adds, “Sounds like somebody up there wants to unload Lou Piniella.”

The tension between manager and player continued to grow. Piniella relates in his book that he wasn’t getting much playing time, which made him worry he wasn’t in the running to make the team. Once Schultz asked him which team the Pilots were facing tomorrow. Lou replied, smartly, “It’s not where you’re playing, it’s how you’re playing.” Schultz believed if you didn’t know your opponent, your head wasn’t in the game. Piniella admits he should have kept his mouth shut in that situation. In the back of his head, Piniella was just waiting for the visit to the manager’s office he had had so many times before, the visit that would send him back to AAA.

One day, late in March, a group of players were requested to Schultz’s office. As recounted in Ball Four, Piniella didn’t want to go into Schultz’s office and pouted outside. The group of players was told that due to space constraints, they would be working out with AAA Vancouver on another field. They weren’t cut, just being relocated for workouts. It was an effective demotion, however.

Lou had some strikes against him, but we know Lou and we know he doesn’t disappear without a fight. Jim Bouton sums him up:

“Lou Piniella has the red ass. He doesn’t think he’s been playing enough. He’s a good-looking ballplayer, 6-2, handsome, speaks fluent Spanish and unaccented English. He’s from Tampa. He says he knows they don’t want him and that he’s going to quit baseball rather than go back to Triple-A. He says that once you get labeled Triple-A, that’s it. I suggested to him that this wasn’t the year to quit because the Seattle people were bound to make mistakes in their early decisions and I thought there would be a shuttle system between Vancouver and Seattle and that guys who didn’t stay with the club the first month might be called up real quick. But he said he was going to quit anyway and force them to do something. And since he cost $175,000 in the expansion draft he figures they’d rather make a deal for him than lose him altogether. He’s probably right. A lot of decisions in baseball are based upon cost rather than ability. Cost is easier to judge.”

Turns out the Seattle people did make mistakes in their early decisions, but as far as Piniella is concerned, they did one thing right. Rather than stash him down in AAA with the hopes of recouping their investment, they traded him. On April 1st, Piniella was sent to Kansas City, the other American League expansion team. In exchange the Pilots received outfielder Steve Whitaker and pitcher John Gelnar. Kansas City liked what they saw in Piniella: a firey player who was determined to get a shot. A player who needed to work on his defense a bit, but a player who could hit.

You probably know the rest of the story. Lou Piniella won the American League Rookie of the Year award in 1969, proving Kansas City right. He would play 15 more seasons in the major leagues, then go on to a successful managerial career. He won the World Series as the manager of the Cincinnati Reds in 1990, and won 116 games managing the Mariners in 2001. The red ass player with a temper who wasn’t tolerated by Schultz became Seattle’s Sweet Lou.

And if it wasn’t for the Pilots picking him in the expansion draft, he could have retired a journeyman minor leaguer at the end of 1968 and none of it would have happened.