Lou Piniella, the Yankees' hardy perennial of a hitter, is constantly perfecting his craft, even when he's not in the batting cage. He can scarcely walk past a mirror without assuming his stance and surveying his reflection with a critical eye—and a little admiration.
When the Yankees need a man to beat a lefthanded pitcher, they call on Piniella. He's like a character actor: a handsome, dark-eyed equivalent to Peter Lorre or Sydney Greenstreet, who swings from the right side. Nobody does his shtick better, but Sweet Lou will never be the straw that stirs the drink.
Piniella is an extremely cordial and unaffected guy who wears his 39 years easily. That he has survived nine years with the Yankees should qualify him for a gold watch. Not only has he been able to ride out the team's frequent clubhouse storms, but as a hitter he's also smart and skillful enough to have discovered that a righthanded "place" hitter can flourish in cavernous Yankee Stadium. In fact, Piniella adapted his style to the ball park.
Since his arrival from Kansas City in 1974, Piniella has batted .296 with the Yankees, and except for the 1975 season, when an inner-ear infection nearly ended his career, he has never hit less than .277 with New York. Through last week he was batting .318 this season as a righty DH and occasional rightfielder and .381 with runners in scoring position.
Piniella plays with an intense drive, all the while wearing the slightly deceptive smile of a three-card monte player on 42nd Street. He's a longtime favorite of Yankee fans, whose chants of "Looouuu, Looouuu" when Piniella comes to the plate make Yankee Stadium sound like milking time at a dairy.
Before taking his swings, Piniella pulls on his shirt sleeves, rocks back and forth and, at the last moment, pounds his helmet with the heel of his hand as if to give himself balance. He has a slightly closed stance, with his butt sticking out and left elbow aimed at the pitcher. The stance bears the imprimatur of no less an authority than Charley Lau, the patron saint of the lateral weight shift.
Piniella has been spreading some hitting gospel of his own lately. On Aug. 24, owner George Steinbrenner moved Joe Pepitone, who had become the Yankee batting coach only 11 weeks before, to the front office and named Piniella the unofficial hitting instructor.
As a youth in Tampa, Piniella, whose father was born in Spain, sharpened his eye by hitting bottle caps with a broomstick. Perhaps he should've used a bat and ball, because early in his professional career Piniella was an outfielder of modest credentials. He played seven years in the minors with six different major league organizations. He was bought, sold, optioned and traded more times than a tanker full of spot-market oil.
He got his first major league at bat, with the Orioles, late in the 1964 season. He pinch-hit for Robin Roberts and grounded out. "Hell, kid," Roberts said, "even I could've done better than that." Four years later he made his second big league plate appearance, as a pinch hitter for Cleveland, but made another out. He was still officially a rookie in 1969 when he had a .282 average in a full season with the expansion Royals and was named Rookie of the Year.
Piniella's success is the result of hard work: His baseball career is practically a hymn to the work ethic. He once had a reputation for being a mediocre fielder, but he's pretty good now, having worked almost as long and hard at that aspect of the game as he has at his beloved hitting. On the bases the only thing he lacks is speed, but he makes up for that with baseball smarts.
Another thing that Piniella has improved is his disposition. He spent his early days smashing water coolers. The cooler from the home-team dugout of old Municipal Stadium in Kansas City is enshrined in the garage of his Tampa home. "I paid for it," he says, "so I might as well keep it." In disgust, he once kicked a minor league outfield fence so hard that it fell on him. "I'm more controlled now," he says. "More mature. Maybe I'm a little more confident in myself."
Which isn't to say the Piniella of old doesn't surface now and then. Two seasons ago in a game against Oakland, Piniella hit what he thought was a double. The official scorer ruled it an error. Piniella ranted right through the end of the inning. He remains, in fact, one of the most animated arguers in the game, though it takes more to set him off.
Piniella's more placid alter ego among the Yankees is 36-year-old Bobby Murcer. They go to the track together, pinch-hit for each other and check out each other's batting form. "If Lou was 30 for 30," says Murcer, "he'd still ask me, 'What about my swing? Tell me what I'm doing wrong.' "
When Piniella the coach evaluates Piniella the DH he says, "There's not much you can teach an old guy like me, except to try to be more patient and a little more selective. I try not to get into a pull syndrome and use more of the field. I'm a line-drive hitter, so I don't want to overstep my boundaries." Piniella's prize pupil so far has been Shortstop Roy Smalley. At his urging, Smalley is depending less on his arms and upper body and more on his legs and lower body.
"On the days that I play," Piniella says, "I don't like to stand on my 39-year-old legs all afternoon watching somebody else hit, because it tires me out. And to me, legs are of paramount importance in hitting a baseball."
Piniella and Steinbrenner share a hometown, Tampa, and a predictable unpredictability. When Piniella became eligible for free agency last winter, Steinbrenner offered him a one-year contract. Piniella demanded two years. Steinbrenner countered with three. Why? "Don't ask me," Piniella says. "I told my agent, 'Just type it up and I'll sign it!' "
Steinbrenner's admiration for Piniella's durability and aggressiveness has led to speculation that Piniella may someday—maybe even soon—be asked to manage the Yankees. Though the job offers little security—New York has had three skippers this year, as well as five pitching coaches—Piniella says, "If I ever got the opportunity, I think it would be a challenge I wouldn't mind tackling." Meanwhile, Piniella is looking forward to what he calls the "real world."
He says, "I feel like I'm capable of going out into the business world and producing using the same principles that I've used in baseball—hard work, determination, proper preparation."
Preparation for Piniella includes business interests in a corrugated-container company and in thoroughbred racing—he and Steinbrenner own a 2-year-old filly, Proudly Dancing, who, like the fourth-place Yankees, has waltzed with her head down this year. But what Piniella really wants to do now is tackle Wall Street. That's one of two sites—Woodbridge, N.J. is the other—where he and a partner will open restaurants this winter. They already have two successful restaurants, steak-and-ale joints named the Long Branch Saloon, in the Kansas City area.
But when February arrives again Piniella will concentrate on baseball, and concentration, he believes, is what separates the good hitters from the bad. "There's a time and a place to have fun in baseball, but it's not when I'm at the plate," he says.
Several years ago, just before the opening game in Milwaukee, Piniella remained at home plate, fine-tuning his stance while the ground crew dismantled the batting cage and began to lime the batter's box. Piniella just stood there, cocking and recocking his bat, completely self-absorbed. The groundskeepers formed a sort of semicircle around him and waited, and waited, and waited.