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Original Issue

Deviled Ray

He coulda been managing a contenda. Instead Lou Piniella went home to Tampa and traded walks on the beach for winning. Now he just wants to scream

Okay, there have been worse jail sentences. But for a career baseball man accustomed to winning, this is pretty bad. Lou Piniella has already put in two years--hard time--managing his hometown club, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, who are still listed on as a major league team despite dropping three of four to the woeful Royals last weekend to fall 11 games out of first place. He has the rest of this year and all of next to go. True, he signed up voluntarily. And there's his wage, about $4 million a year, not Ken Lay money but not too shabby. Still, when he took over the Devil Rays, he was a lifetime .537 manager. By the end of his contract, the way things are going, he'll barely be at .500 for his career.

"I've got three contemporaries--Joe Torre, Bobby Cox and Tony La Russa--who are Hall of Fame managers," Piniella said recently, looking like a man whose age, 61, had finally caught up with him. "But you think any of them would have done this?"

If by "this" he means become a project manager in the late innings of a sparkly career when you could be penciling in All-Stars on your lineup card, the answer is, Not a chance. Piniella doesn't say this, but his friends do: If he knew that this deep into his contract the Devil Rays would have the lowest player payroll in baseball, $29 million--less than the Yankees' luxury tax--he never would have made the move from Seattle to play insignificant games before small groups of bored pensioners. It's painful to hear Piniella, a loyal son of old, Spanish, cigar-rolling Tampa, talk with pride about the Devil Rays' 2004 win total: a franchise-record 70.

He took the job to be near his ailing father, who died in February, to watch his granddaughter at her horse shows--and to see if he could make something out of the Devil Rays. But not something out of nothing. The Devil Rays gave up an All-Star, outfielder Randy Winn, to get Piniella from the Mariners, and haven't acquired a player of that caliber since. Based on early talks with team brass, Piniella thought the club would have a payroll around $45 million by now. "That money would get you six or seven more wins, but those wins might turn into 12 or 15, because winning is contagious, just like losing is," Piniella said. He was having dinner, manager-style: two runny roast pork sandwiches and a slice of oozing peach pie all on the same paper plate, no napkin, washed down with a Bud Light in a plastic bottle, eaten at his desk at half past 10. He doesn't want to be doing this forever.

Piniella admits to having playoff envy, and it shows. At Fenway Park in mid-April he went into a rant about, among other things, his owners' commitment to winning. "[The Red Sox] have good hitters over there," he vented after losing two games by a combined score of 16-2. "But you know why they have good hitters? Because they pay for them." And maybe it was a coincidence that a week later his club brawled with ... the World Series champions. Curt Schilling promptly went on Boston radio and said that Piniella had "forgotten how the game is played." He later apologized; still, no one would have dared suggest that when Piniella skippered the Mariners to 116 wins in '01.

"In Seattle we had smart owners, from Microsoft and Boeing, and we'd meet regularly and talk about what we needed to do to win and how our payroll should grow," Piniella said. Do the Devil Rays have confabs like that? Piniella paused, considering the question, then said, "Not much." The Rays' managing owner, Vince Naimoli, lives in the same gated community as Piniella. They see each other, but seldom talk about the club. (Naimoli ended an SI interview request with, "I have no interest, thank you." Click.)

Piniella can make his Tampa--St. Pete life sound good: walks on the beach with his wife, Anita, naps on his hammock, fishin' and golfin'. He's fooling nobody. Mostly, he sits at his desk and stares at his roster and answers questions about his club's watery payroll. "I'm running out of time, running out of time," Piniella said, wistfully. "Frank Robinson, he's what, gonna turn 70? I don't want to be managing when I'm 70. I want one more chance to manage a club that can go to the World Series. Here or elsewhere."

That was just Sweet Lou being prudent. He knows it will be elsewhere. ■

"James fired the agent who negotiated $135 million in endorsements." --FOR THE RECORD, PAGE 18