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Benchwarmer

The Devils Make Him Do It

By Gabriel Wardell | Posted 6/29/2005

Is it time to put Lou Piniella on suicide watch? Less than a week after squashing rumors that he was looking for an escape hatch from his four-year sentence as manager of the flailing Tampa Bay Devil Rays, Piniella’s team pissed away an eight-run, fifth-inning lead to the affluent New York Yankees on June 21. A game that should have been a boat race turned into a shipwreck, as the Bronx Bombers lived up to their name with a scorched-earth 13-run, 16-batter, 12-hit eighth inning, which included back-to-back-to-back dingers from Gary Sheffield, Alex Rodriguez, and Hideki Matsui. (Worse for Piniella: This was the second time this season his team spotted the Yankees 13 runs in an inning.) By the time the onslaught ended, the Yankees had scored 20 runs, to the Devil Rays’ 11. Piniella chucked his half-full water bottle at an imaginary demon in a dugout corner.

Settling into last place and looking like they have nowhere to go anytime soon, boasting the worst record in the American League with a mid-.300 winning percentage and something in the neighborhood of an 19-game deficit, the D-Rays have been a blot on baseball since they expanded their way into the league. Piniella’s primary complaint has been that Tampa Bay’s ownership will not spend to win. The incendiary quote triggering the recent rumors found Piniella eschewing responsibility for the team’s poor play: “I’m not going to take responsibility for this. If I had been given a $40- or $45-million payroll and we’re getting beat like that, I’d stand up like a man and say it’s my fault. Well, I’m not going to do it.”

To put Piniella’s concerns in perspective, consider that Yankee third baseman Alex Rodriguez ($26 million) and reliever Mike Stanton’s ($4 million) combined salary of $30 million is greater than the D-Rays’ entire team payroll of $29.7 million. Which means, all things being equal, if the D-Rays put their entire roster on the field against two lone Yankees, they’d still have about $300,000 left over to pick up a bench player.

Of course, if payroll alone insured winning, the Yankees, at $208.3 million, would be running away with the AL East instead of lingering in the middle of the pack, stalled right around .500.

Bloggers and talk radio pundits speculated that the real impetus behind Piniella’s crack at TB’s tight-fisted owners was an attempt to get fired—thereby releasing him from the terms of his contract. Why would he want out? So he would be available for hire in the increasingly likely event that George Steinbrenner, flummoxed by the Yankees’ wildly erratic play, will go Billy Martin on manager Joe Torre.

As crazy as it sounds, the notion of firing a beloved figure like the four-time World Series champion, two-time American League pennant-winning Torre would be nothing new for Steinbrenner. In the land of King George the only question that matters is “What have you done for me lately?” When the answer is: “My team lost a three-game lead in the ALCS to the Boston Red Sox and I am currently shepherding the highest payroll in sports history into third place with a 6.5-game deficit headed into the All-Star break,” don’t be surprised if Steinbrenner decides it’s time to get nasty. Unlike Piniella’s frustrated shot at the dugout demon, Steinbrenner’s eruptions are accompanied by a pink slip.

Before taking over as the Yankee skipper in 1996, Torre had accrued a losing record of 894-1,003 over the course of 15 years as a manager for three clubs. What manager wouldn’t want the luxury of an extravagant payroll like that of the Yankees? In Torre’s case, his career numbers have reached Hall of Fame levels—at the Yankees helm, he’s 887-567.

For Piniella, who has already been fired by Steinbrenner once, returning to the Yankees would be akin to upgrading from Herbie the Love Bug to the Batmobile. But circumstances in New York are different than when Torre first took over. The ride, once comparatively modest and brimming with young talent and tough role players like Paul O’Neill and Scott Brosius and Tino Martinez, has been pimped with superstars such as Sheffield and A-Rod and Jason Giambi in every position.

By the time the Tampa Bay/New York series played out, certain tendencies in the Yankees had been exposed. Rather than Piniella taking a leak on the third rail from the subway platform just outside of Yankee Stadium, it was Torre whose calls to the bullpen should have been directed to the suicide hot line. Even a motivational pep talk imploring his players to prove their meddle with a “grind it out” victory left his crew listless, as the Devil Rays took three of four. The Yankees’ sole victory, impressive as it was, only counted for one win in the record books. The Devil Rays are now 7-3 against the Yankees this year—and in two of their three losses, the Yankees piled on with a single-inning 13-run monster rally. Sweet Lou found their Achilles heel, a form of the rope-a-dope that, in addition to tiring them out with all that swinging and running, plays into the hands of the individual-before-team mentality and superstar vanity of stat-padding to which the players on a bloated team like the Yankees are susceptible.

Playing team baseball, the Devil Rays are proving themselves the inverse of the Jekyll and Hyde Yankees. Losing ugly more than 60 percent of the time, they are also capable of rebounding from a devastating meltdown and knocking an arrogant, overconfident opponent down to size.

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More from Gabriel Wardell

Parting Shots (9/14/2005)
The easiest way to tell when Tim McCarver is going to be wrong about something is to note when he is speaking.

Macro and Micro (9/7/2005)
The "Oriole Way" has become synonymous with "half-assed."

Choker’s Wild (8/31/2005)
Wild Card Races Are Bullshit.

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