Seattle's best skipper? Sweet Lou, of course

June 15th, 2020

SEATTLE -- It might be the easiest question to answer for any Mariners fan or longtime follower. Who is the best manager in franchise history?

The answer will come in a single word: “Louuuuuu.”

It’s the same response that reverberated around the stadium every time Lou Piniella burst out of the dugout and charged at an umpire during his decade of managing the Mariners from 1993-2002, and it's the same reaction still fondly uttered any time Piniella is spotted on an old video clip or current TV advertisement.

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While the majority of Major League managers find themselves fending off constant critiques or looking for new work every few years, Piniella remained popular and productive throughout his Seattle tenure. He is also one of nine members of the Mariners Hall of Fame; he and legendary broadcaster Dave Niehaus are the only non-players in the group.

Piniella’s popularity is based on two things -- a colorful personality and a winning record. The former came naturally. Now retired at age 76 and living in Tampa, Fla., Piniella endeared himself to players and fans with his fiery nature and fierce loyalty.

Those same characteristics tied directly to the winning record, as Piniella took a Mariners franchise that had never been to the postseason -- with just one winning record in the 16 years before his arrival -- and changed the culture in part by simply applying his intense will to win to every aspect of the club.

"Lou Piniella was bigger than life," outfielder Jay Buhner said when Piniella was inducted into the team’s Hall of Fame in 2014. "There was no question what the goal was every day when the players walked into the clubhouse -- win tonight's game. Anything less was not acceptable."

Piniella inherited a talented young group that included Ken Griffey Jr., Randy Johnson and Edgar Martinez, three future Hall of Famers. But that same group had gone just 64-98 in 1992 and was floundering until Piniella pieced things together.

Over the next 10 years, the Mariners went 840-711, reached the postseason for the only four times in franchise history and were credited with keeping Major League Baseball in Seattle by helping create momentum for the new outdoor stadium that replaced the Kingdome in 1999.

The Mariners have had 17 full-time managers and three interim skippers during their 43-year history. Other than Piniella, the only one with a winning overall record is Lloyd McClendon, who went 163-161 from 2014-15.

Piniella’s 840 wins with Seattle dwarfs the next closest manager, who is current skipper Scott Servais; he has gone 321-327 in his four seasons at the helm.

No wonder the man they called “Sweet Lou” is beloved in Seattle.

“Everyone who played for him is an extension of him,” Griffey said after Piniella left the Mariners. “All he asks is you go out and play hard for him. If you play hard for him, he’d run through a wall for you. If you didn’t, he’s going to talk to you.”

Piniella guided the Mariners to their first postseason appearance with a magical run in 1995, topped by a victory over the Yankees in a sterling best-of-five American League Division Series. He followed that with another AL West title in ’97 and an MLB-record-tying 116-win season in 2001 before leaving for Tampa Bay following the ’02 season.

During his time in Seattle, the colorful skipper delighted fans and filled highlight films with his intense, nose-to-nose screaming matches with umpires who drew his ire, and he often capped his arguments by kicking dirt, throwing bases or booting his cap around the infield after being ejected.

That hard-nosed style commanded the respect of players as well, though he was also revered for his generosity and loyalty by those who knew and played for him. And it is that softer side that came out when Piniella reminisced on his 10 years in the Pacific Northwest.

Asked what word he'd use to best describe his time in Seattle, Piniella pondered for a bit before answering.

"I'd probably say 'appreciative,'" he said. "That would be the best word to describe it. When they hire you to manage a baseball team, these organizations place a lot of trust in you and you have a lot of responsibility. It's not easy to manage a Major League team if you want to do it the right way. You have to work at it and be prepared.

"So, yeah, for these people to entrust their franchise on a guy's shoulders, 'appreciative' is a good word."

And that appreciation worked both ways with the man who’ll forever be “Louuuuuu” in Seattle.