MLB.com Columnist

Marty Noble

Piniella recounts contentious relationship with Weaver

Piniella recounts contentious relationship with Weaver

TAMPA, Fla. -- The vitriol and loathing seem long gone now, replaced by a smile softened by time. The mere mention of Earl Weaver no longer causes Lou Piniella to bristle or snarl. Weaver's passing in January has much to do with how Piniella's reactions have changed. No speaking ill of the dead. Four-letter words no longer are used.

Theirs was a relationship like few others in the game. Two entertaining and volatile personalities. Two men who never should have been seated next to each other.

Weaver never seemed to appreciate Piniella when both were wearing baseball uniforms, even when the uniforms matched. And Piniella considered Weaver the enemy for much of his adult life. Emotions simmered beneath his skin. Sometimes they escaped, perhaps never so conspicuously as on the night of Oct. 1, 1974, when a hex Weaver had put on his favorite target seemingly cost the Yankees the pennant.

These days, Piniella speaks of his one-time Minor League manager with phrases that defy interpretation. "The Earl of Baltimore," he said Tuesday night at the Yankees' Spring Training camp. "What can I say?" And what can that mean? Almost anything.

Some lingering animosity appeared in his eyes. Piniella squinted as he thought of a man who had unnerved him for so long. He doesn't edit his memories of Weaver. They're not happy ones for the most part. But Piniella now laughs as he tells stories that have stayed with him for decades. He's reach advanced ambivalence. Consider that progress.

Some stories:
• An American League All-Star in 1972, Piniella played under Weaver in the All-Star Game. "We bumped into each other in the hotel in Atlanta the day of the game," Piniella recalled. "He told me, 'Leave your glove in your locker tonight. You won't need it.' I got to pinch-hit, and I grounded out."

• Piniella had played for the Orioles' Elmira, N.Y., affiliate in 1965 when Weaver managed the Double-A team. "He was so demanding," he says now. "I didn't like him very much. I was relatively young. He didn't cut you any slack, even away from the field. He told me I'd never make it. You don't say that to a kid. Do you? We used to play golf, me and [Mark] Belanger and other guys. Earl would join us. I don't think we ever invited him. If we didn't let him win, he wouldn't let us play golf. Same thing when we played cards. He had to win or we couldn't play."

• And how can Piniella ever forget or forgive Weaver's broken promise to him: "He told me [in 1965] 'I'm taking you to Rochester [the Orioles' Triple-A affiliate].' Three months later, they sent me back to the Indians."

• Piniella had been introduced to the big leagues in 1964 (four games, one at-bat). He had five at-bats with the Indians in '68 before being selected by the Royals in the expansion draft. "Off what Earl told me in '65, I expected to be called up a few years earlier than 1968," he says. "Was he lying? He did things like that to aggravate you.

"He aggravated me. I'll tell you that."

Perhaps never so much as in 1974 when Piniella was an important component of the improved Yankees and Weaver was in his seventh season managing the Orioles with a resumé that included four first-place finishes, three pennants and a World Series championship. "Earl loved to beat the Yankees," Piniella said Tuesday. "But not as much as we loved beating him. It'd make my day when we kicked his butt."

The Orioles were playing the Yankees at Shea Stadium (Yankee Stadium was under reconstruction) in August. Piniella was in the batting cage when Weaver, standing on the dugout steps, took out his needle. He shouted. Piniella reacted.

"Are you standing on one of the steps or are you just that short?" Piniella said. And the dialogue went downhill and became more personal from there. Finally, Weaver swung for the fences. "Piniella," he said. "You're ahead now, but we're gonna catch you guys. We're gonna beat you, and your mistake is gonna help us win it."

Seed planted. Piniella snapped, threw his helmet against the cage and reminded Weaver of his height in a short -- two-word -- statement. None of the back-and-forth was said in fun.

Jump ahead to the Sept. 29 that year. The Yankees finally had reached the Pfister Hotel in downtown Milwaukee after completing a three-game sweep in Cleveland. Their flight to Milwaukee had been delayed because of thunderstorms. The players had spent much of the delay at the bar. As they jumped off their bus, they were one-half game behind the Orioles with two games to play.

Firecrackers set off on the bus by veteran extra-man Bill Sudakis hadn't been well-received by his teammates, least of all by catcher Rick Dempsey. The two fought in the hotel lobby. And it was a good one, right out of a western -- broken furniture, broken glass. An empty flask had flown from Sudakis' pocket. A dozen players tried to break it up.

At one point, Bobby Murcer was on his back with Dempsey's feet locked into his armpits. Not until a few days later would the truth be told. Murcer broke a finger while restraining Dempsey.

He was unavailable two nights later when the Yankees played their 161st game. Piniella, a left fielder that season, was assigned to right field. He was there as the bottom of the eighth unfolded. With one out, Bob Hansen lifted a benign fly ball to right-center field. Piniella called off center fielder Elliott Maddox, but misplayed a ball "my son could have caught," he said. "And he's five." Hansen was awarded a triple, and before the inning ended, the Brewers had scored twice to tie the score at 2. They won it the 10th inning, and as a consequence, the Yankees were eliminated. Weaver's prediction had held.

"I've had a good season, but I loused it up with one play. How'd that little SOB do it?" Piniella said that night. "Do you know how many things had to happen for me to be in right field tonight?"

Some 39 years later, Piniella remains miffed. "Earl liked to play games with your head," he said Tuesday, still unsettled by the whole episode. Weaver's death didn't prompt any forgiveness.

"He wanted to win -- I admired that about him. He taught me winning was important, so he'd do anything to get an advantage. But I swear to you what that little SOB predicted wasn't on my mind on that play. I just backed off the ball, and it fell."

The episode wouldn't have seemed so remarkable then -- or now -- if Piniella had been thinking of Weaver when the fly ball went up. He still wonders, and, perhaps in quiet, isolated moments, he frets about it. It's a long time ago.

"But how did he do that?" Piniella says. "What can I say?"

Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.