With the Yankees paying tribute to George Steinbrenner (and Bob Sheppard) tonight at Yankee Stadium, I thought I’d relay a story that always made me laugh. It was one Lou Piniella would tell frequently when he was sitting around his office as Mariner manager, spinning Yankee tales (as he loved to do).
Lou was actually quite fond of The Boss — fonder the farther away he got, in both time and distance, from working for him, no doubt. Piniella and Gene Michael are the only two people, I believe, who dealt with Steinbrenner as a Yankee player, general manager and manager. (One story Piniella told: When Steinbrenner inevitably fired him as manager in 1988, he said, “But first you need to sign your contract, Lou. You never signed it.”)
During the 1987 season,while in his stint as replacement for Billy Martin — one of the many times Martin was fired by Steinbrenner; Lou both replaced, and was replaced by, Martin in New York — the Yankees were playing the Angels in Anaheim*. Tommy John was pitching for the Yankees, out-dueling the Angels’ Don Sutton early, 1-0. Both pitchers were savvy old veterans in their 40s.
Steinbrenner was watching the game on television, and saw the broadcasters focusing on Sutton apparently scuffing up the baseball. That led to a long discussion on air of how Sutton seemed to doctoring the baseball, giving his pitches tremendous movement that night.
The Boss flew into a rage, and insisted that a call be put through to Piniella in the visiting dugou at Anaheim Stadium.
“Lou, are you crazy?” Steinbrenner said, as Piniella told it. “Everyone can see Sutton is cheating but you. I insist you go out there and make the umpires search him.”
Lou replied calmly, “George, who’s pitching for us today?”
“Well, who do you think taught Sutton how to cheat? Tommy’s got a shutout. Do you want the umpires to go out and check him, too?”
Piniella would always cackle with laughter and say something to the effect of, “That shut him up.”
Lou remained close with Steinbrenner over the years, often dining with him during the offseason in Tampa, where both lived. Here’s a great story from ESPN’s Melissa Isaacson on the unique and complicated relationship between the two. In the piece, Piniella calls Steinbrenner “a father figure to me.” But as Isaacson relates, he was one of the few people who got away with standing up to Steinbrenner.
*Through the magic of baseball-reference.com, I was able to pinpoint the game’s date as Aug. 24, 1987. The Yankees won, 3-2 in 11 innings, but neither John nor Sutton got a decision.