One on one best strategy to quiz managers like Lou Piniella
The damn story had legs that wouldn’t buckle.
It’s more than a week later and I still get questioned on asking Cubs manager Lou Piniella why he didn’t bunt the tying run to third base when his team was scuffling for runs. The question was legit, agreed 99 percent of those I encountered. Piniella’s offended reaction wasn’t, in the eyes of that vast majority. Remember, I recently posted that the hubbub was much ado about nothing, that yelling and screaming are as part of a baseball as scratching and spitting. I wasn’t upset at all with Sweet Lou, whom I knew would be hot and bothered after a tough loss.
But I wonder if I would have gotten a more calm and cogent answer from Piniella if he had been in his cramped manager’s office or if I would have saved the question for the next morning and taken him aside on the field.
That’s the problem with covering coaches and managers today. You can’t really get close to them anymore. They’re stage-managed to the 10th degree. Piniella dislikes the interview room in which he must do his post-game talks. There’s a heavy element of public speaking here that is not good for a baseball lifer who likes to hold court in his office. Piniella told me his office was his “comfort zone” back in 2007, and he was torn away from it to accommodate the slew of TV cameras and reporters toting audio recorders who otherwise can’t be accommodated in his little cubbyhole.
Almost all of sports is carefully managed by media relations and marketing types. It’s the way of the world now with so much money and so much image to be protected, and too many media swarming about even with the massive cutbacks of the Great Recession. That takes away from the relationships that enterprising reporters could build up one on one with authority figures. And in turn, it stems the flow of information and explanations that fans, investing so much of their time and money in teams, deserve on a daily basis.
Here’s what I was able to glean from Piniella the past couple of years on the handful of occasions I could get him aside on the field or in the dugout. Why was he so agitated at Chicago media questions when he had to deal with a far larger — and tougher — pen-and-mic crowd in New York? Because we had gotten “inquisitive.” Why did he leave Carlos Zambrano an extra inning or two in a 2007 game against the Reds to be belted around for seven runs and 13 hits? Because Zambrano’s arm slot, which had dropped too much too consistently, could only be corrected via live pitching, not in the bullpen. And why was he pushing Sean Marshall out of the rotation in 2007 in favor of retread Steve Trachsel? Because he had questions about Marshall’s endurance.
Some questions are best asked in a quiet, more genteel manner off to the side or in the privacy of a manager’s office. Even in a group, the cozy surroundings of an office seems less confrontational than the grilling of a lecturn facing camera lights.
The trend of stage-managing managers, coaches and front-office execs promotes either angry coaches or innocuous, bland answers. Does anyone in Chicago know what Lovie Smith really thinks? Has Gar Forman ever let down his guard? I bet Joel Quenneville would be entertaining in a smaller group in his office, but we’ll never know with the Blackhawks becoming a big, big deal.
I’ll let you know about one proud holdout of the old system. Before and immediately after Piniella’s higher-decibel response to me, the Washington Nats’ Jim Riggleman twice invited me into his visiting manager’s office at Wrigley Field. We had a nice 30-minute chat before one game. Minutes after Piniella’s voice-raising, Riggleman confirmed he would have called for a bunt based on the hitter and situation. “Rigs” and I have a longtime rapport going back 15 years when he sat in Piniella’s Cubs seat. We used to have post-batting practice chats in his office about once a homestand. The subject wasn’t always baseball. Riggleman believes a primary job of managers and players should be helping publicize the game. After all, everyone has to sell it given the economy and consumer choices.
Too bad Bobby Cox is retiring after this year. The Atlanta Braves’ longtime managerial guru does not like press conference settings. He prefers holding court on the bench for 30 to 60 minutes before each game. We ink-stained wretches learned a lot from Cox in homespun fashion over the decades. And I’m sorry Jack McKeon is retired, but he couldn’t last forever. “Trader Jack” was another one-on-one guy.
As you can see in the accompanying photo, there are exceptions to all access rules. Erin Andrews can get her one on ones with Piniella and most other big shots. National media affiliation and, well, personal presentation have their advantages.
I’ve dieted down, but I could never look and sound that good. Ah, back to the press conference-scrums to gauge a manager’s mood on whether he can be asked about bunting or hitting away.