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Martin Fennelly Columns

Column: Family comes first for Piniella

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Published:   |   Updated: March 21, 2013 at 02:05 PM

Who didn't want him to go out a winner?

Who didn't wish a sweet sendoff for Sweet Lou Piniella?

It didn't work out, not in what became his final season, and certainly not in the final game of a wonderful and lovingly passionate baseball career that spanned nearly half a century. Piniella's long gone Chicago Cubs were crushed by Atlanta.

At least it was a sunny day at Wrigley Field. And it wasn't just the sun that made it warm. After Piniella surprised everyone by announcing his immediate retirement, he brought one last lineup card to home plate, where he was joined by longtime Braves manager Bobby Cox, who plans to retire after the season. Piniella and Cox hugged. Cubs fans stood and cheered "Louuu." Piniella waved his ball cap.

He returns to Tampa sooner than expected. He wanted to finish the season. There were tears before the game and tears after. But it's very simple.

"My mom needs me home and that's where I'm going," Piniella said.

It has always been about family, about Tampa, about West Tampa.

Lou Piniella turns 67 on Saturday. His mother, Margaret, is 90 and her health is failing badly. Lou was Rays manager in 2005 when he lost his father, Louis. He had time to be with him. He wants to take care of his mom.

"It's always been about that to Lou," said lifelong friend Tony Gonzalez. "He's always been there for family, friends when it comes to anything. He has to be home."

Lou Piniella is coming home to be with the woman who still lives in the house where Lou grew up, whose voice Lou and his forever friends still can hear carrying across the playground, telling him to come home for dinner, telling Lou to stop playing, at least to eat.

Loooooie!

Margaret Piniella was an athlete in her own right, good at everything, and a basketball star, as was her son. She excelled at any sport and was passionate about her Lou, part agent, part trainer, part coach, always feisty and full of fire, and fun, and love, always that soft heart.

Sound familiar?

"I was the one who took him to all the games," Margaret said in 1990 when her son managed the Cincinnati Reds into the World Series, where they swept Tampa's Tony La Russa and Oakland. "At the games, I'd see if he was making mistakes or something. I'd have him change his batting stance or whatever. He'd do it, and sure enough, he'd start hitting the ball better."

"We'd go play Louie's teams over in West Tampa and we could hear her, because the park was across from their house," said local restaurateur Malio Iavarone. "Louie would be pitching and you'd hear his mom yelling from the house in Spanish, 'Throw it harder!' Louie's ears would stand up like a dog's ears, he always knew that voice."

"I think she was a driving force for Lou," said Carmine Iavarone, Malio's brother. "She's the heart and soul ..."

Margaret once ran on the court to argue with a referee at one of her Lou's basketball games with Jesuit High. When Lou made the World Series in 1990, Margaret drove around the neighborhood in a big car with a Reds license plate, honking the horn.

There will be time to consider Lou Piniella's baseball accomplishments, whether or not he's Hall of Fame timber. But if being beloved counts, he's a shoo-in for Cooperstown.

Piniella's eyes filled when it was over Sunday. All those years, all those wins, losses, all that fire.

"I cried a little after the game," he said. "You get emotional. I'm sorry. I'm not trying to be. This will be the last time I put on my uniform."

He's been through all sorts of emotions.

"He was at the restaurant last week and he was down," Carmine Iavarone said. "It wasn't just the season. It's all been taxing, the family stuff, his mom, the emotions. His heart was aching."

A few weeks ago, Piniella attended the Tampa funeral of his uncle, Joe Magadan, his mom's brother and father of Piniella's cousin and former big-leaguer Dave Magadan. Piniella missed four Cubs games earlier this month to be with Margaret, returned to the team, but ...

"She hasn't gotten any better since I've been here," Piniella said. "She's had other complications, and rather than continue to go home, come back, it's not fair to the team, it's not fair to the players. So the best thing is just to step down and go home and take care of my mother."

Maybe he'll become a consultant for some team. Or maybe he'll truly retire, travel more, spend time with his wife Anita and the kids, go fishing with his Tampa friends. First, he'll be there for his mother, for heart and for soul. Margaret Piniella always knew her boy would make it in baseball. She was right. He gave the game everything he had, and everything she gave him, too.

Welcome home, Lou.

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