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Piniella heeds lessons from Yankees great

Jeff Passan
Yahoo Sports

Billy's voice is always there. It's been almost 20 years since he died, and it still hasn't left Lou Piniella's head. They met in 1975. That was a difficult year. Piniella hit .196 without a home run, and halfway through the misery, Billy Martin took over as manager of the New York Yankees. For the rest of the season, Piniella had someone to remind him just how awful he was.

Piniella knows, from Martin, what it's like to be the dregs, and he knows, too, what it's like to be the bubbles on the champagne. Because with Martin, he saw both, the highs and lows of a man who lived and died without ever stopping to appreciate what comes in between.

"I probably learned more from Billy than anybody else," Piniella says, and he'll apply everything as his Chicago Cubs on Wednesday begin their run toward so much – history and vindication and all of the other accoutrements of a World Series title.

Piniella carries into this postseason Martin's greatest lesson, one taught posthumously. It shows every day, in Piniella's face that spends plenty more time tan than red, his walks better described as gingerly than harried, like his overall demeanor. Piniella, who used to talk back to George Steinbrenner, and who got into a manager-player fight with Rob Dibble, and who would medal in the base-throwing Olympics, and who has a black belt in kicking (dirt on umpires), is 65 now, and he thinks it's about time he calmed down, something to which Martin was allergic.

"He never did," Piniella said. "I have. It's been as conscious as I can be. I'm pretty relaxed. I've got confidence in my managing ability and my players' ability to go out and win."

And that has translated into perhaps the Cubs' greatest chance to break this albatross. They have been the best team in the National League all season, 97 wins and counting heading into the NL division series matchup with Los Angeles that starts at 6:37 p.m. ET. They are molded in Piniella's form, two years of his voice – much like Martin's did him – telling them what he expected and his mannerisms expressing it just in case they weren't listening.

"He wants guys who play hard and play the game right and aren't afraid to make mistakes," says Mark DeRosa, the Cubs' do-everything utility player. "That's the one thing I like about him: He doesn't like timid guys. He doesn't like guys who don't want to be up in big spots. He wants to know guys have an inner strength about them. He wants a player who's not afraid to come into his office and talk about things and be able to be reprimanded and not take it personally.

"That is him. Your first year with him, it's a culture shock. And then you get to realize he truly cares about you and that's his way of going about it."

Last season, Piniella's first in Chicago, he spent nearly half of it trying to find his way in Chicago. He had survived the rigmarole of New York, captured a championship in Cincinnati, won 116 games one year in Seattle, learned futility with Tampa Bay. None of it prepared him for Chicago. The Cubs were a different entity, a beast, Grendel's mother.

Once he finally figured out who would thrive squarely under his thumb, Piniella pressed down and pushed the Cubs to the 2007 NL Central title. They promptly were swept by Arizona.

Piniella understood how baseball worked. He had earned Steinbrenner's respect enough to be heir apparent to Martin as Yankees manager, then inspired his ire enough to get fired. And rehired. And fired again. His 116-win team in Seattle turned into one of the biggest flameouts in baseball history. And this was ripe for the sort of season-ending speech Piniella gave after the 1986 season, his first with the Yankees that ended with 90 wins and a second-place finish: "Some of you guys better hope I'm not back."

He would be, of course, and will be for a while now, his contract extended Tuesday through 2010. Piniella is the right manager for this team as much because of who he is as what he's done with the Cubs.

"They understand Lou now," says Alan Trammell, Piniella's bench coach. "They understand what he looks for. He expects you to perform. And what's wrong with that?"

The Cubs tend to appreciate Piniella's propensity for staying in his office and away from the clubhouse. He rarely emerges before games. It's how Martin used to treat his players. Piniella liked it that way.

Across town, Ozzie Guillen has guided the White Sox to the postseason by acting more like a brother to the players, and Joe Torre is in 13th consecutive season playing the grandfather figure. The twain meet with Piniella, supportive and accountable enough to be the perfect dad.

"It depends. Are you doing well or bad?" rookie reliever Jeff Samardzija says. "If you get your job done and get back in the dugout, there's not too much that needs to be said."

So he doesn't say much, to his players or to anyone else, really. He doesn't need the stress. Piniella has gotten ejected from two games this season, both by trigger-happy Rob Drake. After last season, when Piniella blew up at Mark Wegner and was suspended for kicking him – accidentally, he said – Piniella has reined himself in. He doesn't want to disrespect anybody.

Which may register as wholly incongruous. Lou? Lou Piniella? Timid? Turns out his fire wasn't the only thing that made him a successful manager. Two years ago, as he points out, the Cubs lost 96 games, and now they've won just as many. And even though they've added Alfonso Soriano and Ted Lilly and DeRosa and plenty of others, this team isn't that dissimilar, certainly not 30 wins so.

Piniella thinks Martin would be proud of him. He might not admit it. Martin never grew out of his stubborn phase, either. He was hard-headed to the end, his concerns chased for so long by alcohol that he never learned how properly to deal with them.

"You have something to worry about every single day," Piniella said early in September, as the Cubs struggled through a difficult stretch. "And halfway through the year, you need a psychiatrist, and by the end of the year, you need a bed. So, no, I'm not concerned about anything."

Nor did he have reason to be. The Cubs came through fine, and they begin today's journey with the right man in charge, the one who still hears Billy, yes, but knows his own voice is the truest guide of all.