Lou Piniella recalled spending one year as a student at the University of Tampa, where he played basketball and baseball.
“I saw I wasn’t going to be a Rhodes scholar in college,” Piniella said, “so I signed (a baseball contract) after my freshman season.”
Piniella, 75, would go on to play 1,700 games and manage 3,000 games in the major leagues, earning three World Series championship rings.
Levy’s Fine Jewelers sponsors the annual return to Rickwood Field on Birmingham’s westside. Tuesday, Piniella visited with baseball fans at the jewelry store and recorded a conversation with Curt Bloom, the radio voice of the Barons.
Piniella signed autographs during his visit to the jewelry store Tuesday. Most of his signatures were placed on baseballs, with a few going onto baseball cards, a replica baseball jersey and one on an old magazine.
Perhaps the most unusual item Piniella signed was a base from his final major league baseball game, Aug. 22, 2010. The autographed base will be a surprise birthday present for the brother of the man who got the autograph.
“The Cubs sold a lot of their stuff to a group called Steiner Sports,” the man said. “He’s a big Cubs fan.”
The former major leaguer said that while his baseball career took him to several stops, he’s “always a Yankee.” Will that bother the man’s brother?
“Nah,” he said with a laugh. “We’re not Yankee haters. We’re big fans of (Piniella). We love his style.”
Mike Eady, 66, had the replica jersey of the Kansas City Royals, the team with which Piniella played his rookie season.
“They were giveaways at the Kansas City ballpark last year when they honored Piniella on his rookie year,” said Eady, a retired school teacher. “I’ll always keep it.”
Eady was at Levy’s because a visit from the Barons’ special guest is an annual part of the Rickwood Classic.
“I haven’t missed one yet,” the Irondale resident said of the Barons’ annual return to the vintage ballpark. “I just love the atmosphere and coming down here and meeting a former ballplayer who’s probably going to be in the Hall of Fame as a manager or a ballplayer.”
An outfielder in the major leagues, Piniella played 16 seasons with the Baltimore Orioles, Cleveland Indians, Kansas City Royals and New York Yankees. During his playing career, he was named American League Rookie of the Year in 1969 and captured two World Series championships with the Yankees.
Following his playing career, Piniella became a manager for the New York Yankees (1986-1988), Cincinnati Reds (1990-1992), Seattle Mariners (1993-2002), Tampa Bay Devil Rays (2003-2005) and Chicago Cubs (2007-2010). He won the 1990 World Series championship with the Reds and led the Mariners to four postseason appearances in seven years.
The former player and manager also captured back-to-back division titles (2007-2008) during his time with the Cubs. Piniella was named Manager of the Year three times during his career (1995, 2001 and 2008) and finished his managerial career ranked 14th all time on the list of managerial wins.
He was nicknamed “Sweet Lou,” both for his swing as a major league hitter and, facetiously, to describe his demeanor as a player and manager.
Tuesday was not Piniella’s first trip to Alabama. He was a member of the New York Yankees team in 1978 that traveled to face the Crimson Tide in a preseason contest.
“They came to Tuscaloosa because George Steinbrenner and Bear Bryant were close,” Eady recalled. “Bear wanted them to come up and they did.”
Piniella recalled that his first minor league stint was for a team in Selma in the old Alabama-Florida League. Well after his playing days, he had a small piece of the Montgomery Biscuits for about 10 years.
While Piniella earned three World Series rings in his baseball career, he wears only one ring, the one he got with the 1977 Yankees.
“I would think the first one is more special,” he said. But even without a ring to show for it, Piniella has fond memories of his managerial stop with the Seattle Mariners.
“We won 116 (regular season games in 2001),” he recalled. “That’s an all-time American League record.”