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Mariners dwell on what could have been

He stood on the top step of the visiting dugout transfixed, his eyes mournfully tracking the arc of another baseball about to disappear over the left-field wall of Yankee Stadium.

When it did, Lou Piniella stuffed both hands deep in the pockets of a windbreaker with “Mariners” embroidered across the front, plopped down on the bench and let his chin sink into his chest.

Piniella had seen moments like that often enough from the dugout on the other side to know what they meant. These Yankees, like the Yankee ballclubs Piniella joined as a player a quarter-century ago, never let a team get back up off the mat in the postseason, not even a team coming off 116 wins in one of the most magical regular seasons ever.

There were still six innings left, but Bernie Williams’ two-run homer gave New York a 4-0 lead, and Piniella knew this American League championship series was over. Everything he did after that -the nervous gum-chewing, the long walks to the mound, the late-game substitutions-was just a manager going through the motions. And it hardly lifted his mood that the Mariners, who led the AL in every offensive category that mattered, went down 12-3 Monday night with very little fight.

“The amazing thing about baseball is that no matter how many games you win, unless you win it all, you’re going to face disappointment,” he said.

The thing people are going to remember most about the Mariners’ second straight ALCS surrender to the Yankees is the “guarantee.”

After losing the first two games at home, Piniella walked into the interview room and didn’t wait for a question.

“We’ve gone to New York and beat this team five out of six times. We’re going to do it again,” he said, almost spitting out each word. “We will be back here for Game 6. Just print it.”

Instead, the scene of so many of Piniella’s triumphs as a player was transformed, for the second straight year, into a house of pain. In the bottom of the eighth, a Yankee Stadium crowd that once serenaded Piniella with shouts of “Lou! Lou! Lou!”began chanting “No Game 6! No Game 6!”

Suffice it to say the last really good day he had in the joint was “Lou Piniella Day” -17 years ago.

He left town five years after that, tired of spinning on owner George Steinbrenner’s employment carousel. He was a coach for the organization, a manager twice (succeeding Billy Martin both times), its general manager, a special adviser and TV broadcaster.

Piniella was born in Tampa, Fla., and he began his playing career in earnest in Kansas City. But he quickly became a New York guy who endeared himself to a tough town by wringing every ounce of talent out of himself.

During 11 seasons as a player with the Yankees, stretching into the mid-1980s, he was a second-tier star on four World Series teams, but he held on until he was 40, outlasting all the higher-priced talent. He was a hothead, well known for destroying water coolers and coffee pots after bad at-bats, but nobody ever doubted he cared.

Piniella carried that intensity to his next job, managing in Cincinnati. He pushed the 1990 Reds to the first-wire-to-wire regular-season championship in NL history, followed by a surprising sweep of Oakland in the World Series.

But he tired of erratic owner Marge Schott even faster than he tired of Steinbrenner, and by 1993 he found himself working in Seattle. The plan was to infuse a mediocre franchise with some of the fire Piniella brought to the Yankee teams of his heyday.

“We put together a multiyear plan. The first goal was to get into the playoffs in three years, and we are,” Mariners president Chuck Armstrong recalled. “But even as we started being successful, I had the feeling Lou still had New York in his system. I remember telling him once, ‘You get your paycheck from us, but you?re still a Yankee.”‘

Yet Piniella never had a problem transferring his energy, as well as his loyalty, to the other coast. He had no choice. The Mariners lost stars Randy Johnson, Ken Griffey and Alex Rodriguez on his watch, leaving Piniella to fashion a championship contender out of players like himself.

Maybe that’s what made this loss to the Yankees tougher than the ones in 1996 and last year – the knowledge that New York, with deeper pockets, tougher pitching and a pinstriped mystique no one has been able to shred, is still that little bit better. There was some consolation, though.

“The one thought that did come to my mind strangely enough is this city had suffered a lot and let out a lot of emotion,” Piniella said. “I felt good for them. I really did.??

Jim Litke is the national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org

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