McClendon’ s fire and grit reminiscent of Sweet Lou

Staff writerNovember 6, 2013 

Lloyd McClendon doesn’ t want to be remembered for the meltdown that remains frozen in time.

On June 26, 2001, McClendon, then a rookie manager with the Pittsburgh Pirates, was ejected for arguing a call with first base umpire Rick Reed. Whatever triggered the dispute was obscured when McClendon uprooted first base, tucked the bag under his arm, and walked off the field with it.

Among baseball’ s volcanic eruptions preserved on video, the “ Steal of First Base” ranks alongside George Brett’ s bolt from the dugout after his “ Pine Tar Homer” temporarily was disallowed in 1983. But McClendon, known for his versatility during a big league career that spanned eight years and three teams, never embraced his sudden fame as a jack of all tirades.

“ I don’ t like that being shown, ” he said in 2005, when a video board replayed the incident. “ I don’ t want people to identify that with me. That’ s not who I am. That’ s something that happened, and it should be over with.”

McClendon’ s determination to distance himself from the events of June 26, 2001, is understandable, but his swipe of first wasn’ t a career

killer. Far from it. As the Seattle Mariners were considering candidates to replace Eric Wedge, fire loomed as much more desirable a trait than ice.

Since Lou Piniella stepped down after the 2002 season, Mariners fans have been craving a manager with the passion that distinguished Sweet Lou: The passion to argue bad calls, the passion to cajole his team, the passion to confront the opposition.

Piniella’ s immediate successor, Bob Melvin, was bright and skilled, but when it came to demonstrative displays, he had the passion of a cat napping on a sunlit sofa. Those who followed Melvin — Mike Hargrove, John McLaren, Don Wakamatsu and Wedge — had moments of combustion, but they were only moments, none spontaneous.

McClendon worked no wonders with the Pirates, who fired him five months into what would’ ve been his fifth consecutive season with a losing record. But the young players on his no-chance-to-contend roster came to see him as somebody who’ d fight for them.

“ If I get thrown out of 100 games, ” McClendon said in 2002, “ then I get thrown out of 100 games.”

Three years later, a few weeks before he was fired, McClendon got a one-game suspension for his role in a scuffle with the St. Louis Cardinals. Seems a take-out slide during the series opener had ended the season of Pirates second baseman Jose Castillo, and an inside pitch, likely in retaliation, grazed off the hand of the Cardinals’ So Taguchi the following night.

Tensions were high, and instead of the usually pleasant banter heard when one team takes the field for batting practice while the other leaves it, words were exchanged.

“ There was some pushing and shoving, just two competitive clubs, ” McClendon said afterward. “ Both clubs want to win. Things probably got a little bit out of hand.”

Two competitive clubs, both wanting to win? Uh, maybe.

Except Tony La Russa’ s Cardinals were 25 games ahead of Lloyd McClendon’ s Pirates when that batting-practice altercation nearly escalated into a brawl.

Passion.

Piniella brought it to Seattle, infusing the longtime doormats of the AL West with an attitude fondly recalled as an edge. Since Piniella’ s departure, a succession of low-key types has filled the manager’ s seat, and how has that worked?

McClendon is as close to the Piniella prototype as anybody in the business. Even their tantrums are similar.

On Aug. 19, 1990, while his eventual World Series champion Cincinnati Reds were mired in a five-game losing streak, Piniella punctuated a tantrum by removing first base and heaving it in the manner of a two-handed discus thrower.

Piniella knew he was out of line, that he’ d embarrassed himself, and he was so distraught he retrieved the base and threw it again.

“ I guess it’ s five games of frustration, ” he summed up a few days later, speaking in the sheepishly apologetic tone of somebody who’ d duked it out with his second cousin after a shuffleboard game at a family reunion. “ That’ s all I can explain. This is not me.”

Except it was. It was, and is, and always will be Lou Piniella.

And walking away with first base, after a dispute with an umpire, that’ s Lloyd McClendon.

Welcome, Mac, to the Pacific Northwest, home of 500,000-year-old mountains more lively than the consistently docile Mariners. Your next volcanic eruption won’ t be the first around here, or the last.

But fans will applaud it. Denied a competitive team, they’ ll settle for one with an edge.

john.mcgrath@ thenewstribune.com

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