TAMPA, Fla. - Barely three months after the abrupt ending to his managing career in Chicago, Lou Piniella looks fitter, tanner and much more energetic than he did during what might have been the most trying season of his career.
That doesn't mean he has any intentions of changing his mind about managing again, he insists.
In fact, it probably says a lot more about the ordeal he endured over the final weeks and months that wore him down emotionally and even physically - and that led first to an announcement in July that he planned to retire at the end of the season and then eventually to the heart-wrenching decision, at the suggestion of the team, three weeks later to leave for home in Tampa to care for his ailing mother.
And as major league baseball prepares this morning to honor Piniella and three other just-retired ``legendary managers'' (Bobby Cox, Joe Torre, Cito Gaston) at the winter meetings in Orlando today, Piniella wants to dispel at least one public misconception about his final days with the Cubs.
``I hadn't quit,'' he said Monday. ``I didn't quit.''
That's been the charge in some corners since the Cubs' 5-25 swoon in the final month of a managing career that spanned 23 seasons, five cities, 1,835 wins, a World Series championship and might one day include a place in Cooperstown.
Critics usually compare Piniella's finish to the 24-13 rebound Mike Quade got out of the team when he took over.
But those close to Piniella inside the organization say they worried for his health during that stretch as he dealt with high-emotion, high-stress concerns at home - on the heels of the deaths of two people very close to him - on top of sleepless nights trying to squeeze more out of a club going through it's toughest three-week stretch on its schedule.
``I tell you this, the [George] Steinbrenner situation, when he passed away, affected me some,'' Piniella, 67, said of the sudden death of his longtime mentor and friend during the All-Star break - just a week before Piniella announced his retirement intentions.
``When I was there in New York [as a player and then manager], George was never sick, never had a cold. All of a sudden he passes away. Then about the same time, my uncle dies. And I was very close to him. Then my mother gets very sick and is in the hospital.
``I kept quiet, and tried to keep it quiet. I didn't want it to become an issue. But it became an issue. It affected things.''
If anything, he admits in retrospect, the mid-July retirement announcement hurt an already struggling team. ``That didn't help in the clubhouse,'' he said.
``But I didn't quit,'' he added. ``We were playing really hot teams in the playoff hunt [in August], and the team didn't play well. But I don't think they quit. I don't think the players quit. I know I didn't. I realized we weren't playing as well as we could. But I didn't quit.''
Piniella was forced home twice for a few days each time to help with his mom, and by mid-August it reached a point where he and general manager Jim Hendry met to try to resolve it.
Even then, Piniella's instinct was to keep working to get the team playing better - it was Piniella who felt bad for leaving the team for those brief stretches and repeatedly apologized for it. And eventually it was Hendry who suggested Piniella should do what he knew he had to, for his family.
``I felt like Lou had given us 3 ½ years of everything he had, and unfortunately his last year didn't work out the way any of us would have wanted it,'' Hendry said. ``He'd been an outstanding manager to be with from a front office point of view and done an outstanding job for the organization when we needed him to turn the situation around, and he did.
``At this particular point in his life, so many of the things he worried about and we worried about for him he was carrying around and it was weighing him down. He made the right decision, and we were fully supportive of it.''
Said Piniella: ``Look, it was time to go home. I needed to be home, and the team wasn't playing well, so I just came home and did what I had to do.
``I didn't quit on anything. It hurt me more than anything else. We didn't play well, and it hurt me. I take that personally. I don't make excuses or anything else, but it hurts to lose, and it hurt me.
``Look, I enjoyed my four years in Chicago. People can say what they want or don't want.''
Piniella said he gives Quade a lot of credit for turning things around at the end and said he's happy his third-base coach got the job.
And although he fell short of the championship he believed he'd win in Chicago, he said he wouldn't change anything about the decision to take the job in the first place or the decisions that came after.
``Finishing up four years in Chicago was as good a way as you can go,'' he said. ``I got to envision something and live something that was very unique, and unless you do it, you don't understand it.''
His mother, who turns 91 this month, is still struggling, he said - but she has some good days, too, he adds. And she still wants to talk baseball when he visits.
``I did the right thing to come home,'' he said, ``and it turns out it was the right thing for the team, too. ...
``Now I'm going to enjoy my retirement. I'm going to enjoy my life. I had a long career. I had some success, and I'm appreciative of all the different people that gave me opportunities. And finishing up in Chicago really was a good experience that I'll always cherish.''