SEATTLE (AP) — The cigarette smoke hung thick in the manager's office at Safeco Field, a sure sign that Lou Piniella was back in the building.
This time, though, Sweet Lou was camped on the visitors' side. It was foreign territory for the man who managed the Seattle Mariners for the previous 10 years and helped build the organization into one of baseball's best.
"This is the first time I've been in the visiting clubhouse," Piniella said, glancing around. "This is nice, real nice."
So was the reception Piniella received in Seattle as his new team, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, opened a three-game series Friday.
Just before the first pitch, fans gave Piniella a lengthy standing ovation and watched three minutes of video highlights from his time in Seattle. Mariners chairman Howard Lincoln and president Chuck Armstrong gave him two framed photographs.
Piniella waved his hat at the crowd, then took a sheet from his pocket and read a statement. He thanked the Seattle front office and former players and coaches, then his voice broke when he addressed fans.
"You made it a pleasure to come to the ballpark every day," Piniella said, drawing a roar from the packed stands. "God's really blessed me. I love you all and will never forget you."
Piniella also received a base that had been signed by the Mariners, a tribute to his well-documented base-throwing tantrums. When Seattle manager Bob Melvin brought out the lineup card, he was joined by several members of the 2001 team that tied an AL record with 116 wins.
"Ten years of memories. Thanks Lou!" read the videoboard.
Everything went great for Piniella except the outcome. The Mariners won 4-3 on an eighth-inning home run by Mike Cameron.
"It was well worth coming here for. It really was," Piniella said afterward. "I would have liked to win but it was a night I'll remember forever. Hopefully, that's all said and done and now we can play baseball for two more days."
Fans crowded a corner near the Tampa Bay dugout when he signed autographs before the game. They yelled greetings at Piniella, dressed not in familiar Mariners blue but in the green cap and pullover of his new club.
A woman held a sign that read, "Seattle Loves Lou."
Kyler Powell and Dustin Brader drove from Selah, Wash., to cheer for Piniella. They wore sleeveless white T-shirts with "Lou's Crew" spray-painted in orange letters.
"Lou Piniella is the only Mariners manager I've ever known, and they've always been good. He's done great things for baseball in Seattle," said the 17-year-old Powell, wearing a blond wig in honor of Piniella's recent dye job.
Piniella entered the ballpark on the more familiar Mariners' side and even stopped by the home clubhouse to visit briefly with Melvin, pitching coach Bryan Price, several players and locker room attendants.
"You're looking skinny," a former secretary told Piniella.
"Well, you know when we lose I don't eat very much," he replied with a laugh.
On a bench inside the Mariners' dugout, someone wrote "Lou No. 14" on a strip of white athletic tape, as if his spot had been reserved.
"He can come over here and sit next to me. That's fine," Melvin said. "He can give me a little advice."
There were plenty of hugs from old friends as Piniella made the rounds. During a 15-minute news conference in a packed interview room, he broke into tears when asked what kind of reception he expected from fans.
"The important thing here is not really the reception I get," he said, eyes welling. "It is how I can say, 'Thank you' back. That's really the important thing.
"You know, I've managed other places and played baseball in other places. It's hard to say thanks for the way I was treated here. That's the most important thing, as far as I'm concerned."
Piniella shared a few fond recollections, saying the 1995 Mariners team that won the AL West title was one of his favorites. That club meant even more to him, he said, than his Cincinnati Reds team that won the World Series in 1990.
"It was a do-or-die time, as far as baseball was concerned in Seattle," Piniella said. "The stakes were high."
The 1995 Mariners erased a 13-game deficit in August and won a one-game playoff over the Angels to reach the postseason for the first time. Seattle beat the New York Yankees in the division series before losing to the Cleveland Indians in AL championship series.
It was also the year plans went forward to build Safeco Field.
"That was really the season that was the deciding factor for the success of baseball in the Pacific Northwest and Seattle," Piniella said. "That is really my favorite recollection."
He also mentioned the 2001 team that won 116 games.
"That's something to be very proud of also, but the '95 season was the one that set everything in motion," Piniella said.
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