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Piniella may need title to keep job. Williams has Mariners on upswing; McGwire no Reggie imitator

Unless the New York Yankees win the American League East Division title this season, manager Lou Piniella had better look elsewhere for employment in 1988. This isn't just my opinion, it's also that of a majority of the beat writers who travel with the Yankees. Indeed, Lou seemed on the verge of dismissal a few weeks ago when Detroit and Toronto began opening up a little daylight in the standings. He survived on that occasion, but unless his team can rally and pull it out, he doesn't figure to be in pin stripes next spring. So far, firing managers and coaches has been the ongoing pattern of club owner George Steinbrenner. In the past 15 years, George has changed managers 14 times and pitching coaches 19 times. He's even set a major league record by dismissing Billy Martin as field boss on four separate occasions.

The fact that Yankee players have missed more than 290 games with injuries this season, including considerable time on the disabled list for regulars Rickey Henderson, Willie Randolph, and Wayne Tolleson, doesn't seem to count much with Steinbrenner. Nor does the fact that hard-hitting Don Mattingly has been in and out of the lineup, missing 23 games with back and wrist injuries.

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The last time I tried to get Piniella to review his personal situation with the Yankees as well as that of his team, he wouldn't talk about it. One who will, however, is former New York manager and general manager Clyde King, who is now on Steinbrenner's special advisory staff. Some call Clyde the ultimate company man.

King has been traveling with the team lately, picking up information and then feeding it back to his boss. Making the rounds with Clyde and holding the same title is former Giants and Orioles manager Joe Altobelli, who also comes equipped with his own ballpoint pen.

Altobelli, along with Tommy Lasorda, Dick Williams, and - believe it or not - Martin, are most often mentioned when speculation about a new Yankee manager begins.

Even though Steinbrenner issued a statement on Aug. 8 that sharply criticized Piniella (partly for wanting to trade Henderson), King says he has never heard George express any dissatisfaction with Sweet Lou.

``What people seem to be missing here is that our biggest problem all year has been injuries,'' King said. ``We can't win with Henderson and Randolph out at the same time, because without them on base in front of him, Mattingly has no one to drive home.''

Meanwhile, though, the Yankees remain within striking distance of the leaders - and like Toronto and Detroit they have made late-season attempts to strengthen themselves for the final drive. One that could turn out to be a key move was the acquisition of veteran right-hander Bill Gullickson, who came over from Cincinnati and promptly defeated Seattle in his New York debut.

King, noting that you need all the pitching you can get for these stretch battles, thinks the Yankees still have a good shot. If they can stay close until mid-September, he points out, things could get very hot as they close out the season with 14 of their last 20 games in Yankee Stadium. Dick Williams does it again

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Give Manager Dick Williams of the Seattle Mariners enough steel wool and he'll knit you a Volkswagen. Williams is wonderful at taking teams that have been down for a while and turning them into winners. He did this with the Boston Red Sox in 1967; the Montreal Expos in '77; and the San Diego Padres in '84 - and now has effected a big improvement in the Seattle Mariners, who are playing much better this season than they did in finishing last a year ago.

In between, Dick won 101 games in his first season with Oakland in 1971, then led the A's to world titles the next two years. This was a team of talented characters who, when they weren't fighting with owner Charlie Finley, were fighting among themselves.

Asked his secret for turning distressed merchandise around, Williams told me: ``There isn't any secret. You just get rid of the deadbeats as fast as you can, and promote as many talented kids from your farm system that you think are ready or nearly ready for the big leagues. Eventually it all comes together.'' Mark McGwire not the showboating type

Reggie Jackson, who likes to admire his home runs even before beginning his all-day trot around the bases, has been trying without success to get his Oakland teammate Mark McGwire, to do the same.

``That's not my style, explains McGwire.

Far from having any showboating instincts, in fact, Mark indicates he's just happy - and even a little surpised - to be in the big leagues at all this year.

``To tell you the truth,'' he says, ``I expected to spend this season with the A's farm club in Tacoma ...''

Unlike many sluggers, McGwire appears basically unaffected by where he is playing, and in fact has hit more than half of his homers on the road. The right-handed hitting rookie has also distributed them more or less equally between left- and right-handed pitchers.

Despite his overall success, McGwire has had his slumps - and he also has a formula for curing them.

``Whenever I haven't been hitting well this season, I've tried to visit my parent's home as soon as possible so I can watch videotapes of myself that my father takes off the TV,'' he says. ``So far my problem is always the same. The pictures show that I stop hitting when I lower my head and don't realize it.''

As for the big numbers he has racked up in his first full season, including the all-time major league record for home runs by a rookie, he prefers not to dwell on them just now with his team embroiled in a hot pennant race.

``I think individual records are fine, but shouldn't be discussed until after the season,'' he says. ``Where your team finishes is much more important.'' Elsewhere in the majors

Baseball has had so many run-scoring blowouts this season that a record six teams have tried to alleviate the problem by using non-pitchers in games they obviously could not win. Yankee catcher Rick Cerone has appeared twice in relief roles, while Montreal infielders Vance Law and Tim Wallach, Cincinnati outfielder Paul O'Neill, San Diego infielder Luis Salazar, Philadelphia outfielder Glen Wilson, and St. Louis infielder Jos'e Oquendo have toed the mound once each.

Don't tell pitcher Bruce Hurst of the Boston Red Sox that Fenway Park with its famous short left field wall is a graveyard for left-handers. Hurst is 11-1 the shadow of the Green Monster this season, reminding oldtimers how well Red Sox southpaw Mel Parnell pitched there in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

From Manager Roger Craig of the San Francisco Giants on his team's tight race with Houston and Cincinnati in the National League West: ``Pitching is the key, just like it always is. Whatever team gets it down the stretch will win it, and in that department I think we've got an edge.''

Former Twins and Angels star Rod Carew is operating a batting school in Placentia, Calif. Carew charges $100 an hour for private lessons, and $35 per half-hour for semiprivate instruction. To Rod, semiprivate means two or more to a class.

Asked to explain the pressures of being in a close pennant race, veteran Reggie Jackson of the Oakland A's replied: ``The game changes in August and September. The ball seems smaller, the base paths longer, and the bat heavier. Sometimes, when I look, I even think I see an extra infielder!''

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