- Wayne Drehs, ESPN Senior Writer
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CHICAGO -- During the pregame media scrum in the visitors dugout at U.S. Cellular Field on Friday, Lou Piniella finally cleared the air, finally addressed the topic everyone in the city had been worried about. Yes, he has smoked dope. Once.
"And it didn't do a damn thing for me, so I never tried it again," Piniella explained.
The news had to be a crushing blow to Piniella's Chicago critics, those convinced the 65-year-old manager has spent much of the 2009 season managing in a fog. They've filled message boards and radio waves with talk that there's a lack of fire in the manager's medicine ball-sized belly, that winning with the Cubs now means far less than winning with the Yankees ever did.
But then Friday's game started. And Cubs right fielder Milton Bradley, he of the three-year, $30 million contract, did his part to prove all those critics wrong. It was Bradley who flied out to right in the sixth inning and, when he returned to the dugout, slammed his helmet on the dugout floor and smashed the water cooler, all while Piniella looked on. That's when Mount Lou began to erupt.
The manager ordered his right fielder to head back into the clubhouse, take his uniform off and go home. He then followed Bradley up the tunnel and into the visitors clubhouse, where the two exchanged words. Piniella then returned to the dugout, and Bradley left the ballpark.
Afterward, the Cubs made no secret of what had happened, with Piniella explaining that he has grown tired of players expressing their frustration by smashing bats or taking out water coolers. Although Piniella didn't specify whether he was talking about Bradley or the entire team's frustrations, let's be honest -- if Mike Fontenot had taken a bat to the water cooler Friday, Piniella wouldn't have kicked him to the curb.
This was a problem with Bradley, the man who seems hell-bent on becoming the poster boy for the Cubs' 2009 struggles. First it was the injuries, then the suspension after arguing balls and strikes with Larry Vanover. Then Bradley threw the ball into the stands with fewer than three outs. Then, on Wednesday night in Detroit -- after striking out in the ninth inning with two runners on base -- he tried to snap a bat over his thigh. And failed. And now there's this, throwing a temper tantrum in the sixth inning of a 2-2 game after hitting a fly ball with one out and no one on base.
"What led up to it was the fired helmet and the smashed cooler," Piniella said. "This has been a common occurrence, and I've looked the other way a lot. And I'm done with it."
Cubs general manager Jim Hendry said after the game that he would speak with Bradley and Piniella before announcing whether the outfielder would face any disciplinary action. Piniella said he planned to put Bradley back in the lineup Saturday against White Sox left-hander Mark Buehrle.
"We'll talk about it more [on Saturday]," Piniella said. "I'm not happy this happened. I'm really not. But at the same time, it was time."
It was time. Just like it was time in 2007 when, the day after Carlos Zambrano and Michael Barrett got in their tussle, Piniella threw a dirt- and hat-kicking tantrum for the ages, earning a four-game suspension for an argument with umpire Mark Wegner.
That explosion was designed to take the spotlight off his struggling team and the tussle between Zambrano and Barrett. It helped spark the Cubs' second-half turnaround that carried them to the National League Central championship. Perhaps Friday's explosion was designed not only to put a struggling Bradley in his place but also to remind everyone to relax. The message wasn't lost on outfielder Alfonso Soriano, who has performed below expectations himself.
"Sometimes you can show the frustration, but sometimes you have to be careful how you do it and how often you do it," Soriano said. "You can get pissed off because you're not hitting, but sometimes it's too much. Lou sees that.
"I hope that [Bradley] comes back and can help the team to win," Soriano added. "If it's not that way, we don't need him. We are 25 players, and we have to be on the same page. And if he's not 100 percent here to help the team win, we don't need him."
It all made for a wild afternoon at U.S. Cellular Field. Before the game, there was Piniella, sitting on the visitors dugout bench, spending the better part of 14 minutes explaining that he doesn't need to scream and yell, doesn't need to push any buttons, to get his team turn the season around.
Piniella joked that the media want him to throw one of his trademark tirades so they can watch him have a heart attack on the field. But he insisted he was beyond that. He said the game has changed and there is no correlation between how many umpires he chews out, how many buffet tables he turns over and how many games his team wins.
"If we were 10 or 12 games over .500 and we were in first place by four or five games and I was calm, cool and collected, you people would say wow, look at this guy, what a calm, cool and collected manager we got here in Chicago," Piniella said. "But since we're 34-35 and we're under .500, the guy's got no damn fire. Look, believe me, I care as much as I've ever cared," he said. "I want to win as much as I've ever wanted to. I basically adhere to the fact that you treat these guys like men: You put them on the field, you let them play and you stay out of the way as much as possible."
And apparently Friday was the day to get in the way, to send the team's prized offseason acquisition home in the middle of a key game against its crosstown rival, leaving teammates to answer questions about what to make of Bradley's issues, both in personality and performance.
"I don't have no problem with him. I think he's a great guy," Soriano said. "The only problem is his attitude sometimes in the game. I think a lot of people, they don't like that. But that's him."
Now comes the question of what happens next. Geovany Soto's three-run homer in the seventh helped the team end a four-game losing streak, but one can't help but wonder what effect this tussle will have not only on Piniella's relationship with Bradley but on the clubhouse as a whole. The last Cubs outfielder who caused this much of a stir after leaving a game before its conclusion was Sammy Sosa in 2004. Although that was under different circumstances, he never wore a Cubs uniform again. With Bradley, who still has two years remaining on his pricey contract, things are likely to be different. This has to be worked out, or the season could potentially be a waste.
"When you have a manager like Lou Piniella who's been doing this for 20-something years, he'll get the ship righted, he'll get the right guys in the lineup and we'll move forward," Hendry said. "I have all the confidence in the world in Lou. Things will be fine."
Wayne Drehs is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at wayne.drehs@ESPN3.com.
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