Commentary

Bad choice?

The Cubs chose Piniella over Girardi, who has Yanks on cusp of Series title

Updated: November 2, 2009, 9:33 PM ET
By Jon Greenberg | ESPNChicago.com

Three years and three weeks ago, Joe Girardi interviewed for his dream job. He didn't get it. That job, of course, was manager of Chicago Cubs.

[+] EnlargeJoe Girardi
AP Photo/Rob CarrJoe Girardi interviewed for his dream job three years ago with the Chicago Cubs, but he was passed over.

He waited a year, did some TV, and then got another job. A pretty good one managing the New York Yankees, the team with which he won three World Series rings.

Girardi is managing a $200 million ballclub in the World Series and, as I'm writing this, is one win shy of the team's first title since 2000, when Girardi left the team for, coincidentally, a second go-round with the Cubs.

The Cubs, as usual in early November, are a month into waiting 'til next year.

When the Cubs job opened after the 2006 season, I was firmly in the Girardi camp. In his lone season with Florida, he proved to be a quick study, managing a young, talented and low-spending team to contention in the NL East. But Girardi is no one's patsy. He didn't get along with owner Jeffrey Loria and was fired shortly before winning the NL Manager of the Year award.

The Cubs had a chance to hire a manager for the present and the future, but they went a different way, hiring the more seasoned Lou Piniella to skipper a team that was being hastily, and expensively, built for a World Series run. If you've been paying attention, you know how that worked out. Did general manager Jim Hendry & Co. make a mistake?

It would be unfair to label the post-Dusty Baker transformation of the Cubs a complete failure. Two playoff appearances in three years is something truly special for an organization that hadn't put together at least three consecutive winning seasons since 1967-72.

But this team wasn't built to play .516 baseball. In the past three seasons, since the 2006 disaster, the Cubs have added about $46 million in annual salaries, going from $94 million in 2006 to $140 million this past season. In that time, the Cubs have given $136 million to Alfonso Soriano, $91.5 million to Carlos Zambrano, $75 million to Aramis Ramirez, $52 million to Ryan Dempster, $48 million to Kosuke Fukudome, $30 million to Milton Bradley, and so on. They don't spend like the Yankees, but it's not too far off (Just $60 million or so, chump change.).

The Tribune Company let Hendry run wild once the media conglomerate knew it was selling the team. No one knew then that it would take three years to complete. So the emphasis was: Win now, worry later.

With that in mind, the Cubs picked Piniella over Girardi in a two-man battle of former Yankees heroes.

At first, I was against this move for many reasons, most notably that Piniella offered the Cubs no continuity. No one thought Piniella was going to stay in Chicago for a decade. He was brought in as a hired gun, a tried and tested mercenary who knows how to win.

The Cubs needed to be competitive immediately because, for three years after the 2003 playoff collapse, Baker's teams got worse and worse until injuries (and perhaps not enough faith in Baker to reload on the fly) wiped out 2006 by the summer's start. By September, empty seats were prevalent around the ballpark. Time was money here. Wrigley Field can't do all the work to lure in fans.

Piniella proved his worth from the get-go, immediately voicing his displeasure over the work habits of the players he inherited and vowing to change the culture. It worked. After a couple of months of tinkering, Piniella's Cubs took off and played exciting, fun baseball for two regular seasons. By August 2007, I was wrong about the move. Piniella was the right choice.

Now, I wonder just when I was thinking correctly because Piniella hasn't won a playoff game and Girardi's still managing.

To be fair, Girardi, who managed the Yankees to their first non-playoff season in forever last year, hasn't set the world aflame with his managing style this postseason. His overmanaging has been a consistent storyline recently, but it seems there's a method to his madness. Girardi keeps a thick binder at his side with more than 200 pages of "scouting reports, statistics and observations," according to a story in Monday's New York Times. The former engineering student is just trusting the numbers. It's also his first time managing in the playoffs, so he deserves a break for changing pitchers a little too frequently.

And, of course, while Girardi is dealing with Joba Chamberlain, Piniella is taking leisurely walks around the neighborhood in Tampa with his wife.

[+] EnlargeLou Piniella
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesLou Piniella has taken two Cubs teams to the playoffs, but they were swept both times.

I like Lou. Everyone does. He's an excellent manager and a godsend to baseball. But he's going to be leaving soon. One more year, most likely, and he'll join the Yankees' payroll in Tampa. Then the Cubs will have to find a new manager, and in all likelihood, a whole new coaching staff. (Can Larry Rothschild manage to hang on for another regime?)

The Ricketts family will be front and center on this decision, and there are no clear favorites. I'm sure the Rickettses are glad not to be inheriting a manager with years left on his deal, but at the same time, I'd bet Girardi is their kind of guy.

Girardi didn't deserve the Cubs job simply because he's from Peoria and played at Northwestern and started his career with the Cubs. He didn't deserve the gig simply because he embodied everything we love about our athletes.

Everyone knew he was going to be a manager during his playing career, and his one year in Florida showed he knew how to handle a team. He has even learned to relax a bit as manager of the Yankees. When he first replaced Joe Torre, players complained about Girardi imposing new rules, such as no junk food in the clubhouse. Now, he has eased up and players are praising him for welcoming families in the workplace, among other things.

Would Girardi have been able to corral Bradley? Would he have put a shoe to Zambrano's keister and stopped the cycle of babying the volatile pitcher? I'd surmise yes for the first and yes on both counts for the second. As good as Lou has been at managing lineups, he's not the same guy who threw down with Rob Dibble in the clubhouse. Girardi wouldn't have let some things fly here.

No one can say what Girardi would have done with the Cubs. Odds are the Cubs went as far as they were capable, as far as the players could take them.

Was this another bad decision by Hendry, a missed opportunity to give the franchise a leader for a decade or more, in exchange for the hope of a quick title to appease the masses and line the pockets of the Trib? I think Hendry honestly thought Piniella gave the Cubs the best chance to win then, and maybe he was right.

All I know is Piniella is going to be a lame duck in 2010 and Girardi is going for another World Series ring. I'm sure Girardi's dream was to manage the Cubs to a World Series title. He'll settle for the Yankees. And that's the reality we're dealing with here.

Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com. He can be reached at jgreenberg@espnchicago.com.

Jon Greenberg

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com. He has lived and worked in Chicago since 2003, and is a graduate of Ohio University and the University of Chicago.