Commentary

Book excerpt from 'Sweet Lou'

Piniella got quick introduction to Cubs experience in '07

Originally Published: June 22, 2009
By Melissa Isaacson | Special to ESPNChicago.com

This excerpt from "Sweet Lou ... Lou Piniella: A Life in Baseball" is printed with the permission of Triumph Books. This passage recounts Piniella's first season with the Cubs in 2007.

While Piniella was generally pleased with his new club, telling Jim Hendry when the GM asked if there was anything else he needed, "No, we have all the ingredients," he was surprised at the lack of fundamentals, despite what he had been told.

[+] EnlargeLou Piniella
Courtesy Triumph Books"Sweet Lou ... Lou Piniella: A Life in Baseball" chronicles the career of the Cubs skipper.

Running into longtime Chicago TV and radio personality David Kaplan at a golf outing in June of '07, Piniella declared, "Now I know why you guys haven't won. It's just everything here. Guys don't take pitches, they don't learn how to slide step in the minors. It's crazy, I'm re-teaching things guys should know. I've had to completely change the mentality. Any time something goes wrong, it's 'Oh well, it's just the Cubs.' That s--- has to stop.'"

It frustrated Piniella to no end, just as it did his staff when the Cubs went through a streak of baserunning gaffes. Generally, they all agreed that not as much emphasis was placed on the fundamentals when players were young and first learning to play the game, and that some things were beyond coaching at the big-league level.

"Tram [Alan Trammell] and I and Lou covered everything in the spring we needed to cover," said third-base coach Mike Quade. "And then we come out and it's a different deal once the season started. I mean, what the heck is going on? There's a routine ground ball to short and the guy on second is running to third? We don't have a drill for that. Just don't do that."

Piniella was also quickly losing patience with some of the questions and the manner in which he was being questioned by the Chicago media. They were too consumed with the day-to-day conditions of former phenoms Mark Prior and Kerry Wood. They wanted timetables on Alfonso Soriano's center-field experiment.

And after just the ninth game of Piniella's Cubs managing career, they wanted to know "What isn't working?" after a 6-5 Cubs loss to the Reds in which starter Carlos Zambrano imploded in a six-run, fifth inning.

"What the hell do you think isn't working?" Piniella snapped. "You see the damn game."

It was the Cubs' fourth loss in a row and that sense of urgency was already showing.

"I can start to see some of the ways this team has lost ballgames," Piniella said. "I can see it."

That Piniella was so worked up on April 13 was not necessarily unprecedented in his career, but it was testimony to the unique nature of his new job.

"It's part of the seismic culture that is the Cubs," said John McDonough, then the Cubs team president. "You're looking from afar at this franchise that hasn't won in 100 years as lovable and cuddly, and then you get here and there's this epiphany that 'Oh my God, I never realized it was this big.' And not just on June 23 against the Cardinals, but on April 5 against the Pirates and Jan. 16 at the Hilton and March 1 in Mesa. And everywhere you go, there are Cubs fans across the country, and I don't think [Piniella] realized it.

"I do think before someone becomes manager of the Cubs, they really need to take a Cubs 101 course to understand how big it is."

Piniella certainly had to be getting the general idea after a spring that did not let up marketing wise, with almost nightly get-togethers and meet-and-greets with the sponsors. "But I just saw these people last night," was a common refrain from Piniella, who would occasionally skip them altogether.

Then as the season started, he was the face of a new photo campaign for the team, "Play Like There's No Tomorrow." McDonough said Piniella "never pushed back. He was very friendly, very personable. I don't think we overused him."

But on top of that, there were also the unusual demands of day baseball, which did not necessarily include, as Piniella imagined, a lot of nice, relaxing dinners and theatre afterward.

There were dinners when friends from Tampa, whom he could never disappoint, would visit Chicago, but they did not end up being relaxing. "They want to go out and have dinner at night and have a few pops, and I enjoy it," he remarked the following season. "The only problem is I've got to be at the ballpark at 8:30 the next morning."

And that was hardly the end of it.

"Day baseball just makes more demands on players and managers -- on their time, their exposure on a daily basis," said Sharon Pannozzo, then the team's media relations director. "For a night game, there's the 4 o'clock [TV and radio news] hits and you're done. There's not so much after the game.

"For a day game, there's all morning, the noon [newscasts], the game, and then there's the 5 and 6 o'clock news. It just keeps at you all day long and there's a different level of exposure that goes along with it."

Piniella got it, at one point saying to an acquaintance early in his Cubs' tenure, "What is it with the media in this town? I don't shave and it's a f------ news story."

Piniella was asked if managing the Cubs was "different" and he didn't hesitate. "It's so different than any other job in baseball, it's not even funny," he said. "The scrutiny here is just different, the 100-year thing, the day baseball, the enormity of what we're trying to do. Unless you're in it, you don't get it."

Lee Elia tried to tell his old friend. Elia was the manager of the Cubs in 1982-83 and had taken and given the worst to Cubs fans, his infamous '83 tirade -- "Eighty-five percent of the f------ world is working. The other fifteen come out here." -- the stuff of legends.

"I don't know if I tried to warn him," said Elia, a trusted coach and friend for more than 30 years to Piniella, "but I told him about my first experience as a major-league manager, and I thought it was as difficult an arena as you could get put into, and I was not one who dwelled on the negative. But I got tired hearing it and I didn't have the experience or the moxy to let it be. The only way to beat it is with success.

"I think it got to him a little early when he felt like, 'My God, I just walked in the door, I do have some credentials here.' He told me one time [in '07], 'Doggone it Lee, I can almost feel what you went through 25 years ago.'"

Melissa Isaacson

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for espnW.com, ESPN Chicago and ESPN.com. The award-winning writer has covered Chicago sports for most of her 31-year career, including at the Chicago Tribune before joining ESPN in 2009. Isaacson has also covered tennis since 1986.

SPONSORED HEADLINES

MORE CHICAGO HEADLINES