Commentary

Pinella's Cubs got sloppy

It became apparent at the end of the Piniella era that the Cubs needed a new voice

Updated: July 21, 2010, 12:20 PM ET
By Jon Greenberg | ESPNChicago.com

CHICAGO -- Lou Piniella said it as only Lou Piniella can: Look, I told you I wasn't going to be a lifer.

"I said when I came here, one of my first statements, I wasn't going to be a lifer," he reminded us at his unexpected early-retirement news conference Tuesday afternoon. "I did say that. I said also this was going to be my last job. I wouldn't manage anywhere else. And I'm holding true to those."

Piniella is almost 67. He was signed as an amateur free agent in 1962. Since then, he's only spent a handful of summers sans polyester pants and a wool hat. For nearly half a century, Piniella has gotten paid to play or coach baseball.

His idea of being a "lifer" must end with a guy dropping dead in his office, face down in salisbury steak and au gratin potatoes. If Piniella isn't a baseball lifer, who is? Just Don Zimmer?

"He's a lifer," Cubs general manager Jim Hendry said of the guy who steadfastly thinks he's not a lifer. "He's been in the game all his life. I'm sure he'll want to be back in some capacity."

OK, Piniella admitted, maybe he would like to be a consultant for the Cubs or the Yankees or whomever.

"I enjoy this game, I really do. I love this game. So that would be a good way to stay involved, but not in an everyday basis. It could be anywhere. There are no plans one way or another."

But, look, he doesn't have any advice for his replacement or for the club in picking a replacement. That's for, you know, a consultant to do.

"I don't have any advice for anybody," Piniella said. "Absolutely no advice whatsoever."

[+] EnlargeLou Piniella
AP Photo/Charles Rex ArbogastLou Piniella had three straight winning season for the Cubs.

Um, don't start your consulting cover letter with that statement.

Piniella's retirement, a foregone conclusion, isn't the story, it's the timing. Why announce it on a random Tuesday in July? To steal Jennie Finch's limelight? To upstage UIC coach Jimmy Collins' own retirement?

"Why is the announcement now as opposed to September?" Piniella said. "For a couple reasons. First of all, I get asked all the time. I don't want to mislead anybody about my intentions. At the same time, more important, it gives Jim Hendry ample opportunity to find a new manager for this organization and he can do it where he doesn't have to be secretive about it, or anything else."

Newsflash: Hendry, who probably tells a waiter at Gibson's his order is "on background," will be plenty secretive about his search for Piniella's replacement. Well, except for Ryne Sandberg, who probably had more on his mind Tuesday night than managing a doubleheader against Oklahoma City.

"He will be a candidate," Hendry said of the Hall of Famer. "He's done a very good job in the [Cubs' farm] system the last four years. Tom [Ricketts] and I have a lot of respect for the way he's handled himself, a Hall of Fame player, the only one working in the minor leagues. He will certainly be a candidate, for sure."

Everyone knew Piniella wasn't coming back next year. He's all but admitted it. He had a three-year deal that was extended to a fourth season. Short of a fantasy world in which he would be gunning for his fourth straight trip to the World Series, with a chance for five, I can't imagine he ever planned on sticking around past this year.

Four is a nice number. It's also a plateau he never got to with the Cubs, seeing as they got swept in three games in both playoff appearances under him. Piniella's 0-6 mark will be the thing fans remember most, it will be his lasting legacy. Not his three straight winning seasons, an anomaly around here, or his funny interviews, or that he invented the term "Cubby Occurrence" or the one, beautiful time he flipped out on an umpire.

Piniella was a high-caliber stopgap solution to replace Dusty Baker. The Tribune Co., knowing the team would be sold, opened up its purse strings and let Hendry, previously hamstrung by Andy McPhail's stewardship, spend like a sailor on shore leave.

The goal was to win quickly, and the Cubs did that, making the playoffs in 2007 and 2008, the latter a dominating season that seemed destined to end at the World Series and end the franchise's 100-year drought.

"Our goal is to win the World Series," Tom Ricketts said. "Our goal is to put a team on the field that can win a World Series every year. I can't envision an era without that and still calling it a success, no."

While the Piniella era can't be considered a success by Ricketts' standards, or society's, Piniella certainly helped jump-start a club that had lagged toward the end of the Baker regime, much like it's doing now.

[+] EnlargeLou Piniella
Tony Ding/Icon SMILou Piniella wasn't as firey in Chicago as he was in his previous stops.

"I can start to see some of the ways this team has lost ballgames," Piniella said early in his first season, during an inspired postgame rant. "I can see it. We've got to correct it, obviously."

The Cubs came together that summer and got red-hot down the stretch. Piniella's honesty is what most players said they loved about him.

"He's done a lot for a lot of players," Ryan Theriot said. "He's done a lot of great things for a lot of guys, especially myself, giving me a chance to play every day."

The past two years have taken the shine off Piniella's tenure, and now the team needs a new voice. Forget Joe Torre, they also need continuity. I think Sandberg is the guy, but we'll see how the search shakes out.

While Piniella's eventual retirement was the biggest news of the day, the confirmation that Hendry is going to be leading the search for the Cubs' next manager was the most important.

"He will be leading the effort to find our new manager for next year and will be our general manager going into next year," Ricketts said.

The new owners didn't fire anybody in their first year, adding staff where there were major holes on the business side and leaving the baseball operations untouched.

In my brief meeting with Ricketts earlier this summer, he expressed confidence in the Cubs' organization, something that goes unnoticed at times by fans sick of their favorite team's limitless ineptitude.

If you're judging Hendry on Milton Bradley, you're being a little shallow. It was a dumb mistake, giving a guy like that a multiyear deal, but he cleaned it up.

If you're still hung up on the money owed to Alfonso Soriano, take a look at his contract. He made $9 million in 2007 and then $13 million the year after. It's $18 million from 2010-14. I wonder why it was structured that way? Food for thought.

Hendry's not perfect, every move he made in 2009 backfired, but when you get past the bold-faced names, Hendry has put together a pretty strong minor league staff, with Oneri Fleita and Tim Wilken both highly respected in the industry.

As one front office man put it to me: How many front-office executives and minor league guys left when the team was for sale for two years? Virtually no one, even with little assurance they would stick around. That's respect.

The Cubs' farm system, once a wasteland for position players, is now turning out future stars. Players such as Geovany Soto, Castro and Tyler Colvin are proof positive that the Cubs are doing their homework.

But it's time to wipe the slate clean. Piniella will be consulting a daiquiri menu at this time next year, and Hendry has a shot or two to save his legacy.

"I'm not going to put it on anybody," Ricketts said. "The fact is that we're all disappointed as a fan, as an owner, as someone who comes here every day, we're all disappointed in where we're at, at this point in the season. I don't think it does any good to look back and point fingers at anyone. But the fact is if we're going to make ourselves relevant in September, we've really got to get going right now."

But that's for the future. Back to Lou, back to the present. Piniella's face is still boyish and mirthful -- when he shaves that is -- despite all those years in the sun. Still, he wears every loss like aftershave. He reeks of disappointment.

"I'm sure it's got to be a lot of pressure," Marlon Byrd said. "It's got to take a toll. Everyone wants to come here and wants to win a championship. And you assume you're going to be the one who's going to do it, you're going to be the guy who comes in to help this team win."

The Cubs did win under Piniella, but not enough.

And that's why the ever-antagonized, always-agonized fanbase, one that pays exorbitant prices for tickets, has been tired of Piniella for the past two years. Well, that, and the brand of Cubs baseball seemingly devolved back into pre-Piniella hijinks.

Perfect example: On Tuesday night, Theriot wildly overthrew Starlin Castro on a possible double play, setting up four unearned runs for Houston. Of course, two of those runs came when Dempster walked a batter and hit another with the bases loaded. It was a perfect storm of slop.

Bad baseball like that is what drives managers to consulting gigs. Bad baseball like that causes owners to fire general managers or managers, neither of which is happening in Chicago.

For those who think the Cubs should retire Piniella early, or that Piniella doesn't care, or won't care the rest of the season, you're wrong. Piniella cares and he will care.

Everybody knows he's not going to let up," Byrd said. "It's Lou Piniella."

That look you see so often isn't resignation. It's barely controlled fury. It's resentment. Acid drips from his tongue, still.

"Oh yeah," Derrek Lee said. "He doesn't like to lose. I don't think there's any secret there. He takes losses extremely hard every time they happen."

"Whenever a man like Lou decides to leave the game, obviously it impacts you in a lot of different ways," Theriot said.

For the Cubs that meant more bad baseball, followed by a few glimmers of hope. After trailing 6-0, the Cubs fought back, getting to 7-6 on Aramis Ramirez's second homer of the game, a three-run shot in the fifth, tying it the next inning on Soto's solo homer and winning 14-7 after Ramirez went deep for a third time.

It was a good win in a tough season. But after taking three of four against Philadelphia to start the virtual second half, maybe Piniella's last season could end on a high note. I really doubt it, but it's not impossible.

"Look, we're still not eliminated," Piniella said. "We've got time. Stranger things … I managed a team in Seattle, for instance, that was 13 ½ out on Aug. 1 and went to the American League Championship finals. That could happen here, we just need to get hot."

"Hopefully this will be a little driving force for us," Byrd said. "A win- one-for-the-Gipper type thing."

I didn't have the heart to tell Byrd what happened to the Gipper.

Jon Greenberg is a columnist for 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.