Commentary

Cubs' plummet likely will end in fall guy

With wins and revenue down, Jim Hendry's days as general manager appear numbered

Updated: June 14, 2011, 10:31 AM ET
By Jon Greenberg | ESPNChicago.com

CHICAGO -- Fledgling scapegoat Mike Quade was contemplative about the Chicago Cubs' latest injury victim, one Kerry Wood.

"We can put people on the moon but we can't come up with something to fix a blister," he said. "Who's going to invent that?"

You know things are going bad when Wood goes on the disabled list with a blister.

OK, scratch that.

You know things are going bad for your fifth-place team when your outfield, from left to right, on a cool June evening is Luis Montanez, Tony Campana and Jeff Baker, when your first baseman is DJ LeMahieu and your high-priced third baseman is playing like he's in-between six packs of Old Style at the Lincoln Park fields.

Speaking of beer, you know things are going bad when a Wrigley beer vendor says his nightly take is a third of what it should be.

"I'll be lucky to sell four loads," an upper-deck vendor told me before the Cubs eked out a 1-0 win over the Milwaukee Brewers on a chilly Monday night.

When the beer's not selling at Wrigley, even at $7 a can, what's left? Sales are so slow, I think I saw a bison dog hang itself with a licorice rope.

Optimism is in short supply at Clark and Addison, and deservedly so, where a hobbled, and maybe hopeless, Cubs team returned from a 2-8 road trip to face Milwaukee and the New York Yankees, before making a trip to the South Side next week.

[+] EnlargeJim Hendry
AP Photo/Charles Rex ArbogastThe Cubs have only played in three divisional playoff series during Jim Hendry's 10-year tenure as general manager.

Forget first place, the Cubs are going to need a telescope to see the fourth-place Pittsburgh Pirates the way things are going.

"The guys are battling," general manager Jim Hendry said before Monday's game. "There's nothing you can do about it. We've got 100 games left. We've got to get healthier and make some hay. Go on a run. You see it all the time in this game."

Sure, you always see fifth-to-first runs from a team roundly expected to finish fourth. But let's not kill Hendry for holding onto a sliver of optimism.

There was no hiding for him on Monday, which is not a surprise. Throughout his roller-coaster tenure as general manager, Hendry has always been available and mostly open and honest with reporters, and by proxy, the fans, providing lengthy analysis, background information and plenty of bad jokes.

You might not buy what he's selling, but Hendry is one of a dying breed, the old-school, let's have a pop and a trade general manager. Some of his moves may seem short-sighted and foolish in retrospect, but at least you know he wants to win in the short term, which really is all we have in this world.

So it's going to be a shame when he's gone.

There is little question, in my mind and many others', that Hendry will be the scapegoat for this ramshackle team, whether it's his removal from his job, or maybe his demotion in importance with the hiring of a baseball operations president.

The fans are showing their displeasure by not coming out to the ballpark. Attendance and interest has been sluggish, though a good crowd of 39,070 showed up Monday night.

The front office might not jack up ticket prices for 2012, but I'll be surprised if they lower them significantly. So, axing Hendry is a quick way to win back public support. I'll be shocked if he has the same gig next year.

Certainly everything is lining up for his exit from the Cubs after a decade in his current role, from his contract being up in 2012 to the money coming off the roster in the next year to the team's atrocious record to the attendance problems to the fans' overriding desire to see Hendry going, going, gone.

And Hendry isn't deaf, dumb or stupid. He understands why he's loathed by a good portion of the Cubs' irritated fanbase. (For instance, on Monday night, his Wikipedia page included the sobriquet Jim "Donuts" Hendry.)

"I've been here a long time," he said. "I expected us to win at a higher level than three division championships. I don't mind that. This is professional baseball in a big market and with a great fan base. We should've done better the last year and a half. So that comes with the territory, and that is my responsibility."

Not long after Hendry met with a phalanx of reporters and cameras, the guy who is in charge of his fate, owner Tom Ricketts, was standing behind home plate having real conversations with fans on the field -- nothing stage-managed, just him being, well, himself.

He walked up to the batting cage and checked on Marlon Byrd, who is still recovering from that beaning in Boston, and Reed Johnson, who is sporting a shiner from getting hit during Triple-A rehab. Ricketts appeared at ease, but he didn't want to talk to a few reporters. Perhaps the sting of a throwaway line blaming injuries that reporters turned into a recurring headline from last homestand still lingered a little.

Maybe he'll address some of the lingering questions surrounding his team when the Yankees come to town this weekend and the Clark Street area is rife with fans for the team's new block party concept.

One thing's for sure, I'd like to hear his honest, unsanitized views of his team, his organization and the team's financial prospects. Of course it's not that easy to be honest.

If he says he's optimistic, like when he told the pack of reporters that injuries were the real scourge of this team, he looks like a mini-McCaskey, a buffoon. If he goes negative and blasts the team, then he's ...

Wait, why doesn't he do that?

Frankly, I think he needs to give fans an unvarnished take on the state of this franchise at some point this month. This is Chicago and real fans want honesty, not handshakes and autographed baseballs.

Of the little I know about Ricketts, and the few times I've talked to him and some of his associates, I know he's not some humorless Tribune prig. At heart, he's a sarcastic, frustrated fan. I talked to a business associate of his last week, who told me Ricketts is beside himself with the play of his team, but that "he's not Steinbrenner. He's not Mark Cuban. He's shy."

When I asked Hendry if Ricketts has shown his frustration with the team, he said, "He has every right to be frustrated. We all are. There's only one thing you can do about it, fight your way out of it."

Hendry spent some time with Ricketts in Arizona recently as the front office completed the amateur draft process. It was probably a nice break from the reality of this AAAA club.

"We're all frustrated," Hendry said. "We don't want to portray ourselves as anything but that. We got off to a bad start, and we certainly didn't overcome it. We're not here to make excuses about the injuries, they're part of it. It's something you've got to find a way to fight through it, survive and get better. But Tom's been outstanding with us."

Hendry also defended Ricketts from a recent report that claimed the team wasn't in a financial position to add free agents next year when a good portion of the team's bloated payroll goes off the books. It's not an off-base rumor, considering the team had to finance Carlos Pena's one-year, $10-million deal over several years, but it's one that was also shot down to me by someone with high-level knowledge of the team's finances.

"There has never been any talk of not pursuing free agents," Hendry said. "There are no financial difficulties with the Ricketts family. I think it will be a great franchise, and even better than it's been, down the road."

The way things are going in the present, Cormac McCarthy would have to author the future script for it to get any more bleak.

I don't have any answers to fix things on the field, and aside from honest platitudes about pumping money into player development and scouting, I'm not sure the Cubs' braintrust does either. Division titles didn't erase the history of this team, and even those look far off right now.

The Cubs announced a new block party and debuted a branded trolley Monday. Will extras like that help boost interest if the team doesn't do a 180?

I don't know much, but I do know you can't market failure here anymore.

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.