Chaos to champs can happen
With Cubs buried in distractions and standings, Piniella points to his 1978 Yankees
CHICAGO -- It's sort of funny that during the Cubs' team meeting Saturday, manager Lou Piniella used his 1978 Yankees team as an example of a club climbing back from a seemingly insurmountable hole.
His point was that New York trailed Boston by 14½ games July 19 before eventually toppling the Red Sox in the famous Bucky Dent one-game playoff game and went on to defeat the Dodgers for the Yankees' second straight World Series win.
Maybe a handful of Piniella's players have heard of Sparky Lyle's book, "The Bronx Zoo." Maybe one or two have even read it. But most likely took their skipper's story at face value and didn't catch the irony that the team that ended up winning it all that year was even more screwed up than the Cubs.
Making famous the role of team egomaniac, which Carlos Zambrano would later reprise, was none other than Reggie Jackson, suspended five games by the club for insubordination on July 17 of that year. After Jackson was told to lay down a bunt with a man on, one out and the game tied in the 10th inning, manager Billy Martin called off the bunt sign but an angry Jackson attempted to bunt three times anyway and struck out.
The Yankees won all five games without Jackson and trimmed the Red Sox's lead to 10 games. But it was a mere footnote that season. On July 25, Martin was fired and replaced by Bob Lemon after Martin's infamous stroll through O'Hare in which he remarked to reporters of Jackson and Yanks owner George Steinbrenner, "One's a born liar and the other's convicted."
Piniella said Saturday that the difference between his Cubs now and his Yankees then was that the Yankees won 100 games. The Yankees also had Ron Guidry (who went 25-3 with an ERA of 1.74), Goose Gossage, Catfish Hunter and Thurman Munson. Piniella hit .314 that season. And, oh yeah, Jackson had six home runs in the postseason in addition to the eighth-inning homer New York needed to beat the Red Sox in the one-game playoff.
Zambrano is no Reggie Jackson.
And the Cubs are not the '78 Yankees.
Be that as it may, when Piniella was asked if the punishment would have been the same had Zambrano been pitching like he was in 2008, Piniella came down on his indefinitely suspended pitcher like Martin came down on Jackson.
"You still can't accept or put up with those sort of things," Piniella said of Zambrano's dugout tirade the night before. "It's impossible for a team to function with the things that were said. No, I think this would have been handled the exact same way. Winning and losing is important. They're not that important."
Ironic as well is the fact that Piniella and others provided leadership for the Yankees' club that helped them survive the craziness.
The Cubs, who have lost eight of their last nine series after a taut 3-2 loss Saturday to the White Sox, are a season-low 10 games under .500 and have the countenance of a team that seems to know there will be no dramatic Yankees- or Sox-like comebacks this season.
The Sox, meanwhile, who have won 11 in a row, their longest win streak since 1961, are playing with the same quiet confidence as their leader, Paul Konerko, who ripped a 99 mph fastball by Andrew Cashner into the left-field seats for the game-winner in the eighth inning.
The Cubs don't know quiet, though Saturday was certainly calmer without their biggest distraction.
Piniella said Zambrano would be demoted to the bullpen when he returns to the team. Asked if that would be a long-term move, Piniella half-chuckled.
"It's not short-term, that's for sure," he said.
Banishing Zambrano won't be easy. Even if he does waive his no-trade clause, there's the matter of eating a good chunk of the $50 million coming to him.
Zambrano hasn't been the same pitcher since signing that $91.5 million extension in 2007, just in case anyone hasn't noticed. And as of Saturday night, he still hadn't apologized or even tried to contact anyone with the Cubs.
He did, however, have a nice dinner with Sox manager and good friend Ozzie Guillen, which particularly annoyed both Piniella and assistant general manager Randy Bush.
"I would have hoped that he would have stayed in private and reflected on this," said Piniella. "That's just my thought."
Added Bush: "I'm disappointed to hear he was out yukking it up at dinner."
Guillen wouldn't go into details about how many actual yuks there were. He did say it was a nice time and that the two didn't spend the whole time talking about the incident, lest he ruin Zambrano's dinner. He did say -- and he's right -- that the Cubs and their fans knew what they had in Zambrano.
"Carlos has been like that since he started playing baseball," Guillen said. "Now all of a sudden he sucks and people are pointing fingers at him. When you don't produce and you don't do what you're supposed to do and you make a lot of money, you'll always be the same guy. ... He's been like this for a lot of years and they should know; we should know that's the way he is."
Guillen said Zambrano knew he "overreacted" and tried to give him some big-brotherly advice.
"He said he was upset with the team, that was it," Guillen said. "I told him to wait for a couple of days. He will do what I told him to do, face it like a man, don't turn your back on the problem. What are they going to do to him? Trade him? Release him? Suspend him? At least when you face it like a man and admit you were wrong, everyone moves on. He didn't kill anybody. He just made a mistake."
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And like most knuckle-headed mistakes, there are repercussions and there is a domino effect. In this case, the Cubs had to send down reliever Jeff Stevens, one of four relievers strained to the limit after Zambrano's meltdown, a move that seemed to genuinely disturb Piniella and Bush as much as anything.
"That's a direct result of Carlos' actions yesterday and nobody in the organization is happy that we had to send down a young man who was doing the job, pitching well," Bush said. "It's upsetting to have to deliver that message to somebody who's doing the job because the other guy pitched one inning for us yesterday and put us in a bad spot with our bullpen."
The obvious question is what, if any, good will come from this latest episode. Piniella's meeting with his players, he said, resulted in a "very open discussion."
"I told them if they wanted to criticize me as a manager, so be it, and that's the truth," he said. "I want what's best for this organization and I want to win some baseball games."
The only criticism, or at least all that Piniella shared, was a request from his team to post his lineup a little earlier. Not exactly crucial stuff.
But then again, maybe it shows that the Cubs' biggest problem, other than their inability to win on a regular basis, is their controversial pitcher.
Piniella said he hadn't talked Saturday to general manager Jim Hendry, who wasn't at the ballpark, or to team owner Tom Ricketts about Zambrano. But Piniella did say he hoped things would be cleared up this week.
"We'll give Carlos some time and see what happens," he said.
After Saturday night's loss, Alfonso Soriano said he planned to call Zambrano and see how he was feeling.
"He picked the wrong time and the wrong scenario," Soriano said of Friday's events.
Would Zambrano be forgiven by his teammates when he does come back?
"I don't know," Soriano said. "We'll take it one day at a time."
On the bright side, the Cubs are still far short of the depths in which the '78 Yanks found themselves.
"It can be done here," Piniella said. "But it's got to start. We've dug ourselves a hole and we have to work ourselves out of it and hopefully we will. That's what I want and that's what my players want too."
If only it were that easy.
Melissa Isaacson is an ESPNChicago.com columnist.