Just win, baby
The new Cubs owners must make the right choices to get the organization on track
CHICAGO -- Lou Piniella memorialized his longtime friend and former boss George Steinbrenner on Thursday afternoon in the cool, air-conditioned interview room at a humid Wrigley Field.
Had the old Steinbrenner been Piniella's boss this season, he'd be the ex-manager of the Chicago Cubs right now, sitting in his cool, air-conditioned living room in his house in humid Tampa, Fla.
Fifty losses at the break? What would The Boss' reaction be to that ignominious number? To quote his fictional assistant to the traveling secretary: "George is getting upset!"
Then again, this is the North Side, not the Bronx Zoo. I was dutifully informed by the team's PR staff that Piniella is the first Cubs skipper to have 39 wins at the All-Star break in four consecutive seasons since Leo the Lip did it during the Cubs' nine-year run in 1967-75.
Yes, 39 wins is something they keep track of around here. That's what an unlucky century will do to a team.
With that in mind, someone asked Piniella if the combustive Steinbrenner of old, or I guess, the combustive Steinbrenner of recent vintage, would have been able to exist in Chicago. I'm not sure why that was a question, given Steinbrenner's love of the limelight.
"His main focus was winning," Piniella said Thursday. "He didn't take any shortcuts to win. His style would work anywhere."
Yeah, I think Steinbrenner would have fit in just fine in Chicago, except he wouldn't have limited the franchise as the Tribune Co. did all those years, on and off the field, and we certainly wouldn't be talking about 39 wins at the break as some kind of benchmark.
While the Cubs don't have a Steinbrenner, they now have a Tom Ricketts, who has played it calm, cool and collected during his short tenure. But soon, he'll have some big decisions to make, and how he does that, along with his siblings on the board, is still the prevailing story line right now, unless the Cubs can't put together that mythical run Piniella has been speaking of the past few months, starting with Thursday's 12-6 win over the Philadelphia Phillies.
This was a win Steinbrenner would have enjoyed: a lot of action and a full house.
Dissatisfied fans are waiting for Ricketts to issue the smackdown on Piniella, general manager Jim Hendry and whomever else takes the blame for this underperforming team.
And in a lot of ways, the best part about the second half starting is that we have less than three months before this organization begins an on-the-fly rebuilding process. I'm not in the mood to prophesize about the front office's future for the next few months.
So, while I may be a pessimist, I'd still like to see the Cubs put together a little streak and make things interesting, even if they went into the break 9½ games out of first place in the NL Central.
"I've said it. We need to put a hot streak together," Piniella said before the win. "We need to swing the bats and put runs on the board consistently. Nine games is not insurmountable. I look forward to the challenge, but we've got to get it done on the field."
Piniella's oft-repeated words came true at least in the first game of the rest of the season, as the Cubs won the opener of their series with Philadelphia in convincing fashion. This was only the second time the Cubs have scored double-digit runs since early May, and the Phillies made it only semi-respectable by scoring four in the ninth off Bob Howry.
"This is what we hoped for," Piniella said, chuckling. "This is what we talked about. We got it tonight. A lot of hitting, a long ball, extra-base hits.
"Good ballgame for us."
In the second, Starlin Castro tripled and stole home as Ryan Dempster couldn't make contact on a Moyer ball in the dirt. It was the team's first straight steal of home since Brian McRae did it in 1996. Castro went 3-for-4, a homer shy of the cycle.
"It wasn't a hunch," Piniella said of the play. "We figured we'd try a few things different. No, I never have [called a squeeze that early]. Hopefully I never will again."
"I think the offense was showing off tonight," Soriano said. "I think everyone came in fresh and forgot the first half. Now it's a new season for us. I hope everybody feels the same."
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Ramirez and Lee, of course, were reasons 1 and 1A why the Cubs' offense has been so moribund. Ramirez came into the game hitting .207 and Lee .233. Combined, they had just three more RBIs (68-65) than Ryan Howard did coming into the game.
"When they're doing some damage, we're going to score some runs," Piniella said. "Today they did some damage and we scored a lot of runs. Good to see."
After giving up a mammoth two-run homer to Howard in the first, Dempster settled down and pitched into the seventh.
"I know everyone wants to count us down and out, and for the season to be over with, but we refuse to do that," Dempster said.
It was a fun win on a hot night, but let's not get carried away.
The Cubs are 10 games under .500 for a reason. In fact, they haven't had a winning record all year and haven't been at .500 since May 2. That should be the goal. If the Cubs can manage a winning record this season, it would be a nice way for Piniella to go out and would pay off the fans who spend precious cash on tickets (with no secondary market to speak off). There is an intrinsic value to winning the games left on your schedule.
But if you don't care about the rest of this season, which is acceptable given the first half, I'll share my thoughts on the future.
I'd like to see the organization, which spent money like Eddy Curry in the waning years of the Tribune Co's reign, trim the payroll to the $100 million neighborhood and have room to add later, if necessary.
As it stands before arbitration (there are eight second-year arbitration players, plus Soto, who's also arbitration eligible), the Cubs have more than $103 million in guaranteed money -- split between nine players -- for 2011, according to Cot's Contracts.
I'm not calling for more spending. I want to see smarter spending, something Ricketts has worked into his public comments since taking over the team.
Cutting superfluous salaries, even after Ted Lilly and Lee come off the books, would take some deft maneuvering by Hendry, who was recently ranked by his peers as the best GM with whom to do business.
"Hendry is the type of person you'd feel comfortable going out and having a beer with," an unnamed GM told ESPN Insider Buster Olney recently. "He's a back-slapping type of guy, and that really works for making trades."
Get that back-slapping hand ready, Jim. And hey, I've got a few stray Schlitz bottles in my fridge, if the budget is tight.
Hendry, whom I'm guessing will still be running the show after this year, is under no illusions, publicly and certainly not privately, about the team's status right now.
"We're in the situation where if we make deals in the next couple weeks, they will always have a design toward the future," Hendry said. "This is the way it should be. We put ourselves in a spot we didn't see coming and certainly weren't pleased about it.
"That being said, when you're 10½ games back, you're not looking to add guys the normal way we did it when we were in it, adding guys with big salaries that might get you over the hump, even if they were short-term guys like Rich Harden or whoever. It's a situation where we've got good enough players to be better than what we've done and we just didn't do it."
We've wasted so much time and ink railing on the Cubs' deficiencies this season, and frankly it's been deserved, but rather than treat these next few months like a countdown, it would be nice to see the Cubs play this well more than once a week.
I know that's asking for the moon, the way this season has unfolded. Forget the playoffs, forget the offseason, let's just see some good baseball. I don't care if it's Darwin Barney or Derrek Lee in the lineup.
Piniella is still mourning the loss of Steinbrenner, but he isn't ready to eulogize his Cubs just yet.
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.