- Gene Wojciechowski, Senior Writer
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The next manager of the Chicago Cubs has his team in first place, has it 20 games over .500 and has won seven of his past 10 and 14 of his past 21. He has as many victories this season (74) as the Cubs have losses.
The next manager of the Cubs has his own plaque at Cooperstown, his own flag at Wrigley Field and his own game named after him.
The next manager of the Cubs has a high tolerance for excellence and a low tolerance for divas (uh-oh, Carlos Zambrano). As a bonus, he once told a sports writer, "I should drop you" -- as in, introduce the working end of his knuckles to the guy's jaw for asking one too many questions.
That sports writer was me.
And yet I'm here today to tell Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts and Cubs general manager Jim Hendry that they'd be making a franchise-defining mistake if they pursued, say, Joe Girardi before offering the job to Ryne Sandberg.
Ricketts is a rookie owner stuck with a franchise that not only can't win a World Series (102 years and counting) but also might not finish higher than fifth in the NL Central this season. And that's only because God invented the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Meanwhile, Hendry is a pragmatic GM, a pro's pro who knows his future is duct-taped to his past. He assembled this roster, made it the third-highest-paid payroll in the big leagues and then watched it flutter to the ground like a handful of confetti thrown into a ceiling fan. Worse yet, four of his least reliable players are also four of his highest-paid: the injury-prone Aramis Ramirez ($16.7 million), the bench-prone Kosuke Fukudome ($14 million, which is why he's been showcased recently), the slump-prone Alfonso Soriano ($19 million) and the meltdown-prone Zambrano ($18.8 million). It's the 2010 Murderers' Row of baseball failure.
But if you think it's bad now, fellas, wait until August melts into September, and September into October. That's when you'll see tumbleweeds blowing across certain seating sections of Wrigley. Yes, Wrigley.
What, you think Cubs fans are circling the Sept. 3 Zambrano bobblehead doll promotion on their calendars? Think they're going to schlep to the ballpark for the Sept. 8 Cubs toiletry bag giveaway? Vomit bag, maybe. Toiletry bag, no.
The Cubs are borderline unwatchable and completely irrelevant. They were so fired up for Sunday's game -- Lou Piniella's last as Cubs manager -- that they lost only 16-5. They haven't quit; they just can't do any better.
The temptation for Ricketts and Hendry will be to romance Girardi, the Illinois native/Northwestern alumnus/former Cub who managed the New York Yankees to a World Series last season and is favored to win another one this season. Don't get me wrong -- Girardi has the ring and the bona fides -- but what happens if he says no?
The Cubs need Girardi more than Girardi needs the Cubs. When Girardi fills out his lineup card these days, he's choosing from at least two no-brainer future Hall of Famers in Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera (three if you count Alex Rodriguez's numbers produced by performance-enhancing drugs), two potentially strong future HOF candidates (CC Sabathia and Robinson Cano) and three possible future vote getters (Mark Teixeira, Jorge Posada and Andy Pettitte). And did I mention the Yankees also have Curtis Granderson, Phil Hughes, Brett Gardner and, who knows, maybe Cliff Lee next year?
At this moment, the Cubs have exactly zero future Famers. They do have, well, let's see, Ryan Dempster, Starlin Castro, Carlos Marmol and a really cool scoreboard. And just to be polite, I'll put Geovany Soto and Tyler Colvin on the list.
Girardi's Yankees began the season by outspending the Cubs by $60 million ($206 mil to $146 mil), and they'll do at least the same, probably more, next season. If Girardi stays in Yankees pinstripes he has a legitimate chance to get sprayed with champagne every November. If he takes a flier on the Cubs, he has a chance to be fired in Year 3 of his tenure.
Girardi was a Cub. Sandberg is the Cubs. Only six retired Cubs jersey numbers fly from the Wrigley flagpoles: Ron Santo's No. 10, Ernie Banks' No. 14, Billy Williams' 26, Greg Maddux's and Ferguson Jenkins' No. 31, and Sandberg's No. 23. Ask anyone in Chicago about "The Sandberg Game" and they'll recite the date (June 23, 1984) and his line (5-for-6, a game-tying homer in the ninth off Bruce Sutter, a game-tying homer in the 10th off Sutter, seven RBIs) by heart.
But you don't hire Sandberg as a Cubs museum piece. You hire him because if you don't, someone else will.
According to an MLB executive, at least one big league organization seriously considered offering Sandberg its manager job for 2010. With as many as 10 likely openings this offseason, Sandberg will be in demand. If the Cubs try to romance Girardi first, they'll risk losing Sandberg to another team. And if Girardi stays put in New York and Sandberg goes elsewhere and wins, the Ricketts might want to consider full-time residence in Bolivia.
Hendry is a good baseball man. He hired Dusty Baker and came within five outs of reaching a World Series. He hired Piniella for all the right reasons, but by the end, the 66-year-old manager was beaten down by a pair of playoff failures, a second-place division finish in 2009 and this latest washout in 2010. Anyway, Piniella's mother is ill, and it's time for him to go.
Sandberg is 16 years younger than Piniella. He understands the Cubs. He has lived the Cubs. Cubs fans named their babies after Sandberg.
But most of all, Sandberg has paid his dues. Hendry told him that if he wanted to be considered for a big league manager's job, he'd have to start in low-Class A ball. So Sandberg went to Class A Peoria (Girardi's hometown). Then Double-A Tennessee. Then Triple-A Iowa. That first stop in the minors was four years ago. And he never complained. Never big-timed it as a HOFer. People notice those sorts of things.
Sandberg grinded. His personality evolved from introvert to someone who isn't afraid to speak his mind. (See his Hall of Fame speech.) Along the way he learned how to manage.
I know what you're saying: There's a difference between managing at Principal Park in Des Moines and Wrigley in Chicago. You're right. And if anybody has earned the right to find out the difference, it's Sandberg.
Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at email@example.com. Hear Gene's podcasts and ESPN Radio appearances by clicking here.
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