The Best Worst Job in Sports
Dealing with Brett Favre's drama is close, but nothin' matches the Cubs' black hole
Now that Lou Piniella has announced this will be his last season as Cubs manager -- he's getting out before, you know, he reaches the point that he's strumming his bottom lip with his fingers -- the Best Worst Job in Sports is about to open up.
Go ahead. Take a poll. Piniella's soon-to-be-vacant job would almost certainly win, although Brad Childress' current position might have muddied the argument over the past few days. Brett Favre's latest bait-and-switch retirement saga has again left the flummoxed Vikings coach looking as though he labors in some weird wrinkle in the time/space continuum that no light or sound or even text messages from Mississippi can penetrate. That's got to be a godforsaken place. Really. How is it that when it comes to Favre's plans, Childress often seems like the last to know?
There are other contenders for the Best Worst Job in Sports. Ugly -- like beauty -- is in the eye of the beholder. Most sports fans probably could come up with a list of their own. But many of the obvious nominees -- like being Favre's retirement bobo -- just don't have the same staying power as the Cubs' gig.
Is working for a meddling owner like Al Davis or the Cowboys' Jerry Jones a "bad" job? In a way, sure. Jones acts like he gives coach Wade Phillips a Rolls Royce of a team to drive every year, and then he inevitably treats Phillips like some rube who keeps grinding the clutch.
The thankless Toronto Maple Leafs job comes to mind because Toronto is the center of the hockey universe, yet the Maple Leafs never win the Stanley Cup. Coaching the New York Knicks is usually high on most Best Worst short lists, too, because the Knicks last won a championship in 1973. They haven't even won a playoff game since dinosaurs like Charles Oakley roamed the earth.
Good Job or Bad Job?
Managing the Cubs is tough. Just ask Sweet Lou. But so is coaching the Knicks, at least lately. How about working for Al Davis? Or Jerry Jones? You tell us. Are these good jobs or bad jobs? Vote.
But the Cleveland Cavaliers' head-coaching job has eclipsed even the Knicks as the Best Worst spot in the NBA now that Cavs owner Dan Gilbert, in a spectacular display of hit-the-road rage, recently vowed that Cleveland would win a title before his departed star LeBron James does.
Good luck with that.
Gilbert seems willing to do everything humanly possible to make winning a championship come true. And yet his quest has the same quixotic feel that managing the Cubs always does: Winning a championship is theoretically attainable. But will any of us live to see it?
The reason the Cubs job always trumps everything else for Best Worst Job in Sports is simple: Winning a World Series with the Cubs is the best available team accomplishment in sports.
Try naming anything that could be better than being the savior who snapped the Cubs' 102-year streak without a championship. You can't.
"You'd be 'The Man' there forever," Dusty Baker said before he tried, and failed, from 2003 through '06.
''It's like asking an astronaut if he wants to go to outer space or a race car driver if he wants to drive the newest Maserati," former Texas and Mets manager Bobby Valentine, now an ESPN analyst, recently told The Chicago Tribune. "[The Cubs job] is cherished.
"It's also a graveyard."
Baker, who has the Cincinnati Reds battling for first place (in -- ahem -- the Cubs' division), has said he wasn't aware that not one of the managers who had been let go by the Cubs in the 31 years before him had been given a chance to manage again in the big leagues. He snapped the streak when he joined the Reds in '07. Jim Riggleman, now the Washington Nationals' manager, became the second when he managed Seattle in 2008.
A partial list of the 18 managers who came before Baker includes Gene Michael, Preston Gomez, Joey Amalfitano, Herman Franks, Don Zimmer, Jim Frey, Don Baylor and Lee Elia. Elia managed the Cubs for only two seasons but remains infamous for his profanity-laced rant about Cubs fans that included the zinger, "Eighty-five percent of the [population] in the world is working. The other 15 percent come out here'' to Wrigley Field.
"A lot of good men," Baker said of his predecessors. "But they're all beat up when they leave."
That includes Piniella. The day the Cubs introduced him as manager, Piniella said, "We're gonna win. That's really the end of the story."
The Curse of the Billy Goat? Baah! "Curses? Come on," Piniella scoffed.
Piniella promptly took the Cubs to the postseason in 2007 and 2008 -- the first time in a century they made back-to-back playoff appearances. Then fate said that'd be enough.
The Cubs were eliminated in the division series both times.
They've been on a downward glide since.
And look at Sweet Lou now. The dugout cameras occasionally catch him with that thousand-yard stare, as if someone forced him to listen to Ozzy Osbourne's version of "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" on a continuous loop for four years.
It should be enough to scare anyone away. Yet there are rumors that 70-year-old Joe Torre might want a crack at managing the Cubs if he leaves the Los Angeles Dodgers. Yankees manager Joe Girardi might at least listen to his hometown Cubs, too, if only because his Yankees contract is up.
In some ways -- if just a few -- Valentine is like Piniella. He has a big personality. He's got fire. And he has this crazy, unseconded notion that if he gets the Cubs job, things will somehow be different.
Yankees pitcher Kerry Wood says he arrived in Chicago believing the same thing.
Wood, who has done an admirable job of resurrecting his career in a second act as a reliever since beginning his injury-plagued Cubs career as a starter, lived through the infamous Bartman game with Baker when the Cubs were just five outs from making the 2003 World Series. Wood says almost everyone, players and managers, comes to the Cubs saying they have nothing to do with the bad history, so why would they be handcuffed by it?
"Then somehow, it really does wear on you anyway," Wood says. "In Chicago, the 100 years of living and dying with losses does matter. You can be out there going great for five or six innings. Then you walk two guys and give up a base hit, and right away you hear the moaning. The groans. You tell yourself to shut it out. But you hear it because it's coming at you from 40,000 people."
So to summarize what the Cubs job offers: The opportunity for the best accomplishment in team sports. The weight of 102 years of futility. The baseball tombstones of 18 good men who managed the Cubs since the mid-'70s all lined up in a row, with epitaphs reading that the Cubs' torture chamber was the last career stop for nearly all of them. And now the sight of Piniella choosing to quit before someone puts a toe tag on him, too.
Valentine knows all that. He's a smart man. He says he loves his TV job.
So, he wouldn't want to interview for the Cubs job, would he?
"I'd love to," Valentine said.
Johnette Howard is a contributing columnist to ESPN.com and ESPNNewYork.com, and is the author of "The Rivals: Chris Evert vs. Martina Navratilova, Their Epic Duels and Extraordinary Friendship." She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.