A Cloud of Dust(y)

Sweet Lou may have been trying to secure his reputation as one of the greatest managers in the game, but he seems to forget that the Cubs kill managers and their reputations.

Imagine that you aren't just playing fantasy baseball; imagine that you really are a big-league baseball manager. You need brass balls to tell players who make roughly ten times your salary that you're moving them down to the six spot in the lineup, or onto the bench. You need a silver shovel to dig your way out from under the horsecrap piled on you nightly by idiotic media members that seem to multiply each year. You need ears of stone to ignore the same media as they bait fans into calling you a miserable failure for every game lost, every pitching change that doesn't work out, every year that your team doesn't win a World Series. And you need the spine and adaptive ability of a jellyfish, to deal with rampant roster change handed down from the suits in the owners' boxes.

Now imagine that you've played this game for years, beaten it down. You can out-cuss a leathery cowboy on a five-day binge of whiskey and whores, and your players believe you're the devil in cleats sent to them directly from Hell itself. You can stonewall sportswriters, but you say just enough with a look or with a moment in confidence to keep them on your side and let them know you're in charge.

You're the captain of this ship, and the sportswriters, the fans, and the haters alike are just rats, stowaways that you generously feed with a morsel here, and a drop of rum there. Any crumb of your baseball wisdom that you put on their plate is an act of unbelievable kindness, more than they deserve, and the vermin love you for it. And you have ownership convinced that you are the Answer, the Truth and the Way. They'll gladly excavate their savings accounts to get you the biggest bat on the market, or the livest arm, and if you don't like the ones they got, they'll damn well get you more.

Let's say that you and your World Series ring are suddenly freed from your crappy, unworthy team. Now you could have your pick of jobs across all of baseball, from the lowly Marlins to the kingly Yankees. You're nearing retirement, and this might be your last job in flannel jumpers – you'll be damned if you're going to wind up like Zimmer, a fat senile sack of crap sitting on the end of the Yankees bench to spout nonsense and have your bald head rubbed for good luck by players who could buy and sell your whole family with a month's paycheck.

You need a real challenge, something that will make you more than the best manager on the open market, something that could make you immortal and send you into the golden glow of an easy life of endorsements and book tours. Because hell yes, you have a book or two in you.

Only one job is impossible enough to do that: taking the Cubs to a World Series title.

And only one man is dumb enough to think he can do it: Sweet Lou Piniella.

Cubs and managers… not a good mix

"Hate me but you'll be a better ballplayer for it." – Gene Oliver's description of Leo Durocher's philosophy of managing.

Why would Lou Piniella think he can succeed where Dusty Baker before him could not; and for that matter, where Jim Riggleman, Don Baylor, Jim Lefebvre, Don Zimmer, Lee Elia, and every other manager, player-manager, and "college of coaches" since Frank Chance in nineteen-aught-eight have failed?

For one, he has serious financial backers. For years, Tribune Co. spent just enough to make the team respectable, and then choked on every penny afterwards. Now though, with a sale in the wings, ownership has opened the floodgates to the tune of more than $300 million in player salary commitments this offseason, spending money that would make internet millionaires blush.

And for the other, Piniella has that gleaming World Series ring, big as Muhammed Ali's fist and shiny as God's teeth, the one thing besides the words "contract renegotiation" that might command a player's attention. In fact, Sweet Lou is the first manager to willfully come to the Cubs after winning that ring since Leo Durocher was coaxed out of retirement in 1966.

There are other strong resemblances between the two men: Durocher played in the majors for years, winning two World Series rings with the Yankees and Cardinals; Piniella got to the big stage four times in eleven years with the Yankees, winning two as well. As manager, Durocher took the Giants to the mountaintop at age 48, and was hired by the Cubs at age 60; Piniella brought the Reds to glory at age 46, and is 63 now. Most notably, both men are known for their short fuses as managers: Leo "the Lip" was a fierce sonuvabitch who wouldn't hesitate to bawl out umpires, opposing players, and especially his own baseballers for any grievance he could name, and some that he couldn't; Piniella, meanwhile, is one of the mostejected managers in baseball history, and is notoriously intolerant of poorly performing pitchers, once brawling with Rob Dibble in the Reds' clubhouse.

Piniella hopes the comparison ends there.

Durocher turned his team around in two short years, infusing the bedraggled team with young talent like Fergie Jenkins, Ron Santo, and Billy Williams around the aging "Mr. Cub," Ernie Banks. While the team suffered to a finish in the gutter in '66, '67 and '68 saw the transformed Northsiders rise up into contention. Durocher was hailed as a master motivator and potential savior, but his team famously fell short of the "Miracle Mets" in the collapse of 1969; three years later, under open revolt from his players and the team's callow fans, he would be ridden out of town on a rail.

Peter Golenback's book "Wrigleyville: A Magical History Tour of the Chicago Cubs" tells a first-hand account of a fateful team meeting in August 1971, long after the shine was gone from Durocher's trophy case. The manager had been riding his men down, both young and old, for years trying to get them past second place and onto the championship field; Santo was 31 and wasn't hitting like he was, but was still the team's best player. Perhaps contrite, Leo opened the meeting by promising to lay off the shouting and the constant pressure – by meeting's end the manager and his star were grappling and cursing each other out at full volume, and Santo had to be pulled away before he choked the life out of the old man. The Cubs didn't win the pennant that year, or any year since. Durocher was fired a half season later.

Nevertheless, after four years of Dus ty Bake r ' s playe r - f r iendl y demeanor, Cub fans are ready for someone to bring out the whipping stick, and Piniella has already shown that he will not spare the verbal rod. But it may be a slippery slope for the angry old man, if he steps into Durocher's ghostly shoes.

A Herculean Task

"Give players an excuse to lose a game, and they will." – Jim Bouton

The Cubs are still fundamentally bad in ways that a manager might hope to have some influence – strikeouts, fielding, and baserunning just to name a few – but ultimately Piniella will find that losing is the proud cultural heritage of the Cubs. Just by putting on the uniform and inheriting those 99 years of terrible play and worse luck, they have a built-in excuse for failure.

Baker knew it when he came on board, and he tried to build an "us against the world" mentality in the clubhouse. Baker brought his 25 guys to war against anyone and defendedbthem to everyone who might cast a negative eye, even going so far as to bring the war against his own television broadcast team. He pushed his players until they thought they might break, perhaps just to prove to them that they wouldn't. Unfortunately for him, two of those men were Kerry Wood and Mark Prior, and they did.

Piniella inherited all of Baker's mess, including Prior's latest season-ending shoulder surgery, but hasn't been deterred yet. While the starting pitching – including some guy named Jason Marquis who you may have heard of – has been surprisingly good, the bullpen has been disastrous, but Piniella is making copious use of his talents for on-field verbal motivation. The offense has been struggling – Derrek Lee, Jacques Jones and the filthy-rich Alfonso Soriano have combined for a single home run this season, and the Cubs unofficially lead the major leagues in scrambles down the first base line after waving at strike three in the dirt. Piniella hasn't taught them how to hit yet, but by God he has them hustling their asses down that first base line and back into the dugout.

Orpheus went to Hell and back for love, but failed to bring back his wife; out of pride, Lou Piniella is just now starting the same journey. The Fates will tell us in due time whether his quest will succeed, but we Cardinal fans have an idea how it will turn out.


St. Louis Game Time's "The First Pitch", is the official print publication of the Birdhouse at www.thestlcardinals.com, don't forget to pick up your "free" copy at Al Hrabosky's Ballpark Saloon just across the street from Busch Stadium.

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