Op/Ed: Summer of '95

Strip away the sky-high salaries, the endorsements, the egos, the BALCO allegations, the recent Expos debacle, season ticket prices that force fans to take a second mortgage out on their home, and what are you left with?

My summer of 1995 spent coaching little league baseball for a wide-eyed group of 13 and 14-year-olds...

I was a year out of college, our community team that my youngest brother played on needed a coach, and hey, they were so desperate that they threw in $600 to boot. Sold.

The most amazing part about my coaching experience was that, from top to bottom, it was a great group of kids. Some were playing in hopes of one day moving on to high school and college ball. Others just wanted an excuse to hang out with their friends for the summer.

At the beginning of the season, I made one speech, and it went something like this:

"I am not concerned about how many games we win, or who we beat. There are three important things I want to happen this year.

"First, when the season ends, I want the team to be better than it was at the beginning of the summer. Second, when the season ends, I want each player to be better than they were at the beginning of the summer. Third, everyone should be having fun. If we aren't doing these three things, I have failed as a coach."

Of course, a few games into the season I found out that it wasn't that simple. Fathers wanted kids to bat higher in the order, play a different position, or have a different jersey number. But those turned out to be minor diversions.

The summer of 1995 keeps popping into my mind lately, like an uninvited 11th friend that shows up to a pickup basketball game. Major league managers are evaluated by wins and expectations, a reality highlighted by the dismissal of Red Sox skipper Grady Little for leaving one of the game's best pitchers in for one pitch too many in last year's American League Championship Series.

But how does one explain it when a guy like Little gets canned after what is by all measurements a very successful season, while some managers stick around for years and years while their team wallows in mediocrity.

Expectations.

I could have held off until the end of the season to write this article. But waiting to see if the Cubs in fact secured the wild card spot would be hypocritical, because I do not think Dusty Baker's ability should be measured by expectations. Rather, I think it should be measured by the same three goals that I set out for myself during that summer of 1995.

Is the team better now than it was at the beginning of the season? Are the players, individually, better now than they were at the beginning of the season? Finally, are the players having fun? The answer to all three questions is no.

The Cubs played better as a team in June against top competition with half of their starting lineup on the injured list than they are playing now with a beefed-up roster against the doormats (not you, Florida) of the National League.

With the exception of Corey Patterson, Greg Maddux and Derrek Lee, it is hard to argue that players have dramatically improved their own production as the season has progressed. In fact, too many players (Sammy Sosa, Matt Clement, and the entire bullpen for example) have seen their production crumble during the pennant drive.

Last, and most important in my opinion, is that this team is not having fun. You can read it on their faces. The explosions, suspensions and chirping at the broadcast team are all a product of prevailing negativity spreading through the clubhouse like a plague, one which has had a direct impact on the team's inability to play consistently solid baseball.

There were two reasons the Cubs made the playoffs last year: Mark Prior and Kenny Lofton. If you have forgotten what Prior's last two months of pitching were like in 2003, just watch Johan Santana of the Minnesota Twins right now. Sheer domination.

Lofton not only brought a much-needed leadoff hitter to the Cubs, but energy and optimism that spread through the team and propelled them to the pennant.

I have written critically of Dusty Baker for the last two years, and a grain of salt is probably required for my readers. However, waiting until the end of the year to evaluate his performance would go against the fundamental basis upon which he should be judged.

Regardless of whether or not this team earns the wildcard, it is time for Baker to go. His reputation has always been as a guy better at managing what goes on off the field as opposed to what happens between the two foul lines. But this season has tested even that theory, and one is left to wonder if Dusty Baker is a good fit for this team and organization.

Cub management should take a long hard look at the past two seasons as they decide Dusty's fate.

I know I already have.

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