This is the Cubs year. Really.
NEW YORK -- These Cubs are not your father's Cubs. Or your grandfather's. Or even your great grandfather's.
This should finally be their year. No, really.
Beyond having the most solid rotation in the National League, the most balanced lineup and most the intimidating bullpen tandem (actually a trio, now that Jeff Samardzija is showing he's far from just a football player), the Cubs have their magic bullet in their fight against their storied history of failure: manager Lou Piniella, who according to people around the team and baseball, has finally changed their outlook. "He's the one who turned them into winners,'' the GM of another competing team said. "He's instilled a winning attitude.''
Piniella's version of tough love was on display when temperamental Carlos Zambrano was having one of his patented fits on the mound Wednesday. Piniella, who can be on the fiery side himself, got right into Zambrano's face and challenged the team's struggling ace. "Let's go,'' you could see Piniella say. A day later Piniella would reveal he's passing over Zambrano for the Game 1 start in favor of reliever-turned-starter Ryan Dempster, yet another wonderful Cubs story. Some might wonder how the explosive, high-strung Zambrano will handle the disappointment, but no one will question Piniella, who knows his players.
It's apparent Piniella won't baby the lovable losers, which is just the right tack to take as the Cubs embark on the playoffs with an excellent chance to break their 99-year losing streak. "We had to change a little of the culture,'' Piniella conceded.
Piniella fairly credited GM Jim Hendry and ownership that made necessary expenditures and adjustments on the roster. "The organization has done a nice job of bringing in players,'' Piniella said.
Hendry made a number of excellent player moves in the last two years, and not just the high-profile signing of Alfonso Soriano for $136-million, either. Mark DeRosa, an idea pressed by assistant GM Randy Bush (who told Hendry, "I don't care where he plays. I don't care whether you have to give him three years. This kid's a winner.'') was a brilliant stroke, as were the in-season trades for ultra-talented starter Rich Harden and the productive center field combo of Reed Johnson and Jim Edmonds, who've stepped in for over-hyped youngster Felix Pie, who so far looks like a rare miss.
Yet, the best move Hendry made was to bring in Piniella, who's feisty enough to think they can break their 99-year jinx. "I've liked him from Day 1,'' Hendry said. "He's a very smart man. And he's a very good game manager. He does a great job handling the starting pitching. Guys aren't overworked. He doesn't pull the plug too early.''
Hendry knows that it's far more than strategy, though, that makes Piniella the perfect choice for the Cubs. Hendry said, "He's very fair. He's very honest. And he plays the whole team because he trusts us.'' Piniella didn't question the organization's faith in Geovany Soto, their superb young catcher ("great,'' the competing GM called him) or wide receiver-turned-reliever Samardzija, who gives the Cubs a third excellent pitcher out of the 'pen, beyond set-up man Carlos Marmol ("the best stuff of any reliever in the National League,'' said the GM) and starter-turned-reliever Kerry Wood. The one big question some are asking is how much Marmol will have left for October after appearing in 80 games, but Piniella's magic touch has quelled those barely heard whispers.
"It's been rewarding,'' Piniella said. "Two years ago we lost the most games in the National League. Two years later we're going to win the most. That's a pretty nice turnaround.''
They went from 66 wins in 2006 to 85 in Piniella's first year to the high-90s this year. The guess is the best is yet to come. This should finally be the year the Cubs make it to the World Series.
Gillick may decide to stand pat in Philly
There's a lot of scuttlebutt that Phillies GM Pat Gillick, who's still one of the best in the business, may not retire after all. Publicly, Gillick has maintained he planned to retire. But several baseball people said they believe the decision has not been made and that Gillick may indeed change his thinking and return to run the Phillies.