Piniella, Cubs can't win for losing
The Cubs, who have the game's No. 3 payroll, are nine games out in the Central
The conventional wisdom on the Cubs is that they haven't played to their potential
Maybe what Cubs fans need is a 100-loss team; they haven't had one since 1966
There's always enough money and just enough baseball talent on the North Side of Chicago to keep things from getting truly ugly. I have a theory that this, and not their team's epic history of failure, is why Cubs fans are so bitter and angry. Their team doesn't even lose well.
Which isn't to say they don't try. The best and most talented team in the National League last year, and the third highest paid in baseball this year, the Cubs have gone from a half-game back of the St. Louis Cardinals to nine games behind in a month and now aren't serious contenders. This has brought them a lot of deserved abuse at Wrigley Field lately. Just as they can't offer a team worth loving, though, the Cubs can't offer one worth really hating, either; one can only be so mad at a team that wins more than it loses. So the jeers have been a bit strained and desultory.
This is sad, but fits tradition. Most teams enjoy proper misery in their down years, which at least gives their supporters something to be glad of, since the only thing a baseball fan likes as much as a great team is a wretched one. The Cubs haven't lost 100 games in a season since 1966, though; they aren't even good at offering up a team worth booing the hell out of. In a sense, this year's model may be the quintessential Cubs nine.
As the season nears fiasco, though, one suspects that this team can be something more, something transcendent. When Carlos Zambrano tries to eject an umpire from a game, when Milton Bradley accuses Cubs fans of being racists, or when one of the team's disturbing number of lousy Notre Dame alumni pitches, one sees hints that the Cubs might yet inspire the kind of passionate hatred that the team's fans have never been quite able to unleash. This could conceivably cost Lou Piniella his job and restore the dull natural order at Clark and Addison. It would be a scandal.
The conventional wisdom on the Cubs is that they haven't played to their potential. Two weeks ago, when his team was still a live draw, general manager Jim Hendry was concerned about his position, but not overly so. "We've got a long way to go before we get to October," he told me. "Unfortunately we haven't quite played up to the way we're capable of or what we wanted to, but we've got some time."
Hendry wasn't right about having time, but he also wasn't right about the team not playing up to its capacities. If anything, they may have played above them. This is why Piniella doesn't deserve much guff, if any.
When a team is listing it's easy to run down its disappointing players and assume the team would be good if they were better. This is especially easy to do with the Cubs because some of their best players -- Bradley, Alfonso Soriano and Geovany Soto, especially -- have been wretched. Their failures, though, have been balanced out elsewhere. Soriano is hitting for about 70 fewer points of on-base plus slugging than a preseason Marcel projection suggested he would, for example, but Derrek Lee is hitting for about 60 more. Kosuke Fukudome and Ryan Theriot are also hitting more than one might have thought they would. Meanwhile, obscure reserves such as Jake Fox and Jeff Baker have been superb.
The same is mostly true of the pitching staff. Key pitchers such as Zambrano, Ryan Dempster and Rich Harden have, on balance, done about what might have been expected of them, while 26-year-old rookie Randy Wells has been wonderful as an off-off-brand Greg Maddux. The bullpen has been lame, but then the bullpen isn't very talented. Overall, the Cubs have played to their talent.
An old team full of right-handed power hitters will suffer slow bats, injuries and bad defense, as the Cubs have. So the question one might actually ask is why they aren't worse than they are, rather than better. With no difficulty one can imagine Bradley, Soriano and Soto playing badly and Aramis Ramirez being hurt while Lee declines and Wells scuffles and Fukudome tries mightily to raise his batting average above his listed weight. Why hasn't true disaster come? Perhaps it's down to Piniella.
Leonard Koppett, who knew something about managers, believed that you could trace all of them through one of four lines -- one started by Branch Rickey, another started by Clark Griffith, a third started by Connie Mack and a final one he traced to John McGraw. Piniella's lineage goes back to McGraw -- he played for Billy Martin, who played for Casey Stengel, who played for Little Napoleon. Managers of this type, Koppett averred, are excellent at running the game, handing the pitchers, choosing players, evaluating talent and teaching -- and Piniella has been good at all of these. Speaking generally, their great flaws are that their teams can be a bit chaotic and that if they lose the ability to instill fear, they lose the team.
Koppett suggested that the chaos was simply something that had to be tolerated; the greater danger was elsewhere. "You have to keep your dictatorial powers on display often enough, dramatically enough, to keep the general atmosphere of fear alive," he wrote. "If you don't use it, you may lose it."
The Cubs' clubhouse may not be one in which players visibly quake in terror, but as Bradley could tell you, Piniella, who turns 66 on Friday, is pretty spry for his age. Bradley's OPS has gone up about 130 points since tangling with his elderly manager, incidentally, which is probably just reversion to the mean but at least doesn't hurt the case for Piniella's occasionally absurd motivational tactics. And so long as these do at least as much good as harm -- and the various strong performances from callow youths and grizzled veterans alike suggest that they do -- there's probably at least as much reason to keep the man on as there is to move on. Much like Zambrano, Piniella isn't boring, and that's something.
Against this is the idea that what the Cubs need is a good catastrophe, if not for their sake than for that of the fans, who if they aren't going to get a World Series at least deserve a 100-loss team. Perhaps Chicago can have one next year, if everyone involved works hard and does their best and if the team gets rid of a manager who has arguably done as much to keep the ship from outright sinking as anyone could. Hey, even Cubs fans can dream, right?
Tim Marchman lives in Chicago and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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