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The Cubs could have gone after a marquee name to replace Zimmer. Former Mets manager Davey Johnson made himself immediately available to Chicago, saying, "Great organization, great tradition, great city, Great Lake." But Frey thought Essian was ready for the job, and he convinced Grenesko that he was the man, even though at 40, Essian is the youngest full-time manager of the Cubs since Phil Cavarretta became player-manager in 1951. (Essian's ascension also means a promotion for Iowa's batboy, 11-year-old Jim Essian, who worked his first game for the big club last Saturday.)
This may be Essian's first major league managing job, but he is no stranger to the current Cubs, 15 of whom played for him in the minor leagues. "He's a genius," says outfielder Dwight Smith. "He motivates his players by showing confidence in them. It's nothing he practices. He's very sincere."
Essian is a constant cheerleader in the dugout, in marked contrast to the stoical Zimmer. "He'll go through fire for his players," says first baseman Mark Grace. "He'll also bring the fun back into the clubhouse. For three weeks, this clubhouse has been dead, no life."
Essian gives high fives at the least provocation, he always remembers to take his hat off when shaking the hand of a player who has just hit a home run, and his pre-game ritual in the minors included something called "gimme nine"—all nine starters gathered together on the steps of the dugout before taking the field. Says outfielder Doug Dascenzo, "During a game, he's always walking back and forth in the dugout, like he's in a courtroom getting ready to prosecute somebody."
Essian admits he's worried about how he'll handle the Cubs' veteran players, some of whom are his contemporaries. "I may have to change some of my ways," he says. "In the minor leagues, you can get the players to respond if you take a few dollars out of their pockets because they don't have that many dollars, and they're all young and hungry for a piece of the pie. I will have to find out what I can and can't say to these guys. I have a lot to learn."
But even the veterans seem to like the new rah-rah attitude. Says Grace, "[Andre] Dawson and Ryno [ Ryne Sandberg] usually lead by example. But they've become more boisterous because they've got a manager who wants that."
It's a standing joke among Essian's minor leaguers that, before every game, he tells them, "This is the biggest game of the year." For his first game as manager of the Cubs, on Wednesday night in New York, Essian tried to prepare a little speech. "I got only halfway done," he says. "So I was half-prepared, and it went over halfway decently. At least it ended with a laugh. I didn't know I was going to make them laugh, though. I said, 'Let's not kid ourselves. This is the biggest game of the year.' "
The Cubs beat the Mets that night 5-2 behind the strong pitching of Greg Maddux. The next night, they beat the Mets 4-3 on a suicide squeeze in the ninth with a count of 3-2 on Dascenzo, who had already fouled off one squeeze attempt. It was a bold call, and very much appreciated by the Cubs. "Jim basically won the game by himself," said pitcher Rick Sutcliffe, who enjoyed throwing to Essian when they were batterymates on the 1983 Indians. "He had the Mets off balance all night. I don't know too many guys who would have the guts to try that stuff in only their second game."
After that game, Essian yelled to Dwight Smith as he headed up the runway to the visiting clubhouse, "Don't forget to tell everybody that tomorrow is the biggest game of the year."