Tag:Steve Stone
Posted on: August 22, 2010 1:10 pm
Edited on: August 22, 2010 8:50 pm

Piniella was one of a kind, and so are the Cubs

Lou Piniella always did take to losses as he would third-degree burns. Never one blessed with patience as one of his baseball "tools", Piniella was a magnet for television cameras and a delight for fans when things weren't going well.

He would frown in the dugout, then fret, the slow-burn often reaching full-scale eruption sometime before game's end with an unfortunate umpire bearing the brunt of his wrath. Or in its immediate aftermath, with some unwitting reporter asking the wrong question -- or, even the right question using the wrong words. Bases would fly, caps would be launched, choice words would whistle through the air like missiles.

When I spent 30 minutes sitting with him in the Wrigley Field dugout on a sweltering Friday afternoon before a game in June, things definitely were not going well. The Cubs, nowhere near as brutal as they would become, were losing. Piniella was waist deep in his public spat with White Sox broadcaster Steve Stone.

Wrigleyville was not a happy place.

Yet Piniella that day vowed that the rabble that eventually always devours Cubs managers would not get him.

"They're not going to suck the life out of me," Piniella said that afternoon for what became this column. "I'm not going to get the life sucked out of me. That won't happen.

"I'm a little too competitive for that."

But managing the Cubs always is a one-way ticket to the Land of Dashed Dreams, whether your name is Jim Frey, Lee Elia, Whitey Lockman or, yes, in the end, Lou Piniella.

What started out a dazzling honeymoon filled with warm afternoons and vivid dreams ends for Piniella like it usually does when you're sitting in the Cubs' manager's chair, with the walls closing in and the wolves baying in the distance.

From the high of 97 wins in 2008 -- one of the three most memorable Cubs seasons, along with 2003 and 1984, in the past four decades -- to the pieces of another wreckage in an empty field, the blasted billy goats wandering freely throughout.

Though Piniella several weeks ago announced that he would retire at season's end, he pushed that up to Sunday because of family concerns. His ailing mother Margaret, 90, is not doing well and Piniella has taken two leaves of absences this season to tend to her.

Rare is the person who gets to write his or her own ending, and this isn't exactly the way Piniella envisioned leaving. But it surely fits well within the Cubs parameters: No Cubs manager has lasted five seasons since Leo Durocher, from 1966-1972 (this was Piniella's fourth season).

The worst thing about it is that 2010 has become such a crash-and-burn season for the Cubs that people may have a hard time putting Piniella's run on Chicago's North Side into the context in which it should be viewed. Which is, far more good than bad.

Though last season was disappointing as an encore to the 97 wins the year before, Piniella became the first manager to guide the Cubs to three consecutive winning seasons in more than three decades. Not since Durocher's North Siders finished on the north side of .500 from 1967-1972 have the Cubs had such a sustained run of success.

And granted, we're living in the age of the expanded playoffs ... but Piniella in '07 and '08 became the first Cubs manager to lead the team to the post-season in more than 100 years.

Piniella was 316-292 with the Cubs when he announced his retirement Sunday morning, his 316 wins ranking eighth among all-time Cubs' managers and his .520 winning percentage checking in as the best for a Cubs' skipper since the .547 turned in by Charlie Grimm (1932-1938, 1944).

Piniella's 1,835 wins managing in New York (Yankees), Cincinnati, Seattle, Tampa Bay and Chicago rank 14th on the all-time managerial list, which will make him a candidate for the Hall of Fame.

Never boring, Piniella should settle into retirement content with the mark he left on the game. But for a man as competitive as him, it surely will take a long time to wash away the bitter taste of 2010, his closing act.

As for the Cubs, who last won a World Series in 1908, the long, hard slog continues. As it will for whomever manages them next -- Ryne Sandberg, Bobby Valentine, Joe Torre, Tony La Russa ... take your pick.

As Dusty Baker, another ex-Cubs' skipper, told me earlier this summer, when you take the Cubs job, people "don't see that you've been there three years, four years, five years. They see the 100 years. Which wasn't part of your account."

But you sign on to manage that account.

And given more than a century's worth of baggage, it's become the most difficult, thankless job in the game.


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