CHICAGO -- There are two stages to managing the Cubs: Honeymoon and Embattled.
For the fortunate few, there sometimes is a middle stage -- Winning -- and if there is, it can festoon the Honeymoon period with a romance few can ever know. But these days, it does little to slow the Embattled portion of the ride.
Eventually in this gig, they surround you, sink their teeth into you and suck the life right out of you.
So now, even after becoming the first skipper since Leo Durocher (1966-1972) to lead the Cubs to three consecutive winning seasons, it is Lou Piniella 's turn in the shark tank.
|'They're not going to suck the life out of me,' Lou Piniella says. (Getty Images)|
"I'm a little too competitive for that."
We are sitting in the Cubs' dugout. Perennially one of the hottest of seats in the game anyway, today it is ridiculous. Sweat is rolling down faces. Echoes from the latest grenade launch, that of crosstown White Sox broadcaster Steve Stone criticizing Piniella for not regularly playing rookie outfielder Tyler Colvin, continue to rumble in the distance.
By afternoon's end, the humidity will bring thunderstorms with 70 mph winds.
But neither those winds nor Stone nor a bumbling team fighting a losing battle with .500 has an embattled Piniella anywhere near conceding.
"I'm holding up fine," Piniella says firmly. "I've got absolutely no problem whatsoever. None. I come here every day to do the best job I can possibly do and that's all I can do. No more, no less.
"If the team doesn't win, obviously as the manager, I have to take my share. But just my share. Just my share. That's it. Just my share. You know?
"Why should I shoulder this whole thing? As it is, we've struggled. But the guys are playing hard. I've never had any complaint about the effort here. We've had to make some adjustments with this team in our rotation, in our bullpen, with a young shortstop, with a young outfielder, Tyler Colvin. We've had to do some things here. And we're trying to stabilize and put together a nice little win streak in the middle part of the season so that we can get ourselves at the .500 level or above. And that's all we're going to do."
Problem is, the team Piniella has to manage right now is just not very good. Period. His Nos. 3 and 4 hitters, Aramis Ramirez and Derrek Lee, have been thoroughly disappointing. Combined, they have 55 RBI. Total. Ramirez, out since June 8 with a bad thumb, is hitting .168. Lee is hitting .234.
The bullpen was so bad in April, and Carlos Zambrano started so slowly, that Piniella used Zambrano as a bullpen patch until things stabilized there. And they did. It was a bold move that made some armchair managers blanch, but what was Piniella supposed to do? Sit there and take the late-inning poundings?
He had seen enough of that last year. Coming off of a 97-win season in 2008 and back-to-back NL Central titles, the '09 Cubs dropped to second in the division in no small part because their bullpen ranked 11th in the NL with a 4.11 ERA.
After a battalion of injuries sabotaged the Cubs last year, Piniella this year is pulling the strings on a club that has been searching for a leadoff hitter from day one, a club that's pitching has only started to stabilize in the last few weeks and a club that is to defense what Lake Michigan is to boats: wide open. In the National League, only Washington has given up more unearned runs than the Cubs' 44.
The Cubs have never had a losing season under Piniella, yet they've never played worse under him than they are right now. And where a franchise that shed the "lovable losers" tag for good when it climbed to within five outs of the 2003 World Series is concerned, the tolerance level has been lowered dramatically. And the bile is headed Piniella's way, just as it swamped Dusty Baker before him.
"We won last year," Piniella says. "We finished second last year and we had a plethora of injuries. Plethora. These other teams are getting paid to win, too. It's not only the Chicago Cubs. Every team gets paid to put a team on the field and win.
Recap: Zambrano, Cubs crush Angels
"The difference here is this organization, sooner or later, needs to win a World Series. And once that happens, I think things will really calm down here. In Boston it was that way for a long time, finally they won, and now it's taken that burden off their shoulders. Our organization here needs to do that and once it does, you'll see things change rather dramatically."
To a degree, they already have. The grace period for a Cubs manager now is razor thin. Patience is as yesterday as Paul Popovich. From his office in Cincinnati the other day, Baker, who in some ways still seems scarred by his four years piloting the Cubs, sympathized with Piniella.
"Lou's a good man," Baker said. "You know, whatever manager goes in there wants to be the first manager to win it all. That's the challenging part of going there.
"And the fact that 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."
Despite the magical '03 run, Baker says it remains the most difficult job he's had.
"It's probably harder on you," he said. "But, hey, it makes you strong for wherever else you go. Problem is, I don't think many people besides myself and Jim Riggleman have gotten a job after leaving there."
"Why, that's a question."
Like Piniella, Baker also clashed with Stone. Only at the time, in 2004, Stone was one of the Cubs' broadcasters (he left after that season). After several disagreements with Cubs players for his critical comments during the year, he ripped the club when the season ended, insinuating that Baker didn't control his players and saying that those Cubs should have easily won the NL wild-card slot.
"I had a similar run-in on a case with Stone, too," Baker said. "And I was the loser and the scorn of the town because of it, because of that altercation.
"We had our conversation and there wasn't nobody else in that room. Wasn't nobody in there but him and I. And I certainly didn't talk about it."
Things always have been irrational where the Cubs are concerned, but in a pressure-cooker of a town, it's loopy that two different respected managers now have become embroiled in public spats with Stone.
"I've got five outfielders here, one making $19 million [Alfonso Soriano, actually $18 million in 2010], one's making $6 million [Marlon Byrd's at $3 million now, and $5.5 million next year], one's making $12 million [Kosuke Fukudome's actually at $13 million], but I'm supposed to just ... they don't play," Piniella says of the idea of squeezing the rookie Colvin into the lineup regularly. "I have to be very patient with that and work that in the right way.
|Dusty Baker knows how tough it can be to manage the Cubs. (Getty Images)|
There is no question that those contracts -- and others -- are albatrosses as the Cubs look much further removed from that 97-win '08 team than simply two years.
Ramirez, out with the thumb injury and having given the Cubs diminishing returns over the past two seasons, owns a $14.6 million player option for 2011 and a no-trade clause through this season.
Soriano is due $18 million every season through 2014 and owns a full no-trade clause.
Fukudome, a disappointment since coming to Chicago, is due $13.5 million next year and also has no-trade protection.
Zambrano, no longer the true No. 1 starter he once was, is signed through 2013 -- at salaries ranging from $17.85 million this year to $19.25 million in '13 -- and also owns a full no-trade clause.
Lee and Ted Lilly, the two most likely Cubs to be shopped near-term, each have no-trade powers as well.
Point is, navigating around the bad contracts and rapidly aging players (Lee, Zambrano and Ramirez in particular) is not a feat for the faint of heart.
And as the Ricketts family, the new Cubs owners, and general manager Jim Hendry sort through the swamp over the next several months, this probably is not going to be a very pleasant place to manage.
"There's only so many names on that piece of paper you can choose from," Piniella says. "You try and match people up and let them succeed."
He adds: "This is a nice place to work. Chicago, first of all, is a wonderful, wonderful city. It's a very good sports town. People are friendly. We have great fans here. Wrigley Field's a fun place to come work.
"But I'm going to tell you what: It's not the easiest thing in the world to win here. Can it be done here? Yeah. I think in the environment we play, with day games, night games, different starting times, I think a good blend of youth does this place a lot of good."
The next run of good times in Wrigley Field probably will have more to do with Colvin, Castro and other youngsters than it will have to do with Ramirez, Lee and Zambrano.
The increasing question is, will Piniella, 66, be around to manage it?
Not since Durocher left in 1972 has a Cubs manager lasted longer than five seasons. That's four decades.
And Piniella is well aware of the reputation Wrigley Field has developed as a graveyard for managers. As Baker points out, just he and Riggleman (Washington) have gone on to get other managing jobs after being axed by the Cubs in ... forever. Don Baylor, Jim LeFebvre, Don Zimmer, Jim Frey, Lee Eila, Herman Franks, Jim Marshall, Whitey Lockman ... that pretty much takes us back to Durocher.
"Nobody else manages," Piniella says. "Nobody else manages. This has been a tough spot for managers to stay in their profession. That's not a concern of mine. I'm worried about this year and that's it. That is it.
"When I'm criticized unjustly I don't like it. When there's criticism I can take it like a man. But when it's unjust, that bothers me."
Does he enjoy managing as much as ever?
"Look, I'm 66 years old," Piniella says. "This job keeps you young. Because the players are getting younger. As you're getting older, the players are getting younger. I enjoy it a lot more when we win. Losing is hard. Losing has always been hard on me.
"And you know why? Because I come from a winning culture in New York. I played on winning teams for most of my career in New York, you know?
"I've managed winning teams when I first started. In Cincinnati we won, in Seattle we won. Tampa Bay was an exception. Coming here, we've had some success. As much as we'd like? No. But we've had some success. Is it enough? No. But you know what, you've gotta start somewhere, too."
As Piniella has learned quickly, managing the Cubs "is an entitlement to be criticized." In 2008, Piniella's Cubs were 36-21 entering June, the first time the franchise owned the best record in the majors on that date since 1908.
It's a long way from there to here.
As the Cubs rack up the errors and kick another game away, because Piniella hasn't ripped a base from its mooring and tossed it, some think he's mellowed. Because he doesn't rage at umpires the way he once did, some of the circling sharks question his desire.
"They've associated that with the fact that I might retire, and not that I don't care, but it's not as important," says Piniella, whose 1,815 career wins ranks 14th all-time on the managerial list. "And, basically, it is. It really is.
"I'm not too far away from 2,000 wins. You know? I think I'm 14th all-time. If I got to 2,000 wins, and I'm not saying I will, but if I do, I'd be in the top 10. But it's more important, from an organizational standpoint, that we win as many baseball games as we can, and that we please our fans.
"These fans at Wrigley are as good as there are in major league baseball. Wins matter. They really do."
"Welcome to Baseball Heaven" reads the sign up above the right-field stands. Sometimes, when the wins are flowing and the sun is shining and off in the distance, Lake Michigan is sparkling, it absolutely is.
When the wins stop, though ... well, even the ivy and day baseball no longer can still the venom. And on those days, sometimes, Baseball Heaven actually is in New York, or Minnesota or, even, south of here in Cincinnati.
In the manager's office in the Reds' clubhouse, Baker was asked what he would say to an embattled Piniella.
"Like my dad told me when I was going to quit Little League: He said no son of his is going to quit any league," Baker said. "That's what kept me going in Chicago. At the end there, I didn't have the team that I started with. It doesn't matter. It doesn't matter in the overall count of 101 years, or whatever it is."