SAN DIEGO -- It was 1987, and Montreal's Double-A affiliate was busing from Jacksonville to Memphis at 2 a.m., a nice little 14-hour ride, when somewhere in the Tennessee darkness, there was a strange, awful noise from the back of the bus, followed by a raucous player reaction.
Mike Quade, then a coach on manager Tommy Thompson's staff, looked out the window from the front of the bus and saw a rear tire disappearing into the horizon.
"You don't just fix a broken axle," says Quade, chuckling at the memory.
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"It was a very talented, prospect-laden club," Quade says. "We had Larry Walker, Randy Johnson, and we're on the side of the road in the middle of Tennessee. Joe Kerrigan was the pitching coach, and he was concerned because guys were wandering off in the darkness, shooting off fireworks.
"I think we broke down six or seven times that year. The travel in that league was brutal. But to lose a back axle, this is a scary breakdown. This wasn't just a bus running out of gas."
So go ahead. Tell me that doesn't prepare a man to manage the Chicago Cubs.
"He's done a very, very good job," Cubs general manager Jim Hendry says of Quade. "I'm very pleased. He's handled himself in all phases of the game very well. He's managed games well, he's done an outstanding job with the veterans, he's developed the kids well. There have been no negatives.
"I told Mike when he got the job that wins was not the telltale thing for him, whether he gets the job or not. He's gone about his business with the good of the organization and the good of the players in mind.
"Usually, you do that and good things happen."
It's late September, and Quade is in a place he never expected, surrounded by an inherited situation he never saw coming.
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A season as broken as that bus axle, Lou Piniella rolling down the road toward his home in Florida after suddenly resigning to tend to his ill mother, Hendry handed Quade a wrench and the manager's job on Aug. 23 and told him to go get 'em. (Hendry is quick to remind that the phrase the Cubs used then and now is "manager for the year", not "interim.")
The Cubs were 51-74 at the time and sinking more quickly than the Edmund Fitzgerald.
What has happened since then under Quade's watch, while many have been looking the other way toward the pennant races, has been one of those heartening stories of the summer.
The man who has managed 2,378 minor-league games over 17 dusty summers traveling across the United States and Canada in broken-down buses with major-league dreams had maneuvered the Cubs to a 20-11 mark a game here Tuesday night.
"Oh man, it's been a lot of fun crammed into a very short period of time," says the man known by most around the ballclub simply as "Q".
Mid-afternoon, Quade sits at the big boy's desk in the visiting manager here, the one occupied by Dusty Baker a couple of days ago, and Bruce Bochy and Joe Torre a couple of weeks ago, and he has no clue yet whether he'll be invited back to take up permanent residence.
Over these past few weeks, Hendry has interviewed one former major-league manager -- Eric Wedge (Indians) -- and intends to interview another -- Bob Melvin (Diamondbacks and Mariners). He has interviewed Hall of Famer Ryne Sandberg, the Cubs' Triple-A manager. There are others on the horizon.
In his fourth season as third-base coach with the Cubs when his job title unexpectedly changed, he is managing just fine in what could be an unspeakably chaotic situation.
"Why in the heck wouldn't he be interviewing people for the job?" Quade asks. "There are so many good baseball people out there.
"If that's distracting me, then I'm not very good at what I'm doing."
What he's doing, maybe, is complicating Hendry's search more than anybody ever dreamed when a mostly then-unknown, funny-sounding name (it's pronounced "KWAH-dee") was promoted.
"People forget this, but I interviewed him before we hired Lou Piniella," Hendry says. "And I told Lou when I hired him that I wanted him on the staff."
Hendry has known him since Quade was playing at the University of New Orleans in 1979, when he was picked by the Pirates in the 22nd round of that year's draft.
"He's a lifer, a baseball guy," Hendry says. "I don't think anything more of him today than I did when we named him manager for the year."
Hundreds of far-flung baseball lifers -- and, non-lifers, for that matter -- whose lives have intersected with Quade's since his first year in pro ball are rooting hard for him to be named as the Cubs permanent skipper, judging from texts and messages he has received over this past month. Everybody from the former teammate who now sells insurance in Denver to the one-time prospect who learned to play the outfield under Quade's tutelage in Harrisburg, Pa., in 1991.
"Good man," says 15-year veteran Matt Stairs, who started in left field for the Padres on Tuesday. "I'm very happy for him. I've always been a big fan of his -- the way he's approached the game, his love of the game.
"It's interesting how he used to work me. We'd start in left field at the line, and he'd make me run poles [from the left-field foul pole around the warning track to the right-field foul pole]. He'd hit me fly balls as I was running. It gets you to run on your tippy toes as you're running after balls."
Quade has earned fans inside the Cubs clubhouse as well.
"Tremendous job," starting pitcher Ryan Dempster says. "He's got experience. Just because you haven't managed in the big leagues doesn't mean you don't have experience.
"He's a tremendous communicator. And he's very positive."
A man doesn't just roam the country like a gypsy and survive unless he's built that way. From 1985 through 2006, Quade's managerial path took him to these outposts: Macon, Ga. ... Rockford, Ill. ... Harrisburg, Pa. ... Ottawa ... Scranton, Pa. ... Grand Rapids, Mich. ... Huntsville, Ala. ... Edmonton ... Vancouver ... Des Moines, Iowa.
He absorbed some of his managing skills from men like Bill Virdon, Chuck Tanner, Jim Leyland, Art Howe, Dusty Baker and Lou Piniella. Learned more from three farm directors who have been very important to him -- John Boles (Montreal), Keith Lippman (Oakland) and Oneri Fleita (Cubs).
He has gained experience by working beside dozens upon dozens of other coaches and players, guys long ago forgotten by many.
Such as Rob Katzaroff.
"I'll never forget it," Stairs says. "Harrisburg, Pa. We stunk as a team. Spring training was terrible. Opening day, Mike has a meeting. Tells us to relax, have fun, whatever. So he's throwing batting practice and he takes the [protective] 'L' screen away and says, 'Now hit 'em right at me.' Trying to get us to hit up the middle.
"Well, Robbie Katzaroff hits a line drive right into the middle of his stomach."
Quade, 53, had forgotten that one.
"I was a much younger man then," he says, laughing at the memory. "You still have a lot of fire in your gut, but back then, when you needed to make a point, you were looking at how you're going to do it. If you tell them, 'I'll throw batting practice without a screen', if that comes out of your mouth, you'd better move the screen."
Tough? One night in Ottawa in 1993, two of his players, upset over failed at-bats during a difficult loss, angrily trashed the clubhouse postgame food spread. Now, at that time and at that level in the minors, there wasn't much to the spread, so what was there was like gold. The clubhouse manager came into Quade's office extremely upset, as if it were a personal affront.
"Seeing him upset made me furious," Quade says. "So I hammered the whole group."
Next day, just before the club was to take the field, from his manager's office, Quade heard AC/DC blasting in the clubhouse ... along with what sure sounded like a vacuum. Quade peeked out his door and saw the two players guilty of ruining the spread the night before hard at work: Infielder F.P. Santangelo was vacuuming the clubhouse floor and catcher Joe Siddall was following behind with a broom. Lesson learned.
With Mark Mulder as his ace, he managed Vancouver -- in a tiny park that seated only 3,500 -- to the 1999 Triple-A World Series title during the third-rainiest summer on record there. "I bet it rained during 70 percent of our games," he says.
With nerves of steel, he passed through Charleston, S.C., back before people figured out 25-cent beer night might not be the wisest thing to do. "The Citadel is there, and people would be hanging on the fence behind the dugout," he says. "I thought it was great."
He long ago lost all of his hair but that resulted from neither rickety buses nor forgettable minor-league towns. Rather, he was born with alopecia areata, a condition that leads to hair loss. Today, even his eyebrows are gone. Which leads to his other nickname from long ago friends, "Isaac."
The story? As the only white player on his high school basketball team in Morristown, N.J., teammates took to calling him "the white Isaac Hayes."
Who is Mike Quade, the man who would manage the Cubs?
The man who right now is managing the Cubs?
He's the temporary skipper with resolve steely enough to sit phenom Starlin Castro for a couple of days when the supremely talented rookie shortstop needed to reboot his mental game.
He's the baseball lifer who will head home to his favorite fishing hole in Bradenton, Fla., when this is all finished and cast another line into the game if the Cubs move, as they say, in "a different direction."
Though Hendry has set no timetable for making the hire, it should be sometime before key Cubs baseball people convene for the annual organizational meetings the first week of November.
"I've told people from day one that I won't get into the decision process until I'm through it," says Hendry, who will make the hire under new owner Tom Ricketts.
Until that point, Quade simply will manage the best he can.
"As you're rolling through this game, you're so appreciative of the people you've been with and worked with," Quade says. "It all comes back to you. I've been around an incredible amount of good people. ...
"For 30 years, I've had a one-year contract. It's not like I'm a fish out of water. I'm very familiar with that.
"I'd love to break that string."