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CBSSports.com Senior Writer

Devoted Hendry finally reaches expiration date with Cubs

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Know how, in presidential elections, some folks swear the best barometer for predicting victory is which candidate most voters would rather have a beer with?

Jim Hendry is one of those guys. He is blunt, funny and humble. Slap him on the back, and a puff of infield dirt from somewhere in Nebraska in 1984 is liable to emerge from his pores. A baseball lifer, a former college coach (he led Creighton to the College World Series in 1991) and the third longest-tenured general manager in the National League, Hendry knows talent and is full of stories.

But sometimes even for those guys, things get away. The train goes off the rails. The music must stop.

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And when the Cubs finally lowered the boom and announced they had fired Hendry on a late-August day in another lost season, it probably was past due.

The past three years have gone from bad to worse. Forget Tinkers to Evers to Chance. That's become Bradley to Silva to Zambrano, the sad lament of the today's Cubs.

In the end, Hendry drowned under a pool of bad actors, bad contracts and too many losses. But as another angry Cubs mob takes to the streets, there is one moment in time that nobody should ever forget.

What I most will remember of Hendry's tenure is that chilling December day in 2006 when the lobby at the winter meetings shook with the news he had been taken to the hospital with chest pains.

And then later that night came word that Hendry had signed free-agent pitcher Ted Lilly to a four-year deal while hooked up to machines for in the hospital, undergoing tests.

In the end, it did not work for Hendry in Wrigleyville, and he had to go.

But it also should not be forgotten that nobody loved the Cubs, cared more about the organization or poured more blood and sweat into attempting to change their history than Hendry. The guy was told he was being let go on July 22, then stuck around anyway through the trade and draft-signing deadlines simply because he was asked to. Class.

"I'm disappointed in myself that we didn't do it over the first five to seven years, when I thought we could," he said, voice cracking, during a highly emotional farewell news conference.

As difficult as it may be to remember today, that window opened early as wide as it has for the Cubs in, well, a century. Hendry not only winds up as the third-longest-tenured GM in Cubs history, but as the only GM to oversee three postseason clubs.

They came within five outs of the World Series in '03. They won the division in '07 and then stormed to 97 wins in '08 (with Lilly winning 32 games during those two seasons), as memorable and enjoyable summer as the Cubs have had since 1984. But in October, they were swept by the Dodgers (and, as it turned out, a raging and juiced Manny Ramirez).

The window closed quickly and dramatically after that, diminishing returns from bloated contracts the principal reason. There was the eight-year, $136 million deal to Alfonso Soriano that will surely hamstring Hendry's successor. The five years and $75 million to Aramis Ramirez. The five years and $91.5 million handed to Carlos Zambrano became toxic. Speaking of which, Hendry brought in Milton Bradley as a free agent.

The mistakes, colossal ones, are evident. And this club will pay for them for the foreseeable future.

But to be fair, this, too, factors into the Hendry equation: In an incredible bit of timing only the Cubs could pull off, the Tribune Company announced its intention to sell the club on opening day 2007, just as Lou Piniella was in Cincinnati preparing to manage his first game for the club. Hey Lou, welcome to the chaos that is the Cubs.

As the end of the Tribune ownership dragged on for more than two years, part of Hendry's marching orders were to spend money and build a winner to make the club more attractive to sell. When the Tom Ricketts group assumed control in October 2009, a large part of the focus shifted from spending free-agent money to developing the farm system.

There were those who figured Ricketts would make a change as soon as he signed the paperwork to take over. But Hendry is a survivor, and baseball rats can have staying power.

Given his background in player development -- college coach and both the Cubs' director of player development and scouting director before assuming GM duties -- it was not out of the question to think Hendry could transition from his free-spending Tribune ways into the farm-system-building GM that Ricketts wanted.

But the embarrassing underachievement over these past two years was just too much. And what turned out to be Hendry's last managerial hire -- Mike Quade, who had managed more than 2,000 minor-league games and right out of Central Casting, player-development wise -- has been a rough ride, too.

"Jim is truly a first-class individual," Ricketts said Friday. "One of the greatest things in my first two years of being here was getting to know him as a person and as a friend. We'll miss seeing him around the office."

So a club that has always been stuck in the past will work toward getting modern. The new guy, Ricketts said, aside from "sharing a commitment to player development", will have a "stronger analytical background" who will be well-versed in working with the "new tools" available today.

"The sabermetric stuff is important, but it's just a piece," Ricketts said. "We're not running a baseball organization by computer model."

Without question, the old model wasn't working. Even the Cubs can be more efficient.

Maybe in time, they will be. As they plow through the next set of growing pains, though, maybe at least save a smile for the guy who once worked straight through chest pains trying to break the 100-year curse.

Jim Hendry gave his heart to the Cubs. And for a time, it almost worked.

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