Goatriders of the Apocalypse

Cubs 101 - Pt 33 - Larry Himes, Destroyer of Dreams

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Jim Frey’s successor, Larry Himes, had been fired by the crosstown White Sox the previous season, despite having drafted—in four consecutive first rounds—Jack McDowell, Robin Ventura, Frank Thomas, and Alex Fernandez.  Those four would comprise the nucleus of the eventual AL East division winning Sox in 1993, but by then Himes was on the North Side, proving that either A) his drafting success with the Sox was dumb luck or B) he was still on the Sox payroll, sent to sabotage the Cubs.  One of Himes’ first moves with the Cubs  proved to be the only one of value—trading an aging Bell to his old employer for Sammy Sosa.  Other than that, though, the Himes Era proved to be a bigger disaster than Frey’s.

No matter who was in charge, of course, the die had been cast.  The expense invested in personnel was not to be excessive.  Though the Cubs were in a major-market and they drew a healthy attendance, the Tribune management had put the brakes on big-time spending.  After all, the thinking went, why spend so much money  to field a winner if the fans were going to show up anyway? The one major exception to this mindset was when the team committed to star second baseman Sandberg prior to the 1992 season.  In signing Sandberg to a $28.4 million extension, the Cubs made him, at the time, the highest-paid player in baseball.  But even this had as much to do with marketing as it did with performance.  Sure, Sandberg was future Hall of Famer who was still playing at a high level, but more significantly to the Tribune, he was the face of the franchise, the one player around whom the team could most easily market.  Letting him go would be as much a marketing disaster as it would be a personnel disaster.  In re-signing Sandberg, Cubs management was ensuring that many of the fans who came out to Wrigley Field for the experience would be able to see a player who, over the course of the previous decade, had become as much a part of the experience of going to Wrigley Field as the sunshine and ivy.

The ’92 Cubs turned out to be another mediocrity—not awful, but not in serious contention either.  Their 78 wins in 1992 had come on the heels of back-to-back 77 win seasons in 1990 and 1991.  In spite of nearly typical seasons from Mark Grace and Andre Dawson—as well as a 20-win, Cy Young Award-winning season out of Greg Maddux—the Cubs never challenged for divisional supremacy.  A three-game sweep of two-time defending champs Pittsburgh at the end of July provided some brief hope, but it was short-lived and for the third straight season, the Cubs played meaningless baseball in September.

Following the ’92 season, management executed what would turn out to be the biggest blunder in player personnel in 25 years of Tribune ownership.  In spite of winning the Cy Young Award—and completing a five year run wherein he had won 87 games—Maddux, still only 26 years old, was allowed to walk away in Free Agency following the season.  Thanks to the blinding arrogance of Himes and CEO Stanton Cook, the Cubs let go of their ace pitcher for nothing, and fans of the team would watch helplessly as Maddux became the premier pitcher in the world throughout the remainder of the decade while pitching for Atlanta.

Of course proving the point that management could count on the fans showing up in spite of what moves they made or didn’t make, the Cubs set a an attendance record when 2,653,763 fans came to the park in 1993.  Indeed, although the team had unceremoniously dumped Maddux and Dawson, this had no effect on fans’ decision to come go to games—further proof that, unlike most every other sports franchise, the Cubs didn’t need to build a winner in order to draw.  Yes, the Cubs actually finished above .500 (84-78) for only the third time since the early 70’s in 1993, but this was due in part to an 18-9 September, which was credited to the players’ fighting to save the job of second-year manager Jim Lefebrve.  As it turned out, this effort turned out to be in vain as Himes—following a pattern of going against the grain and exhibiting an almost pathological and ultimately self-destructive contrarianism—fired Lefebrve anyway.  In firing his first managerial hire, Himes of course was leaving himself with a lot less wiggle room as the Cubs headed into 1994.

On Opening Day 1994, Tuffy Rhodes—acquired by Himes late in 1993 for Paul Assenmacher—famously began his season by homering in each of his first three at bats—all against New York’s Dwight Gooden.  This would turn out to be the high point of the season for not only Rhodes, but the team.  In fact, the Cubs didn’t even win the game, losing 12-8.  The Cubs followed up this loss by losing the final two games against the Mets and ended up losing their first TWELVE home games of the season, finally winning on the final game of their third homestand of the season.  Again, though, while the fans may have been disgusted—who can forget when Himes forced manager Tom Trebelhorn to hold court at the firehouse on Waveland with a collection of angry and disgusted fans after losses?--they still showed up.  28,103 fans on average attended those first twelve losses--this in spite of the fact that seven of those twelve games were weekday afternoon games…in April!

1994 was when the bottom fell out for the Cubs.  The decade started with high hopes in 1990, but quickly regressed to steady mediocrity.  From 1990-1993, the Cubs’ average record was 79-83.  In ’94, however, bolstered by the 0-12 start at home, they weren’t even part of the mediocre glut—they were horrible.  The young nucleus of the ’89 division winners—Walton, Smith, Berryhill, Girardi and Maddux—were all gone.  Dawson was gone.  On June 13th, their marquee player—Sandberg—suddenly announced his retirement.  On the date, the Cubs were 23-37, and 11.5 games out of first place.  On this date, the only two players from the NL East division winners from merely five years earlier that were still on the club were Grace and Dunston.

Cub fans may have been the only ones glad to see the season prematurely end on August 12th from the players strike.  On that day the Cubs were 49-64, on pace for a 92 loss season.  Yet in spite of a .434 winning percentage and only 59 home dates, the Cubs managed to draw 1,845,208 to Wrigley.  Still, the Tribune management had to at least pretend that they were unhappy about the results on the field, and thus fired the irascible Himes after the truncated season—their third axing of the position in seven years.

In five short years the Cubs had gone from a young, up-and-coming division winner to a team in disarray with the second-worst record in the National League.  However, things could not be better in the Tribune boardroom for, in spite of the team’s on-field aimlessness, this period in time also had ushered in the concept of Wrigley Field as a cash cow, regardless of the team’s performance. 

When Larry Himes came to the Cubs from the White Sox in October of 1991, probably nobody knew exactly how destructive a force he would be on the organization.  I suppose that, upon reflection, he shared Dallas Green's negative-if-not-condescending opinion about the "tradition" of the Cubs -- he saw the team as his to make, favorite players be damned.  In his short tenure he burned bridges with players and broke the hearts of fans through his egotistical, bungling, ridiculous moves.  And even the one genius move he will always be remembered for will probably be seen as less-than-genius by the guys who actually had to play with Sammy Sosa. 

When Himes came to the Cubs, his first moves were to wave goodbye to oft-injured fan favorite Rick Stucliffe.  Sut was replaced in the rotation by free agent acquisition Mike Morgan, best known at the time for his One Good Season the previous year with the Dodgers.  Himes also signed -- and released -- Jamie Moyer (oops), and on the eve of the 1992 season he dealt George Bell to the White Sox for his favorite player, Sammy Sosa.

With the White Sox, Himes had already acquired Sosa once before from the Rangers.  On the surface this was a brilliant trade.  Bell would be out of baseball by 1994 while the kid who once shined his shoes -- Sosa -- would go on to hit more than 600 homeruns.  The only problem is that from the first day until the last Sosa grated on his teammates.  He alienated them with his ridiculous haircut.  He annoyed them with his constant talk of money, even in the dugout during games.  He pissed them off with his drive to inflate his stats.  He ... well, we'll have plenty of time to discuss the merits and demerits of Sosa another time. 

The point is, Himes was building his team his way and he didn't care who he pissed off while doing it.  The only problem was that he was short-sighted.  He was so set on being right that he failed to recognize how ridiculously wrong his moves were.  The worst of them?  December 9th, 1992 -- Greg Maddux, the reigning Cy Young winner, signed with the Atlanta Braves.  This occurred on the heals of Himes's choice to let go of Andre Dawson.

In short order, Himes built the 1993 Cubs off of the carcass of the money that had been earmarked for his ace.  He acquired a lefty starter in Greg Hibbard from the Marlins, followed by signing Jose Guzman to a 4 year, 13+ million dollar deal (of which Guzman would spend 3 seasons on the DL).  He then wasted more than 3 million over 2 years on Dan Plesac, who would have a 4.68 ERA while with the Cubs, followed by a move for ace closer Randy Myers -- this one was okay -- and, perhaps worst of all chose to replace the Hawk with a guy named Candy. 

Maddux earned roughly 6 million a year with the Braves in '93 and '94.  Just think -- Himes spent 7 million a year on Guzman, Plesac, and Maldanaldo alone.  I think we'd all agree that the Cubs would have been better off with the one instead of the three.

Thanks in part to the surprise 30 homerun year of catcher Rick Wilkins and the emergence of 30-30 man Sammy Sosa, coupled with the workman-talents of an aceless rotation, the Cubs managed to win 84 games in 1993.  It must have been a small consolation for Cub fans who got to watch Maddux pitch in the first of his 12 playoff appearances with the Braves.

By 1994, the Himes Empire began to collapse.  The pitching staff went from competent to impotent while the offense evaporated.  Ryne Sandberg, who in 1993 had signed what was briefly The Largest Contract in Baseball never managed to put his season together.  Frustrated with himself, his family situation, and Himes, Sandberg quit in disgust 57 games into the '94 season. 

It was all over for Himes soon after the strike began, although the damage had already been done.  On September 9th, 1994, the Cubs hired former Twins executive Andy MacPhail to take over as president and CEO of the team.  Like Jim Frey before him Himes was reassigned within the organization and his dreadful reign over the Cubs finally came to an end. 

Still, consider the fruits of his labors.  In his three-season control of the organization, Himes disposed of Rick Sutcliffe, Andre Dawson, Joe Girardi, Greg Maddux -- and, through attrition Ryne Sandberg -- while bringing in the most polarizing player in the recent history of the organization.  He inherited a cannibalized mess and did little more than destroy the few remaining worthy parts. 

But here's the amazing thing.  It's been almost fifteen years since Himes was let go.  In that time, Andy MacPhail swooped in and promised a change he would not deliver.  Knowing that MacPhail would be a failure, I'd still take him and the mess he made over the one created by Himes. 

Larry Himes was that bad.  Mike would disagree, but even in retrospect he makes MacPhail look like a freakin' genius.

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