Cubs 101 - Pt. 66 - Sweet Lou
In October of 2006, a has-his-job-by-a-hair Jim Hendry began conducting interviews for the guy who'd replace Dusty Baker in the Cubs clubhouse. Short list contenders included recently-fired Manager of the Year Joe Girardi, minor league coaches Mike Quade and Pat Listach, Bruce Bochy, and even retired Hall of Famer Ryne Sandberg forced his way onto the interview list by hijacking a dinner date with Hendry.
At the time, Girardi was my favorite and probably yours. Lou was seen as a vanilla choice, an over-the-hill manager who, like Dusty, was probably trapped in a past where OBP was ignored, where veterans were started always, where rookies had their confidence ground into dust, and where more losing was inevitable. From the moment his name was mentioned until the second he signed with the team -- and actually for a long time after that -- I'd hoped that Lou Piniella was last on Jim Hendry's list.
When he signed with the team, I was at a gas station. The guy behind the register saw my hat and said "Lou Piniella just signed with the Cubs!" I told him that it was a horrible move, I was not happy, but instead resigned to the fate of supporting a team with no chance of ever winning.
What I didn't know was that, while he had his flaws -- typically called senior moments -- Lou Piniella was, in fact, the real deal. Despite the reputation he'd earned in Tampa -- some of it justified -- Lou was a clever guy who wanted to do whatever it took to win at all costs with any player. He did not play favorites. (Perhaps we should have figured that out when, unlike Dusty, he dragged no players from Tampa -- or even his Seattle days -- to Chicago.)
The time I figured out that Lou was going to be solid happened at the '07 Cubs Convention. It was my second in three years. I slept on fellow Goat Rider Jason's floor, and when we traveled to the Hilton we were ready to voice our hatred of Lou (Loutred?) to the world. We showed up early in the Q&A to ask the hard questions -- would he favor players with good plate discipline? Would he force his veterans to rely on fundamentals in the field and on the bases? Would he give his young hitters a chance? And we quickly learned that he was either playing the game smartly or he had all the right answers.
By the end of the Q&A, my future wife had begun to tease me because I was sipping the koolaid. She thought I was too easily won over by this grumpy old man who knew all the right things to say.
But three years later, as we reach the tail end of Lou's tenure with the Cubs, I'd have to say that my gut instinct to trust him -- if it can even be called a "gut instinct" since it took about three months to appear -- was right. Lou, as it turns out, was the man. And he'd deliver to Cub fans something we hadn't seen in a century.
Rob: I first remember Uncle Lou as a hotheaded, decent hitting outfielder with the Royals, then the Yankees during the Reggie Jackson years. Soon after that, he got into managing, and won his first and only World Championship by leading the 1990 Cincinnati Reds to a four-game sweep over Tony LaRussa's Oakland A's, which was a major upset. Nobody gave the Reds a chance at all to win a game, let alone the series, and yet they not only won, but swept.
At that point in his managing career, Lou led by sheer brute force. He simply took no guff, and made it absolutely unacceptable to fail. He famously attacked large human being Rob Dibble in the clubhouse after Dibble failed to take Lou's advice. Of course, Dibble now loves Lou unconditionally. In the most distilled, raw level of manhood, the early Lou demanded respect by sheer brutality, and got it.
The next memory I have of Lou was over a decade later, when his 2000 Seattle Mariners scored another major upset in the ALDS against a heavily favored White Sox team. How was this possible? Was Lou beating up Junior Griffer and A-Rod? On the contrary, the M's swept the series because Piniella utterly outfoxed and outmanaged Gene Lamont, admittedly not the hardest accomplishment. At some point in time, Lou adjusted, when he could no longer bully his highly-paid players, he then relied on his baseball smarts. He cemented his reputation as a stellar regular-season manager by tying the MLB record with 116 wins the very next year, AFTER having lost Junior, A-Rod, and the Big Unit to free agency.
Then, a few years later, he took a job managing the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. Well, OK, who was I to begrudge a man to come back to his hometown, and pull down some easy coin for a couple of years? The Devil Rays had become a semi-retirement home for many aging sluggers from that area, and so it wasn't a big deal. We all figured he was easing into a post-baseball life, and that he was just going through the motions. That's not quite what happened, he chafed with the has-beens and never-wills he was given, and sometimes, the old, combative Lou would surface. But there wasn't much he could do, and when management (wisely) decided to go young for the future, Lou decided he was too old to rebuild one more time, and walked away.
And I am sure he'd be perfectly happy right now, golfing, fishing, eating lots of grouper and playing with the grandkids, if Crane Kenney didn't come calling with an assload of money, and promises to spend much, much more, in the fall of 2006. For it was for Lou's benefit that Jim Hendry went berserk that winter, signing Soriano, Marquis, Lilly, DeRosa, etc. These were the terms - give me a turn-key product, and I will keep everyone's egos in line.
It took him three months in 2007 to figure out who he could count on (ex. Ramirez, Lilly) and who he couldn't (Mike Barrett). I can honestly say that, from the point that Lou restored order after the Zambrano-Barrett fiasco, to immediately after the loss in the 2008 NLDS, that I agreed with every single solitary decision Lou made. For once in my life, here was a man who made the best of what we had, who did what was necessary in every given situation to win, and who played the guys who deserved it, and sat the ones who sucked. Lou is and always has been a great regular season tactical manager. He never airs dirty laundry in the public, he keeps an even keel, and instills the confidence in his players that this isn't his first rodeo, that they are good enough to win, that there is plenty of time. Basically, in a battle of wits with the typical batch of overpaid, underintelligent players, he always wins.
The second straight NLDS sweep in 2008 might have taken something out of Sweet Lou. His explanation for the loss was a lack of left-handed hitting. Well, sure, the 2008 Cubs were predominately righty, true. But that issue never came up during the season, when the team led the NL in runs and OBP. Lou's analysis was swallowed whole by Hendry, and steps were taken to 'remedy' the problem, and these steps (bringing in Bradley and Miles, getting rid of DeRosa and Henry Blanco) backfired on the Cubs in 2009. Nothing Lou tried seemed to work, and rather than rant and rave, as the old Lou would do, the learned, more serene Piniella just kept his feelings to himself.
The strain of keeping his true feelings inside has visibly taken its toll, making him look bemused, giving one and all the impression that he is overwhelmed and has given up. I don't think he is overwhelmed, at all. I believe he KNOWS what he is up against, and he ain't up for it anymore. He misjudged his team, and forced Hendry to change the fabric of his team, which unfortunately set us back a couple of years. That might be enough, though, to cause him to give up.
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