Dusty Baker and the Push for 100
Two years ago this month, Cubs fans were in misery. Despite a gut-wrenching end to the '04 season and in spite of a depressing '05 season, Jim Hendry had insisted on letting Dusty Baker play through his contract with the Cubs. Well before August 19th, 2006 rolled around, Cubs fans had known that it was a hopeless, futile cause.
On that day in that season, the Cubs beat the Cardinals in 10 innings to, uh, improve to 53-69 on the season. Yep, the Cubs were 16 games under .500, and it was about to get a lot worse. Apparently satisfied with their late-inning triumph, the team proceeded to flop over and die. They'd lose 18 of their next 21. That's right, they'd go 3-18 following that win. Kind of makes you wonder how in the hell Carlos Zambrano had managed to win 16 that year.
"Oh, we suck. We suck mightily, we are flawed and we are very harmless to the rest of the league," lamented Goat Writer Rob in a post on August 17th of that year. "It can be said in some quarters without immediate fear of rousing the Manteno Whitecoats that with the speed and fielding up the gut, the power on the corners, and the surprising level of success of some of the baby pitchers we've been casting out there as bait, that there is Hope for Next Year, given the Right Trades and Free Agent Signings. (Like either or those will ever happen, but bear with me here)." Turns out he was right, even as he expressed his skepticism.
Jim Hendry would somehow keep his job, even while Dusty Baker was chased out of town by angry fans wielding weaponry. I was not alone in expressing tremendous disappointment in Hendry's return. However, driven by the go-get-'em philosophy of a new team president and the never-to-be-underestimated desire to save his own skin, Hendry and the Cubs opened the coffers and proceeded to acquire players who would almost immediately turn the Cubs into contenders. Meanwhile, Dusty - the guy Hendry wouldn't fire - sat behind a desk with ESPN for a season, spouting wisdom that even befuddled certified geniuses like John Kruk. And yet, despite exposing an entire country to his keen baseball mind, Baker managed to land another managing job.
Now, we are taken full circle. Baker has returned to Chicago for the last time this season, and he will be facing a team that is, in many ways, the antithesis of the group of losers he managed. Where Baker favored veterans at the expense of promising rookies, the Cubs are now a team where every player makes meaningful contributions. Where Baker made decisions that baffled, the Cubs now play with precision and order. Most importantly, where Baker brought out the worst in his team and failed to make the slightest positive contribution, the Cubs are now managed by a guy who seems to do everything right.
Dusty Baker, Cubs past, meet Lou Piniella, Cubs present and future. It took Lou a couple of months to fix the mess you left him, but since June 2nd, 2007, the Cubs have gone 139-94, which is the best record of any team in baseball in that time. Meanwhile, in their first season under Baker's leadership, the Reds are whatdoyaknow, 55-70. Pretty much on par for Baker.
Two years ago today, the Cubs - an already bad team - embarked upon a losing streak that was epic, but not unexpected. They narrowly avoided a 100-loss season. This year, the Cubs - an already great team - may very well be on the brink of a winning streak that is epic, but not unexpected. If they do, if they can, then this time they should not fall short of 100.