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Piniella will be sorely missed
Sitting around with Lou Piniella before Saturday's MLB on FOX broadcast, I thought he could not have seemed more relaxed.
I knew, as he spoke with our broadcast team, that he was putting on something of a brave front. The Cubs had lost 19 of their last 23 games. Some people around the team told me that Piniella was not taking it well. He could not accept that the Cubs were out of contention, those people said, and the environment around the club, particularly for the young players, had turned sour.
The losing is not why Piniella decided to suddenly step down after Sunday's game; he is resigning because he is worried about the health of his 90-year-old mother. Oh, Piniella desperately wanted his career to end like Bobby Cox's, with one last push toward the postseason. But this awful Cubs team will amount to only a minor blemish on Piniella's brilliant managerial career.
I will remember Piniella for his tremendous passion, his three World Series appearances with the Yankees as a player, his stirring, electrifying peaks as a manager. The World Series champion Reds in 1990. The 116-win Mariners in 2001. And yes, the back-to-back division titles with the Cubs in 2007 and '08.
This season, for whatever reason, it didn't click.
In mid-May, I wrote that if the Cubs did not get hot soon, they should consider replacing Piniella with his bench coach, Alan Trammell. As it turns out, the team elevated third base coach Mike Quade to interim manager and will not even consider Trammell for the permanent position.
Piniella never was in serious jeopardy of losing his job — GM Jim Hendry had too much respect for him, too much gratitude. But for much of the season, the Cubs played like a team that was trying to get its manager fired.
Piniella's peers talk about the Chicago Cubs manager, who retired after Sunday's 16-5 loss to the Atlanta Braves:
''He was fiery. But the fact that they keep showing the clips of him going off on umpires, that's only a small part of Lou Piniella's career. I've come to like Lou a lot. I've played against him, I've seen him manage, and what stands out most is that he doesn't care what you say or do - he's going to run his club the way he wants to run it.'' — Cincinnati Reds manager Dusty Baker.
''Lou's been so good for this game. I guess you have to say that sometimes enough is enough, especially when in spring training you expect so much from the club. He's a Hall of Famer and I hope he'll enjoy his life. Baseball needs people like Lou Piniella.'' — Chicago White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen.
''He was the same as a manager that he was as a hitter. I mean, he went berserk as a hitter — and I say that with love and respect. It meant a lot to him, and the game means a lot to him. So I think a lot of the antics — which don't go away unfortunately thanks to our friends on TV ... I think it distracts you from what basically he's all about. And that's being a winner. He's had success pretty much everywhere he's gone.'' — Los Angeles Dodgers manager Joe Torre.
''He was a fantastic manager and a very close friend. It's tough when anybody has to leave the game, maybe because of his mother's illness. He's a very good teacher, a very good manager of people. He's more worried about what's going on off the field then what's on the field with you. From a personal standpoint, he helped me with a lot of personal issues so that I can go out and be the best professional baseball player that I can be.'' — former Cincinnati Reds reliever Rob Dibble.
''He's a terrific winner and they're strugging. I'm sure he's suffering. He's had a great career.'' — St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony La Russa.
''Most of our time together was a little more fire than ice. A lot of my times that I remember is just a lot of heated conversations in the heat of the battle, but I think in the long run, I turned out to be a better ballplayer for it.'' — Houston Astros infielder Geoff Blum, who played for Piniella in 2004 with Tampa Bay.
''He was just a winner. Every day he came to the park and expected the guys to win. He instilled a winning attitude with the Mariners and helped turn around that franchise. His record speaks for itself.'' — Marlins president of baseball operations Larry Beinfest, who spent 10 years in the Mariners organization and worked with Piniella.
"There is no question Piniella is blameless for much of what ails the Cubs," I wrote. "Managers, though, rarely are fired for a specific litany of sins. They're fired, more often than not, when teams need a new energy, a new start. Hello, Cubs."
Piniella was upset with the column. When I saw him a few weeks later, he said, "If you were around the team every day, you would know the problem is not the manager."
And then, in our meeting Saturday, he looked at me with that familiar glint in his eye, smiled and said, "Maybe you were right."
I doubt he actually meant that. In fact, I told Piniella that maybe he had been right. The Cubs proved to be such a poorly put-together club, it's difficult to say that a managerial change would have made any difference.
Still, there is no question now that the Cubs need a fresh start. I would be shocked if they hired Joe Torre or Bobby Valentine, a third straight celebrity manager to follow Piniella and Dusty Baker. Their future rests with youngsters such as shortstop Starlin Castro, outfielder Tyler Colvin and right-hander Andrew Cashner. Their next manager should be a long-term solution, someone who can grow with the team.
Joe Girardi would be perfect if the Cubs can steal him from the Yankees; I'll believe that will happen when I see it. Cubs Hall of Famer Ryne Sandberg, the team's current manager at Triple A, already is getting considerable attention. Too much attention perhaps.
While Sandberg has paid his dues, managing four years in the minors, working with the team's young players, I worry that someone who has never managed in the majors would get swallowed whole by the negativity that surrounds the Cubs — negativity that feeds off this little 102-year drought that afflicts the franchise.
Who knows? Maybe Sandberg is uniquely qualified for such a challenge. But Girardi, who already has managed under extreme pressure, would be better prepared. And Hendry surely will consider others as well. One thing is certain: The next manager will not be anything like Piniella, one of the game's great originals.
One of my all-time favorite professional moments was an on-camera interview I did with Piniella in the Cubs' clubhouse after the team clinched the 2008 division title at Wrigley Field. Piniella was excited, emotional, ready for the next step. Rather than look at me, he stared directly into the camera during his answers, as if he were speaking to the entire city of Chicago, all of Cubdom. It was as if he were saying, "We can do this! Get on board!"
Alas, the Cubs were swept by the Dodgers in the Division Series, just as they had been swept by the Diamondbacks the year before. But Piniella got them close before things fell apart. And even this season, he can take solace knowing he helped launch the careers of Castro, Colvin and Co.
Sweet Lou provided so many fun moments for fans across all the country, entertaining us with his classic ejections and rants, not to mention winning baseball. He drove his general managers crazy by always wanting new and better players, a 30-man roster. His competitive fire burned so brightly. The game will not be the same without it.
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