Quade excited, but will romance last?

To manage the Chicago Cubs is to hold one of the most coveted jobs in baseball. But the romance only lasts for so long. Dusty Baker will tell you that.

In 2003, he came within five outs of the World Series. In 2004, he narrowly missed the playoffs despite finishing with a better record than the season before.

In 2006, he was fired.

And losing his job wasn’t the worst insult. Not even close.

“At the very end, somebody took a dump right where I stood in the dugout every day,” Baker said Monday morning. “That was the low point. The grounds crew guy cleaned it up. He said, ‘Oh, I think it’s dog crap.’ I said, ‘No it ain’t. That’s human crap.’”

Baker said Monday’s interview was the first time he had discussed the incident publicly. He doesn’t know who the perpetrator was. The episode occurred around the same time that Baker received menacing — and often racially charged — letters and telephone calls. But Baker, now the Cincinnati Reds manager, has moved on.

The Cubs have a new manager, too: Mike Quade, their Class AAA manager during Baker’s tenure with the team. Baker knows and likes Quade. He’s even rooting for Quade — insofar as Chicago victories won’t affect the Reds’ chances of repeating as National League Central champions.

And yet Baker, forever candid and cool, isn’t about to sugarcoat the difficulties inherent in one of the majors’ toughest assignments.

Since 1972, only one Cubs manager — Jim Riggleman — has lasted more than four full seasons in the job. To put it another way: Of the 23 men to lead the Cubs since Leo Durocher’s last game, only one stuck around longer than the interim between Olympics.

“They turn over their managers pretty quick,” Baker observed. “They don’t stick with anybody for a period of time, because everybody’s counting — Year 100, Year 101, Year 102. There’s no such thing as a four- or five-year plan. It’s a one-year plan.”

Since 1908, those plans have consistently failed to bring a world title to the North Side. But the mere act of trying is so overwrought with emotion that reentry to the managerial ranks can be difficult. Baker’s predecessor, Don Baylor, has yet to manage another game in the majors. His successor, Lou Piniella, burned out and retired from managing last year.

Baker was out of baseball for one season before returning to manage the Reds in 2008. But it bothers him that some baseball observers continue to criticize his handling of pitchers, given the injuries that befell Mark Prior and Kerry Wood. He said the team “didn’t have the personnel” to win in the second half of his four-year tenure, citing injuries to stars Aramis Ramirez (2005) and Derrek Lee (2006).

“It really hurt my reputation,” Baker said. “Ever since then, all of a sudden, ‘I don’t know how to manage. I don’t know how to handle pitchers. I don’t like young players.’ … They don’t even have a clue about it. I never heard that in San Francisco.

“I was one of the top managers around, supposedly, and then all of a sudden I don’t know (expletive), know what I mean? They (the critics) were always looking for something critical, ever since I went there (to Chicago).”

Now it’s Quade, 53, who must answer to the North Side second-guessers. But there are several reasons to believe his team could challenge Baker’s this year: Quade built up some capital with fans by going 24-13 as an interim manager last year, and his energetic, optimistic approach is playing well in a clubhouse that seemed stale during Piniella’s final months on the job. The rotation is better, too, with the addition of Matt Garza.

Plus, Quade (KWAH-dee) has a very different pedigree than many of his predecessors. And after a century of losing, there’s something to be said for a change in approach.

Baylor, Baker and Piniella didn’t merely have big-league playing careers. They had All-Star careers. Well, Quade didn’t. He hit five home runs in five minor-league seasons. He topped out at Class AA.

“I did everything I could to be good,” Quade said in an interview earlier this month, “and I wasn’t.”

So, he started managing. He was 28 when he took control of the Class A Macon Pirates in 1985. They were not very good. They were not very good the next year, either, and Quade was fired.

But Quade learned lessons, applied them, and went on to manage 15 more seasons in the minors, winning some championships along the way. He reached the majors as a third base coach with Oakland in 2000 and stayed for three years. Piniella brought him to the majors again in 2007.

In retrospect, Piniella’s decision to resign last August was a key moment in Quade’s career. Quade, who had never managed in the majors, was given a chance to show that he could. And if the team hadn’t performed so well, it’s possible the Cubs would have hired Hall of Famer Ryne Sandberg last fall.

“I learned a great deal about myself during those six weeks,” Quade said. “Most of it was that I can be who I am, and treat major league players like I do, and run a game like I do, and it works for them. They weren’t caught off guard by a guy that either came in too strong, or not strong enough, or didn’t know what he was doing.”

Quade is the first man since Lee Elia to lead the Cubs on a permanent basis without previous big-league managerial experience. Elia took over in 1982 and lasted all of a season and a half. His tenure is remembered mostly for (a) losing and (b) an infamous R-rated tirade still available on YouTube.

So, yes, it’s been awhile.

“Dusty and Lou come in here as successful veteran managers with wonderful track records,” Quade said. “OK, so let’s see what words don’t apply for me — like, all of them. How I’m going to gain (the players’) respect, how I’m going to communicate with them, there are so many things that are different for me than a veteran manager.

“If I tried to be Dusty, or if I tried to be Lou, given my personality, then I’ve got no chance. You find ways to do it your way.”

The springtime idealism is there, in every word Quade speaks. And it should be. He believes in his guys. Just like Lou and Dusty did.