For Lou, it's the right call at wrong time

 
 
Posted7/21/2010 12:01 AM

The irony of all that happened - or didn't happen - Tuesday at Wrigley Field is that four years ago the Cubs wanted nothing to do with Joe Girardi.

As in slim and none, and slim wasn't even in the building.

 

The Cubs weren't going to grant him an audience until intermediaries got Girardi a courtesy interview.

Lou Piniella was their choice from the start, and the Cubs didn't think too much of Girardi after the Marlins dismissed the 2006 Manager of the Year.

And, yet, by allowing Lou Piniella to hang around for another 11 weeks, the Cubs seem to have told Girardi that they won't make a decision on a new manager until the Yankees are done in October and Girardi decides whether he wants to stay in New York.

The Cubs also have indicated that Ryne Sandberg and Bob Brenly don't top their list of candidates, because if either was No. 1, the Cubs could send Piniella home today and let their new manager get started.

That's a theory GM Jim Hendry disagreed with as we stood on the field about an hour before Tuesday night's game against the Astros at Wrigley Field.

"It's great for us that we have Lou the rest of the year because it gives us time to plan and there's no rush to make a call," Hendry said. "And Ryno's a legit candidate and he's got a real shot. You're wrong if you think he's not."

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Well, let's hope I am.

It's just difficult to understand why they'd need until October to conduct a full search unless the guy they wanted was currently unavailable.

What research would they have to conduct now on Brenly or Sandberg that hasn't already been done when the Cubs have known for at least a year or two that Piniella had lost his edge?

It simply doesn't make sense to spend a couple of months watching Piniella sleep through the rest of the schedule when a new manager could be learning his players and making decisions about next year.

But other than that disappointment for Cubs fans, no serious news emerged from the theatrics Tuesday afternoon.

There was no reason to think Hendry wasn't returning with more than 21/2 years left on his contract, and especially after owner Tom Ricketts told the Daily Herald on July 10 that, "I have the highest level of confidence in Jim. We came in Day One and started from square one. From there, I thought the off-season was terrific for the organization."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Simply put, Ricketts likes what he has seen since he got here and won't judge the bad contracts of the past - or who's responsible for them - when the team has been through three owners and three team presidents in four years.

"I've been all around the organization," Ricketts told me Tuesday, "and I like what I see and I like what I hear."

As for Piniella, who didn't know he was finished?

"I want to go home," Piniella said. "I've been away from home since 1962. It's been a long road."

His news conference took place, fittingly, in the dungeon of a prison cell that serves as an interview room, the one Piniella so disliked the last few years, the source of so much irritation, the place that helped create the perception he was out to lunch, which he so often looked to be.

The manager's best chance to communicate with the fans is postgame, but the 66-year-old Piniella was barely able to answer questions the last couple of months, having no explanation for his team's awful play.

While it should have happened now, Piniella nevertheless deserved a dignified exit, having shown nothing but class in Chicago following the Dusty Baker era, which was often an embarrassment to the franchise.

"He's earned the right to go out the right way," Hendry said, before taking a not-so-subtle shot at Baker. "He always played the young guys we gave him, and he always understood that he was working in the best interests of the team and the organization, not himself."

Piniella was particularly good and energetic the first year, holding it together and holding players accountable when the Cubs struggled out of the gate. He worked closely with Hendry to tweak the roster and get players on the North Side who could help him win.

But about halfway through the second season, he stopped being the bad cop and stopped being the cop at all.

After getting swept two straight years in the playoffs, last season took a toll on Piniella, and when this season started ugly again Piniella appeared even less interested.

That's how many Cubs fans will remember him, because now you have a sloppy team punctuated by Aramis Ramirez refusing to put his body in front of a ball at third, and inmates like Carlos Zambrano running the asylum until the GM is forced to step in and discipline the loons.

But it would be unfair to think of his entire time here in that way.

After all, Piniella is the first Cubs manager to reach the playoffs two straight seasons since 1908, first to post three straight winning records since Leo Durocher in the early '70s, and his .531 winning percentage is the best since Charlie Grimm managed the Cubs full time in 1949.

So Piniella departs not as a failure, but rather as a man who raised the bar and then couldn't win enough for a fan base that has suffered for more than a century and measures success only by World Series titles.

Count Piniella among those sorry that it didn't occur while he was here, but not sorry that it's over.

"I've been doing this my whole life, and to do something you love for so long, it's hard to leave," Piniella said. "But it's time."

Indeed.

brozner@dailyherald.com