Piniella's irresistible optimism is meeting immovable Cubs

The Kickoff

October 18, 2006|By PETER SCHMUCK

I'm a big Lou Piniella fan, and not just because he became my newest fellow employee when the Chicago Cubs (a Tribune Company subsidiary) announced yesterday that the team had signed him to a three-year, $10 million contract to replace Dusty Baker as manager.

I love Lou because he is everything a new manager should be, including slightly delusional. He proved that during his introductory news conference when he basically guaranteed that the Cubs would win under his command. Steve Bartman was unavailable to comment.

Everybody knows that the Cubs will never win. They haven't been to the World Series since 1945 - haven't won one since 1908 - and there have been several instances during the intervening decades that should convince any reasonable person that the "Billy Goat Curse" is not just some figment of the collective imagination of the Windy City.

Piniella has to be aware of this, and I don't want to hear him claim that he doesn't believe in curses ... not after managing the Tampa Bay Devil Rays for three years.

He told the media yesterday that "urgency is important" and he promised the Cubs would win during his tenure. Baker said something similar before taking the Cubs within a deflected foul ball of the World Series in 2003, but met the eventual fate of all optimistic Cubs managers after the club finished last in the National League Central this year.

Piniella almost certainly will run screaming into the night at some point in the next three years, maybe when Kerry Wood and Mark Prior simultaneously grab for their shoulders during their side-by-side throwing session a couple of days into spring training in February. But the man loves a challenge, and what greater challenge could there be in professional sports than trying to lead the Cubs into late October?

(That was a rhetorical question, so everyone who answered "offensive coordinator for the Ravens" kind of missed the point.)

Like I said earlier, I like Piniella and I would hire him in a minute if I owned a major league franchise, though we all know that Major League Baseball would never allow a Schmuck to be an owner (fill in your own joke here if you live in New York, Baltimore or Kansas City).

It is not unusual for new managers to make lofty promises when they are introduced in a new city, though Piniella was a little more circumspect when he took over the Devil Rays. He predicted at the outset that the club would break the franchise record for victories in a season, which wasn't saying all that much when you consider that the Rays had never won more than 69 games in their short history. Piniella made good on that prediction when the Devil Rays won 70 games in 2004, but asked out of his contract when it became apparent the following year that the Rays were not likely to post a winning record in his lifetime.

The next time he turned up in public was as a member of the Fox Sports broadcast crew, which he will leave better than he found it only because of the inadvertent role he played in the dismissal of fellow baseball analyst Steve Lyons.

(Bonus stream of consciousness: Lyons was dismissed the other day for making insensitive on-air comments about Hispanics, which were clearly over the line, but I'm trying to figure out just what Fox expected when the network hired a guy whose nickname is "Psycho" to be class clown.)

Presumably, Piniella could have had his pick of the six jobs that were open around baseball, but he decided to joust the sport's biggest windmill. To paraphrase John F. Kennedy, he chose the job not because it is easy but because it is hard, and you've got to respect that.

I'm pretty sure Baker felt the same way after he took the job on the heels of a World Series appearance with the Giants. When someone asked him why he thought the Cubs could win, his reply - "Why not us?" - became something of a battle cry until Bartman reached for that infamous foul ball and reminded everyone that the answer to Baker's question has been planted deep in the psyche of Cubs Nation for almost a century.

There isn't a single Cubs fan who wasn't thinking the same thing when Piniella promised yesterday to bring a winner to the North Side: You don't have to be crazy to think you can lead the Cubs to the World Series, but it sure helps.

peter.schmuck@baltsun.com.

The Peter Schmuck Show airs on WBAL (1090 AM) at noon on Saturdays.

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