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Tuesday, October 17, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM


Larry Stone

Piniella in Chicago: The best show in baseball

Seattle Times baseball reporter

The manager who eventually wins a World Series for the Chicago Cubs — and it's bound to happen one of these centuries — will be guaranteed eternal demigod status, and won't ever have to pay for a drink again.

You just know that's the secret desire of everyone who has held that job in recent times, from lightweights like Jim Essian to heavyweights like Dusty Baker.

At least, Baker arrived in town a heavyweight, with an impeccable reputation and a sparkling résumé, fresh off a National League pennant. By the time he limped out of Chicago two weeks ago, a beaten man, Cubs fans wouldn't have endorsed his ability to manage a Burger King.

This job will do that to you. Now Lou Piniella is about to become the latest man to try to bring glory to an inglorious franchise. Having agreed on Monday to a three-year contract to manage the Cubs, Piniella will no doubt say all the right things today at his introductory news conference about having just one goal: winning the World Series.

He just might do it, too. Jim Leyland is showing in Detroit what a charismatic, passionate manager can mean in the right circumstances.

Of course, in the 98 years since their last World Series title, when have the Cubs ever been in "the right circumstances?"

The chances are just as good that Piniella will go the way of his good buddy Lee Elia. Uncle Lee's enduring legacy as Cubs manager in 1982-83 was a classic tirade in which he ripped the team's fans with the timeless phrase: "Eighty-five percent of the [expletive] world is working. The other 15 percent come out here."

Surprisingly, that didn't go over well, and Elia soon was shown the door, as every Cubs manager eventually is. Elia on that day was a man gone slightly mad. Managing the Cubs will do that to you.

We in Seattle all know, better than most, that Sweet Lou is fully capable of going off the deep end during times of adversity. It's part of his charm. I fully expect — indeed, eagerly anticipate — at least three full-blown, crazy-eyed meltdowns once Piniella takes over the Cubs. Then we'll see what happens when spring training ends.

Regardless, it's going to be the best show in baseball. This high-risk, high-reward job will re-energize Piniella, who did some perfunctory ranting and raving early in his Tampa Bay tenure, but eventually seemed to resign himself to the fact that he was fighting a losing battle.

Then, a year before his contract was to end, he just resigned. But even if Piniella had revived that moribund franchise, would anyone really have cared?

Now he's in a situation where everyone cares — cares deeply, so deeply that the Cubs' inevitable failures are increasingly treated not with shrugs and good humor, as used to be the case, but rage and finger-pointing.

Which is fine by Piniella, because no one cares more than he does. That's also part of his charm, and part of the reason that certain players are always turned off (or driven away) by his intensity. One thinks of Seattle closer Mike Schooler, who upon being released by the Mariners one spring complained of Piniella, "All he cares about is winning."

In many ways, he's the perfect manager for the Cubs, because his frustration will mirror that of the fans. One complaint about Baker was that he was too much of a players' man and thus never exerted the discipline necessary to change the culture. Piniella has the rare quality of being a players' man who can also lay down the law.

Of course, all that will hardly matter if the Cubs' talent level isn't raised. I happen to be in the minority that still believes Dusty Baker is a capable manager, having had the chance to watch him up close for several years in his heyday with the Giants. But I would be the first to acknowledge that Barry Bonds made him look a lot smarter.

By the same token, Piniella's IQ will increase immeasurably next year if Kerry Wood somehow regains the magic in his right arm. And if Mark Prior joins Wood in renewed health and vigor, Piniella will become a certifiable genius, and maybe the Cubs will have finally found their Francona.

If not, well, the periodic eruptions of Mount Lou will still be worth the price of admission at Wrigley Field.

Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company




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