Monday, August 22, 2011

A Not-So-Nice Finish

By Jeff Kallman

It's difficult to think of any franchise in recent history that canned its general manager officially, but asked him not to leave for almost a month. The Chicago Cubs wanted Jim Hendry to hang around long enough to run the club's draft and get their draftees signed, but they didn't want him making any significant moves approaching the non-waiver trade deadilne.

Figure it out if you can: the Cubs couldn't bear to trust Hendry with the team's present any longer, but they were willing to trust him once more with the team's future. Had this been any other franchise — even the formerly snake-bitten Boston Red Sox, prior to the John Henry/Theo Epstein regime — you'd be shaking your heads and reaching for the bourbon bottle.

Or did they? There have been stories seeping forth, ever since Hendry's dismissal was announced at last, that there were teams — contending teams, even — inquiring about some Cubs who do have trade value, and that Hendry all but told them don't even think about it.

The Texas Rangers were interested in Carlos Marmol, his diminishing repertoire notwithstanding. Hendry apparently told the Rangers Marmol was untouchable. The Atlanta Braves had eyes for Marlon Byrd. Hendry apparently told the Braves likewise. Apparently, Hendry's eye — the same eye that once signed Dusty Baker to manage and dealt for Eric Karros and Mark Grudzielanek, when those two veterans still had enough in the tank to help get the Cubs to within five outs of a World Series — no longer saw what contenders might feed the Cubs in exchange for a few tradable parts.

Once upon a time, Hendry dodged the blame when the Cubs imploded down the stretch, as in 2004, when the Cubs on the field seemed more interested in settling actual or imagined scores than in winning critical games. That's how likable the man was, and still is. Even Cub fans too well accustomed to life among the also-rans, and too well resigned to doing the best they could with what they had, including and especially a round of notoriously bad contracts, were in no big hurry to measure him for a necktie party.

Then Lou Piniella, who managed them to the best record in the National League in 2008 and had them in first place in August 2009, before Milton Bradley went nuclear and turned the clubhouse into a fallout zone, decided he'd had it in 2010. And Hendry made a farce out of finding Piniella's permanent replacement.

It was one thing to name third base coach Mike Quade the interim manager to close 2010 out, which Quade did in style enough, the Cubs having a winning record the rest of the way. It was something else again to have promised Ryne Sandberg a legitimate shot at the permanent job, if he'd only gone down to the farms and managed his way up the system, which is exactly what Sandberg did to positive reviews all around, only to name Quade the permanent manager without giving Sandberg so much as a by-your-leave.

Actually, Hendry is said to have told Sandberg he wasn't "experienced" enough for the gig. The Hall of Famer had only managed in the system for five seasons, including a 2010 in which he stood at the end as the Pacific Coast League's Manager of the Year and championship manager in the bargain.

Sandberg is now performing to similar positive reviews in the system that reared him as a player in the first place, the Philadelphia Phillies. He's making the same rep there that he made managing in the Cub system — a top-of-the-line baseball teacher who also knows how to win while he's teaching. Quade has spent 2011 losing control of his team and losing point after point for moves ranging from dubious to deluded.

In fairness, one of the bad contracts customarily mentioned in the same breath as Hendry wasn't his fault. (Alfonso Soriano, who was then-club president John McDonough's brainchild.) But none stood out as glaringly as the one which blew up in his face once and for all a week before his execution became public.

Hendry went with Carlos Zambrano's pitching potential and, we know now, ignored what has long since been secured as Zambrano's inability to withstand pressure actual or alleged. Bare weeks into the terms of his now-notorious contract extension, Zambrano might have been excused for trying too hard to live up to his new, lucrative deal, if not for ripping the boo-birds as he did so publicly. (He apologized afterward, of course.)

But we know now that Zambrano's best pitching has come mostly when there's little enough to pitch for, when the Cubs aren't anywhere near contention. And we know now that Zambrano, who is by all reports one of the game's genuine good guys off the field, is and has been a time bomb on the field and in the clubhouse who will be remembered only too readily as the guy who got bombed by the Atlanta Braves, threw twice at Chipper Jones for no good reason other than that bombing, got thrown out of the game, and stormed into the clubhouse, cleared out his locker, including his nameplate, and walked off the team.

All that did was probably confirm to the Cubs' administration that they'd made the right call in firing Hendry, even if they left themselves open to question for asking him to hang in until the Cubs' draft was secured while, allegedly, tying his hands for the non-waiver deadline.

Which doesn't look very good for owner Tom Ricketts, who seems to have spent his first two years of Cub ownership analyzing what he has. The word is that he may just be too nice to fire anyone until or unless absolute push comes to absolute shove.

Well, now. A one-time Cub manager was notorious enough for being slightly misquoted as saying that nice guys finish last. It's proven true for Jim Hendry. Without wishing Ricketts to turn all the way into a George Steinbrenner, Cub Country won't stand too long for the same thing proving true in his case. Not even if the Cubs actually do bring Ryne Sandberg back to manage the club in 2012.

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