Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Is Lou the new Dusty?

In 2003, hope sprang eternal for the Chicago Cubs. They'd inked a widely admired new manager, Dusty Baker, to an expensive four-year contract. He was the consensus top field manager available that year, having guided numerous teams to the playoffs after an impressive playing career. The Cubs had the best starting rotation in the National League and loaded up with Aramis Ramirez and Kenny Lofton as they made their stretch run. The future looked bright as Baker led the Cubs to the playoffs in his first season, and within five outs of the World Series.

Many of us know what happened next. Steve Bartman and an eighth inning collapse took care of NLCS Game Six, Kerry Wood served up three runs to Florida in the first inning to set a losing tone for Game Seven, and so went the 2003 campaign. The following year, Mark Prior's injuries, Wood's too, and a September swoon combined to doom the Cubs. Throw in a bizarre squabble between Cubs pitchers and announcer Steve Stone, plus Sammy Sosa's infamous early departure on the last game of the season, and the North Siders were out of the 2004 playoffs.

The next thing you knew, Dusty's every hit-and-run, Zambrano pitch count and bullpen move were being questioned by Wrigley Field boo-birds and sports talk radio yammerers alike. The Cubs were indifferent in 2005 and sank badly in 2006, losing an embarrassing 96 games. By the time his contract ran out after that season, Baker had gone from the people's choice for mayor to unelectable as dogcatcher. He was not asked back.

Enter Lou Piniella. The Cubs signed the widely admired former Rookie of the Year to an expensive four-year managerial contract before the 2007 season. The consensus top field manager available that year, he'd guided the 1990 Cincinnati Reds to the World Series title and the 2001 Seattle Mariners to an astonishing 116-win season. Moving quickly to assemble another contender, the Cubs inked marquee free agent Alfonso Soriano to an eye-popping $136 million contract. They also acquired starting pitchers Ted Lilly and Jason Marquis and versatile former Penn quarterback Mark DeRosa.

They narrowly won their division and made the playoffs in each of Piniella's first two seasons, but got swept out in the first round both times. The 2009 campaign, in turn, is off to an iffy start. After Soriano homered on the second pitch of the season, things have quieted down considerably. Big-money free agent and perennial clubhouse distraction Milton Bradley is batting .188 and blaming umpires for his woes at the plate. The Cubs have lost eight games in a row and slid to fourth place in their division. Although it's still early, the playoffs are no guarantee.

Is it too soon to worry that Lou is becoming the new Dusty?

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