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May. 15 2010 — 4:50 pm | 254 views | 0 recommendations | 3 comments

Chicago Cubs lineup past its expiration date

PITTSBURGH - APRIL 07: Derrek Lee #25 of the C...

Getting across home plate has been a big problem for Derrek Lee, tagged out here, and his teammates lately (Image via Getty Images).

I’m sitting in the Wrigley Field pressbox, fortunate to have the windows closed on a cool afternoon. Right before me, Derrek Lee has just struck out leading off the bottom of the eighth against the Pittsburgh Pirates as the Cubs try to make up a one-run deficit.

Life is tough these days if you follow the Cubs. The whole atmosphere has the scent of a 90-loss season, or worse, in the making. Heads should roll, but whose? Lou Piniella’s managerial contract runs out after this season. Other contracts, like Carlos Zambrano’s and Alfonso Soriano’s, have years to go. Everything just doesn’t feel right.

Especially the interminable slumps of Lee and Aramis Ramirez. Through all the typical chaos and nonsense associated with the Cubs, they’ve been as close to steady as possible. Yet the abject failure of the lineup to produce is traced back to them, and the typical streakiness of Alfonso Soriano. And you can only conclude that their tenure as a run-producing unit has come to an end.

That’s not unusual. It’s the cycle of baseball, like the four seasons. Groups of hitters are acquired and placed in the batting order. They produce for awhile, depending on circumstances. And then their “freshness” date expires, much like old food. The combination of Lee, Ramirez and Soriano are now stale.

The Cubs actually are fortunate they got enough out of them. Ramirez, one of the best clutch hitters in modern Cubs times, and Lee have been middle-of-the-lineup Chicago staples together since 2004. Soriano joined them as leadoff man in 2007 before being dropped down in the order two years later. The majority of such combos probably don’t enjoy such a long run.

Going back, the famed Sixties threesome of Billy Williams, Ron Santo and Ernie Banks had the longest run in franchise annals — basically 1961 to 1970 before Banks’ bad knees and old age finally claimed him. But Santo and Williams only had two more effective seasons as Cubs hitters before they went bad. Nothing can be forever in baseball.

The most powerful top-to-bottom Cubs lineup in memory was the 1984 NL East champions. Six players had 80 or more RBIs. Remember the Daily Double of Bobby Dernier and Ryne Sandberg, followed by Gary Matthews, Keith Moreland, Leon “Bull” Durham, Ron Cey and Jody Davis? They proved to be one-year wonders who led the NL in runs scored, but couldn’t put the Padres away in three playoff games in San Diego. That order was largely injured and/or less effective in 1985. They were a year older and not productive in 1986 and then they broke apart.

The Cubs won the NL East in 1989 with a lot of home-grown kids. Sandberg was the only holdover from ‘84. Andre Dawson had come aboard two years earlier, winning the NL’s MVP award after signing a blank contract during the collusion era. But Dawson had a sub-par year due to knee surgery in ‘89. His dip in production was made up for partially by rookie of the year Jerome Walton, runner-up Dwight Smith, golden-boy Mark Grace and Shawon Dunston, all products of the Dallas Green’s temporarily-revived farm system. Joe Girardi and Rick Wrona were rookie catchers also home-grown, but they did not hit much.

Young and enthusiastic, and productive. The ‘89 Cubs also led the NL in runs scored. But by 1991, Walton’s great break-in season was just a blip on a mediocre career, Smith was on the bench, Grace had settled in as a high-average hitter with only a hint of power and Dunston advanced no further in his abilities. That lineup spoiled quickly.

Nine years later, the Cubs tried to capture lightning in a bottle two years in a row by re-signing 40-year-old Gary Gaetti to play third base after he gave the Cubs a late-season boost to the 1998 NL wild card. But the Gaetti deal was symbolic of yet another lineup that had a one-year shelf life. That productive ‘98 batting order devolved into two successive years of 95 or more losses. Gaetti was retired by the time a new century rolled around.

Lee-Ramirez-Soriano was constructed to win quickly in 2007-08. They got the job half done, winning the NL Central, but also getting swept six in a row in two Division Series against the Diamondbacks and Dodgers. Once a veteran lineup fails that miserably in the playoffs, the chances of a future breakthrough are not great.

It’s an hour or so later after I penned the first word here. The Cubs have lost 4-3, stranding the tying run on third with just one out in the ninth. Ramirez has said the players have to get it done between the white lines. They’ve always said that. But often it’s just not possible. You know how hard it is to bite into stale bread? That’s how hard it is to win with a lineup that just doesn’t work anymore.

The cryin’ shame is young, invigorating blood from the farm system, so long deferred in its arrival, is knocking on the door. But the Cubs can’t clear out the pantry to re-stock fast enough. The first couple of years of the Ricketts family ownership will indeed be challenging.

May. 7 2010 — 8:56 pm | 182 views | 0 recommendations | 6 comments

Hey, folks, calm down — let Cubs’ Starlin Castro break in without pressure

Corey Patterson

Corey Patterson in his first exile stop as an Oriole; care must be taken to make sure the same kind of fate does not happen to Starlin Castro (image via Wikipedia).

When the record of Starlin Castro’s big-league career is written, you hope the three-run homer he belted in his first big-league at bat on Friday (May 7) isn’t the worst thing to ever happen to him.

And then a bases-loaded triple two at-bats later. Who’s penning this  — a second-rate scriptwriter?

How can Castro top that act? Slug a walk-off homer in Game 7 of the World Series?

Many posts ago, I argued against a promotion of wunderkind shortstop Castro to the Cubs this season. Given the franchise’s record of impatience, and mishandling and over-hyping top prospects, I figured too much time in the minors was better than one day too less.

But now that Castro’s here,  as a very young catalyst to a sluggish lineup, keep your emotional distance, inhabitants of Cubs Universe. Don’t expect too much of him, don’t tout him as a savior, leave him be to get his feet wet in the majors.

You know what happened to Kevin Orie, Corey Patterson, Felix Pie and a slew of others. Too much attention on one guy as be-all, end-all of a position-prospect-challenged farm system. Throw in impatience with the likes of Lou Brock and Oscar Gamble, both promoted well before their time in the 1960s. Or the memories of Shawon Dunston, touted as the next Ernie Banks before he even knew what the original big-league Shawon Dunston could be like.

Castro worked the count deep before he sliced his homer to right at Great American Ballpark. Let the kid take pitches  the majority of the time and he’ll convince me he wasn’t promoted four months too soon. Let Castro not throw the ball all over the ballpark, and I’ll know he’ll be able to handle his position defensively and not toss games away. Let him be happy and not feel the weight of the world on him in pressurized Wrigley Field, and he’ll prove he can be a winning ballplayer.

From the Cubs’ perspective, the move was necessary. The lineup with Derrek Lee and Aramis Ramirez, middle of the order staples since 2004, is dangerously close to moving past its expiration date much like milk that’s about to sour. The Cubs, like the White Sox in recent years, have too many power types in the batting order. They desperately need some dash and speed.  Fresh blood is desperately needed.

The infield defense will be tightened up if Castro proves not to be an error machine. Ryan Theriot was game but below average defensively with his range and arm at shortstop. The Riot was the proverbial minor-league shortstop who was an acceptable big-league second baseman. Now as he moves into his 30s, he can provide dependability at second while Castro does the acrobatics at short.

The bottom line is keeping expectations away from Castro. Over-eager fans called Oldsmobile Park in Lansing, Mich. in the summer of 1999, urging that Patterson be promoted directly from Class A to the Cubs, if only to use his speed in center even if he couldn’t hit yet. Two years earlier, Orie was supposed to plug a 25-year-old hole at third left by Ron Santo’s departure. And way back in 1962, a befuddled Brock didn’t know whether to swing full for power, as suggested by one coach, or drag bunt, as counseled by another, during the Cubs’ wacky College of Coaches scheme.

If Castro hits .260, shows some improvement at the plate, works hard with hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo and is somewhat steady at shortstop, that’s a fabulous rookie year. No more, no less.

His memorable debut was the bonus. There’s a lot of people who can screw up this kid, on and off the field, and in the stands. Make sure this time history does not repeat itself as it has for the team as a whole for 101 seasons.

May. 6 2010 — 9:16 pm | 130 views | 0 recommendations | 2 comments

One on one best strategy to quiz managers like Lou Piniella

Erin Andrews and Sweet Lou Piniella

Erin Andrews and Sweet Lou Piniella gab about baseball in Milwaukee in 2008.

The damn story had legs that wouldn’t buckle.

It’s more than a week later and I still get questioned on asking Cubs manager Lou Piniella why he didn’t bunt the tying run to third base when his team was scuffling for runs. The question was legit, agreed 99 percent of those I encountered. Piniella’s offended reaction wasn’t, in the eyes of that vast majority. Remember, I recently posted that the hubbub was much ado about nothing, that yelling and screaming are as part of a baseball as scratching and spitting. I wasn’t upset at all with Sweet Lou, whom I knew would be hot and bothered after a tough loss.

But I wonder if I would have gotten a more calm and cogent answer from Piniella if he had been in his cramped manager’s office or if I would have saved the question for the next morning and taken him aside on the field.

That’s the problem with covering coaches and managers today. You can’t really get close to them anymore. They’re stage-managed to the 10th degree. Piniella dislikes the interview room in which he must do his post-game talks. There’s a heavy element of public speaking here that is not good for a baseball lifer who likes to hold court in his office. Piniella told me his office was his “comfort zone” back in 2007,  and he was torn away from it to accommodate the slew of TV cameras and reporters toting audio recorders who otherwise can’t be accommodated in his little cubbyhole.

Almost all of sports is carefully managed by media relations and marketing types. It’s the way of the world now with so much money and so much image to be protected, and too many media swarming about even with the massive cutbacks of the Great Recession. That takes away from the relationships that enterprising reporters could build up one on one with authority figures. And in turn, it stems the flow of information and explanations that fans, investing so much of their time and money in teams, deserve on a daily basis.

Here’s what I was able to glean from Piniella the past couple of years on the handful of occasions I could get him aside on the field or in the dugout. Why was he so agitated at Chicago media questions when he had to deal with a far larger — and tougher — pen-and-mic crowd in New York? Because we had gotten “inquisitive.” Why did he leave Carlos Zambrano an extra inning or two in a 2007 game against the Reds to be belted around for seven runs and 13 hits? Because Zambrano’s arm slot, which had dropped too much too consistently, could only be corrected via live pitching, not in the bullpen. And why was he pushing Sean Marshall out of the rotation in 2007 in favor of retread Steve Trachsel? Because he had questions about Marshall’s endurance.

Some questions are best asked in a quiet, more genteel manner off to the side or in the privacy of a manager’s office. Even in a group, the cozy surroundings of an office seems less confrontational than the grilling of a lecturn facing camera lights.

The trend of stage-managing  managers, coaches and front-office execs promotes either angry coaches or innocuous, bland answers. Does anyone in Chicago know what Lovie Smith really thinks?  Has Gar Forman ever let down his guard?  I bet Joel Quenneville would be entertaining in a smaller group in his office, but we’ll never know with the Blackhawks becoming a big, big deal.

I’ll let you know about one proud holdout of the old system. Before and immediately after Piniella’s higher-decibel response to me, the Washington Nats’ Jim Riggleman twice invited me into his visiting manager’s office at Wrigley Field. We had a nice 30-minute chat before one game. Minutes after Piniella’s voice-raising, Riggleman confirmed he would have called for a bunt based on the hitter and situation. “Rigs” and I have a longtime rapport going back 15 years when he sat in Piniella’s Cubs seat. We used to have post-batting practice chats in his office about once a homestand. The subject wasn’t always baseball. Riggleman believes a primary job of managers and players should be helping publicize the game. After all, everyone has to sell it given the economy and consumer choices.

Too bad Bobby Cox is retiring after this year. The Atlanta Braves’ longtime managerial guru does not like press conference settings. He prefers holding court on the bench for 30 to 60 minutes before each game. We ink-stained wretches learned a lot from Cox in homespun fashion over the decades. And I’m sorry Jack McKeon is retired, but he couldn’t last forever. “Trader Jack” was another one-on-one guy.

As you can see in the accompanying photo, there are exceptions to all access rules. Erin Andrews can get her one on ones with Piniella and most other big shots. National media affiliation and, well, personal presentation have their advantages.

I’ve dieted down, but I could never look and sound that good. Ah, back to the press conference-scrums to gauge a manager’s mood on whether he can be asked about bunting or hitting away.

Apr. 30 2010 — 6:23 pm | 236 views | 0 recommendations | 0 comments

Little Cubs Field in Freeport, Ill. is the real Field of Dreams

Little Cubs Field

I felt like a kid again picking up a plastic bat to swing at Denny Garkey’s strikes from 40 feet away. I had no range in the outfield, but it didn’t matter. Neither did the fact I couldn’t get the ball from the mound to a Little League catcher on the fly throwing out the first pitch of the 2010 season. Good thing the kid can block the ball. Un-intentional grounding, Jacque Jones-style.

On a cool Monday night in Freeport, Ill., some 130 miles northwest of Chicago, I played ball with local entrepreneur Garkey; my daughter, Laura, dressed in a pinstriped Cubs shirt, and her boyfriend Trip, the best athlete of the bunch. When Garkey pitched to Trip, manager of the fabulous Glen’s Diner in Chicago’s Ravenswood neighborhood, he served ‘em up good. Trip, nearing 30 and not having played since youth leagues, kept powering ‘em over the left-field wall.

The ballpark was Little Cubs Field, and its environs can’t magically turn your arm into Kerry Wood’s on that 20-strikeout extravaganza back in 1998. But it gives you the best baseball feeling, stripping away all the politics and egos and money that envelop the game today. You experience an absolutely pleasant feeling, throwing a ball around in a cozy little park in a small city with frame houses and really good people. Americans at their best.

Garkey and us should not have been there if all logic had prevailed. No way could Garkey, with no more than $100 in the bank for this crazy project at all times, have built a miniature replica of Wrigley Field, complete with red-brick walls, classic green scoreboard and clock, and ivy. But he did, and that’s why Little Cubs Field, starting its third season, is the real Field of Dreams.

The lil’ stadium is no prop carved out of a cornfield for a movie, then turned into a tourist attraction. That “Field of Dreams” is some 50 miles up U.S. 20 from Freeport in Dyersville, Iowa. This is a true story worthy of a Frank Capra treatment, of ordinary folks pulling together to craft the improbable. It is us at our best, showing that we have each other’s back, making something out of nothing. The arch-conservatives — the “I Got Mine” crowd — call it volunteerism, forgetting a responsible role from both government and private industry. I call it Americanism, and we need a lot more of it to get out of the jam we’re in.

Tinkerer Garkey, a red-blooded baseball fan, desired to build a small-scale replica of Wrigley Field that would serve as a youth-baseball center, and a place where people could just play ball and have fun. Sounds like a multi-million-dollar project. But the economy was starting to nosedive in the area in 2007-08. Now there’s nearly 20 percent unemployment in the nearby industrial center of Rockford. There’s a huge Chrysler plant east of Rockford, so when that company caught the industrial version of a near-fatal illness, the whole area suffered.

In that environment, the love of baseball and the Cubs in particular helped Garkey in Hollywood-style fashion. Retired bricklayers laid the 18,000 bricks in the replica wall, free of charge. Ironworkers built the scoreboard, gratis. Trucking companies hauled in the material without invoicing Garkey. The Cubs themselves donated flags and pennants, and some ivy to plant in the wall. The team has endorsed the project. It is called Little Cubs Field, not Little Wrigley Field, because Garkey did not want to infringe on the name of the present William Wrigley, son of last Wrigley to own the Cubs.

Instead of ghost 1919 White Sox appearing out of cornfields in the 1989 movie, real-life greats have trod upon Little Cubs Field. Hall of Famer Fergie Jenkins and buddy Lee Smith, who should be in Cooperstown, have visited. Ron Santo showed up in the opening season. Harry Caray’s widow, Dutchie, was another pleased attendee.

Garkey truly has the community energized. A local sports memorabilia dealer opened his store across the street. Playing off the Cubs-in-miniature angle, he erected a replica of the famed “EAMUS CATULI” sign that hangs on a rooftop club across Sheffield Avenue from Wrigley Field. On Garkey’s Opening Night, the sign unveiled the duplicate of the code on the Sheffield sign: “AC164101.” That means after a Cubs achievement — one year since the last divisional title, 64 years since the last World Series appearance and 101 years since you-know-what in the Fall Classic.

Garkey’s story is so good I’m proposing a book on how he built something from nothing. The odds are against such a tome being published, but, hey, they aren’t as great as the ones Garkey faced when he started out. Dreams do come true in the harsh reality of the 21st century.

Do travel out to Kevin Costner’s movie creation in Dyersville. But on the way, you must stop at Little Cubs Field. You’ll knock a lot of years off your birth certificate and some cares off your daily burdens, if just for an hour or so. You’ll be in the heart of what made our country so great in the first place.

Apr. 29 2010 — 5:43 pm | 288 views | 0 recommendations | 3 comments

Much ado about nothing when Lou Piniella yells at you

Lou Piniella, manager of the Chicago Cubs, wal...

Lou Piniella walks away from a discussion with an umpire in 2008 (image via Wikipedia).

It is the baseball “money shot” in the eyes of video producers from the 200th market to ESPN: Lou Piniella erupting in his post-game news conference.

Been there, done that, the most famous being in 2007 when Sweet Lou responded to my question, ” What isn’t working?” with his famed “You saw the damn game!” blowback. Most recently, on April 28, when I asked why he didn’t have Mike Fontenot bunt Marlon Byrd over to third to get the tying run in scoring position, Piniella retorted, “Bunting what? With a left-hand hitter up?…What kind of baseball are you playing? Really, what kind of baseball do you play?”

That became the most replayed video clip and sound bite all over TV, radio and the internet along with reams of published quotes. For the next 24 hours, I got e-mails and people stopping me all over Wrigley Field, all saying the question was appropriate, all reacting in astonishment to Piniella.

What a waste of energy. It all was much ado about nothing.

Remember Tom Hanks’ classic line from “A League of Their Own?”  “There’s No Crying in Baseball!” his Jimmy Foxx-manager type yelled at a trembling female ballplayer. Well, Ralph Branca cried after serving up Bobby Thomson’s “Shot Heard ‘Round the World” in 1951. But tears are not advisable. What is ingrained in our grand ol’ game is yelling and screaming. If you haven’t been yelled at by a manager, exec or player in three decades of covering the game, you haven’t been bar mitzvahed. You are not yet a man!

Sweet Lou told me in 2007 he’d rather be known as a smart baseball man than a colorful baseball man, the latter for all his verbal and physical histrionics dating back to his clutch-hitting days with the Royals and Yankees. At the same time, Piniella suggested the lords of the game want to squeeze out all the color from the game. Managers used to yell all the time. There was no such thing as political correctness.

Media sat in manager’s offices and heard off-color comments and earthy analysis in the laughin’, scratchin’ and spittin’ style. Now the skippers are staged-managed in press conferences, carefully looked over by handlers nervous about any awkward comments. Piniella himself said he was yanked out of his “comfort zone” by doing a press conference in a too-cozy interview room rather than his office. He has never blown up in his office or pre-game on the bench, holding court.

Media across the board must be hard up if they have to wait for Piniella to raise his voice and make an issue out of him getting a bit chippy with a reporter. It happened all the time back in the day. Leo Durocher almost fought with scribe Jerome Holtzman, an ex-Marine.

At least the latest Piniella verbiage had a short shelf life. Too bad Tiger Woods’ confession of 121 affairs during his marriage or another Milton Bradley bird flipped to the fans did not take place on April 28.

The advice here for sound-bite mongers is look somewhere else. Piniella is not his vintage volcano about to blow. Wife Anita has mandated he calm down. More interesting stuff is available every day from a thousand originating points. If the producers are waiting on Sweet Lou, they might have a long vigil.

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    I've turned an avocation into a vocation. I paid just $1 -- can you believe that? -- to sit in the cheap seats of Chicago's ballparks in the 1970s. You learn a lot about sports by watching hundreds, even thousands, of games -- you don't necessarily need to "strap it on" as athletes insist.

    For the last three decades I've covered baseball and other sports in multi-media fashion -- for newspapers, magazines, radio, TV and on-line -- from my Chicago base. My sum total of experiences, relationships and perspectives will be featured in "Bench Jockey" while I continue my old-media work, including my venerable 16-season-old "Diamond Gems" syndicated baseball radio show. I've authored 10 baseball books since 1998 with No. 11, an oral history of 1970's baseball, due out at the end of the 2010 season.

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