THE SPORTS DOCTOR- Cubs contaminated: Fear and self-loathing in Chicago
Last week when Chicago Cubs' manager Lou Piniella announced his intent to retire at the end of this season, my first thought wasn't "The job had better go to Ryne Sandberg," or "Please don't let it be Tony La Russa," but rather, "Save yourself, Lou." As a Cubs fan, it is my wont to always think of next year and pray it will be better than this one, but I'm not doing that. This year I'm just trying not to walk away.
Last Saturday, a column about Sweet Lou's retirement appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times. It referenced Whitey Hertzog, Hall of Fame MLB manager. Hertzog coached the Rangers, the Angels, the Royals and the Cardinals– in Kansas City he won three straight AL Western division titles from 1976 to 1978 and in St. Louis he won the 1982 World Series and the'85 and ‘87 NL Pennant. When he retired from coaching in 1990 after 36 years in the MLB, everyone was shocked, but baseball had become a bitter pill Hertzog could no longer swallow.
Chris De Luca, who wrote the column for the Sun-Times, didn't come out and say Piniella's impetus for retiring is the same as was Hertzog's, but one only need read Hertzog's farewell to get the picture.
"I just can't get the guys to play," Hertzog said. "I was bewildered a little bit. I just can't believe that we can have players that as a team are playing as bad as they have.... I've never been through a situation like this. The effort is there... but sometimes I don't know if their minds are there."
Amen to that, brother.
There's a bit of dispute over who coined the phrase "every country has the government it deserves," but most attribute it to 18th century French diplomat and philosopher Joseph Marie de Maistre (I shudder to think all France did to deserve Robespierre). You can go ahead and ascribe "every ball club gets the players it deserves" to me.
From the bat boy to Chairman Tom Ricketts, with only a few exceptions (mostly in the minor league department), the Chicago Cubs organization is in serious trouble. Most fans are happy to blame the Cubs' woes on general manager Jim Hendry and the person who decided to replace the organ with taped music when introducing batters, but the epic misery that calls Wrigley Field home is a new and insidious poison.
The Cubs are, and for the most part have always been, terrible, and even when they win, they lose (see 1998, 2003, 2007, 2008). The team has always fallen back on the same excuses: bad luck, no money, a goat, etc., but this year is different, and no curse is to blame.
It's not the pathetic averages, though there are plenty; it's not the errors, although there are plenty of those, too. It's not the temper tantrums, the horrible pitching, or the terrible-looking swings. But these are mere symptoms of an ugly truth: the Cubs hate themselves.
It's no joke. Just two years ago the Cubs were repeat NLC champions, owned by the Tribune Company, boasted their first no-hitter in 36 years and had amassed a truly promising infield. In 2009, the Cubs saw new ownership, a gutted infield, a hostile outfield and no championship. This year the Cubs are well under .500, their best pitcher is a step away from a sanitarium, and the team's worst performers aren't the new guys, but the players who won the division title just two years ago.
It may seem indulgent to write about the Cubs when there is so much else that warrants attention (the NFL's backpeddling on helmet safety and whether ACC athletes were ever improperly compensated) but it isn't. When GM Jim Hendry (whom the Ricketts are keeping, by the way) dismantled the 2008 team, and the Ricketts made it known they valued ego more than performance, they broke players' spirits and left a shell of a beloved and storied franchise.
Piniella is retiring because, like Hertzog, he can't get his guys to play, but it isn't their minds that aren't in it; it's their hearts. I hope Lou can salvage what's left of his.
Juanita Giles lives in Keysville where she makes videos and updates her Sports Doctor site.