Sunday, October 05, 2008

The Check Swing That Said “101 Years”

Two outs in the bottom of the ninth. No men on, the Chicago Cubs down 3-1 and 2-0 in the National League Division Series to the upstart Los Angeles Dodgers and their leader, Alfonso Soriano, is up to bat, having been reduced to his last swing after taking two strikes from new Dodger closer Jonathan Broxton. Soriano knows that the next strike ends his season and the hopes of millions of Cubs fans who thought 100 years of misery were over after the Cubs posted baseball’s best overall record. However, at 0-2, conventional wisdom always calls for the batter to swing at anything resembling a strike, but doing that may produce a flyout or a tapper that accomplishes nothing. Caught in this lurch, Soriano offers a half swing to a Broxton pitch headed wide, but the swing went forward enough for umpire Brian Runge to conclude that Soriano did in fact swing and miss at the pitch. Strike Three. Game Over. 101 years now (at least) of misery.

It wasn’t supposed to end this way. The Cubs finished 2008 with a 97-64 record (one game against the Houston Astros did not need to be made up) and were due to face a Dodgers team that, even after acquiring Manny Ramirez and Casey Blake in late July, was still figured to be a vastly inferior team. It was the first time Chicago had the best record in baseball since the World Series year of 1908, and thus the Cubs figured to be one of the favourites for the title (I contend it was the Los Angeles Angels’ to lose, but that’s an entirely different matter). Instead, it was manager Joe Torre and the Dodgers completing the improbable sweep, leaving Cubs fans to wonder just what might have been.

The immediate response to such a loss is to look at the games themselves and examine why. This leaves no shortage of answers, from leadoff man Soriano’s inability to get on base (only one hit for the entire series), shaky Cubs fielding (especially in Game 2, when all four infielders committed an error) to being just flat outplayed by the Dodgers. Los Angeles, compared to Chicago, always got the hit they needed when they needed it, getting production throughout the order and having pitching that kept the Chicago batters fishing the entire series. The Cubs were out-managed too, as Torre’s double steal in the second inning of Game 2 led to the errors that allowed five runs to score and put that game out of reach. Torre also always found a hitter or a pitcher to get him out of a jam, whereas Cubs manager Lou Piniella tried and did very little to get out of his jams (where was Reed Johnson (who could also be a leadoff man), for one?). However, none of this even comes close to being the reason why the Cubs ultimately failed- the pressure the fans put on their team to finally end whatever curse they’re spouting this week.

Let’s do a mind exercise. It’s 2003 and both the Cubs and the Boston Red Sox- whose own futility at that point reminded those of the Cubs- are in their respective league championship series. Both have a chance to reach the World Series and end decades of misery. We all remember what happened to both- the Red Sox lost on a dramatic walk-off home run by Aaron Boone of the New York Yankees, while the Cubs let “Bartman” get to their heads. Both wound up losing their series, decreasing further the already low patience level their fanbase had with the teams.

The response in Boston was fairly swift. Manager Grady Little was canned following the 2003 loss, being replaced by former Philadelphia Phillies manager Terry Francona. The move definitely looked odd at the time, as Francona’s pedigree wasn’t very high (his managerial experience didn’t stretch beyond the four he had in Philadelphia and he never had a winning season with the Phillies during that time), but it paid enormous dividends since, as we know, Boston won the 2004 and 2007 World Series without dropping a single game (the first manager in baseball history to do so). Francona, relatively new to the Red Sox situation (being mostly a low-profile National Leaguer his entire career) and overall displaying a calm demeanour, never seemed to let any of the Curse of the Bambino stuff get to him. That rubbed off onto his players- the “Idiots” they called themselves- who finally realized all the potential they had in being arguably the best unit of Red Sox ever assembled.

The Cubs, however, went a different direction. 2003 manager Dusty Baker was allowed to continue managing until his team imploded (again) in 2006, after which Piniella replaced him. Piniella, unlike Baker, has a World Series championship to his credit, winning in 1990 with the Cincinnati Reds. He is also the Seattle Mariners’ all-time best manager, being the only Mariner manager (of two or more years) to have a winning record and the only one to guide Seattle to the playoffs. His track record alone suggests that he is right for the job, but the loss here to the Dodgers leaves some concerns.

Let’s not forget, “Sweet Lou” is an abrasive personality and is very emotional. There’s no need to get into his many tirades because they’re all common knowledge, but in this series against the Dodgers it appears his demeanour may have gotten the better of him and his team. Like the rest of his dugout, Piniella was openly flustered, often displaying an incredulous look on his face as if to suggest he just knows his Cubs team is cursed. You rarely ever saw Piniella yelling words of encouragement to his team or even just being calm, which may very well be part of his personality but it’s certainly not going to ease the nerves of any of the players who are also feeling the pressure of winning one for the Cubs fans. Factoring into this is Piniella’s experience (especially with the Cubs’ arch-rival Reds), which means he is very well versed in the Cubs’ problems and has every reason to feel the pressure bestowed upon the Loveable Losers.

Thus, what’s needed in Cubland is a change in attitude. The Red Sox won since they stopped pressuring themselves in 2004 (a direct result of Francona’s usually clam demeanour, even when he’s in trouble) and the Cubs need to do the same thing. Piniella may never actually be calm, but it would behove him to start having a little more fun. You don’t relieve the pressure of frustration by being frustrated yourself- that just breeds more frustration. Furthermore- and this is more “down the road” than next year- it would also behove the Cubs to hire an upstart manager after Piniella, since that manager’s relative inexperience would mean he really wouldn’t know- or care- about the Cubs’ difficulties at all. Francona changed the entire attitude surrounding the Red Sox dugout whereas Piniella just seems to be upholding the Cubs’ status quo, and that is the difference between the two teams’ successes.

It may be too early to give up on the Piniella Era already, but the early returns haven’t been as great as they could be and that is down to the pressures the team is constantly applying to themselves. Until the team realizes that and changes the whole atmosphere surrounding the clubhouse, it could very well be another 101 years before a championship- if it ever comes.