Tuesday, August 24, 2010
Sunday marked the end of an era not only with regard to the Chicago Cubs, but also Major League Baseball. Lou Piniella managed for 23 years and played the game for 18. He was the AL Rookie of the Year in 1969, an All-Star in 1972, and a three-time manager of the year. He won two World Series as a player and one as a manager.
Piniella's amazing career came to a sudden end on Sunday when he announced that he would retire after that day's game in order to spend more time with his family and help care for his ailing mother. No doubt the Cubs' brutal record played a significant role in his decision, but while his managerial career ended on a sour note, Sweet Lou hit a lot of high notes during his baseball career and in his four years in Chicago.
Lou took the helm in 2007 on the heels of a 66-win season on the North Side, and after a bumpy start he led the Cubs to their first NL Central title since 2003. He followed that up with a 97-win season before a mediocre 2009. It was the first time the club had exceeded .500 for three straight seasons since they did so from 1967-72. Piniella was 316-293 over the last four years, becoming the first Cubs manager to finish his tenure over .500 since Don Zimmer (1988-1991).
Of course, regular season wins don't tell the whole story. Lou's teams failed to win any of their six postseason games, meaning he won as many playoff games as, say, Jim Lefebvre. Piniella was brought in near the end of his career with the goal of winning the World Series, and he failed to do so. While that's undoubtedly the bottom line, certainly it doesn't all fall on his shoulders. Besides, there are a lot of other lines on the history of Piniella's managerial tenure in Chicago, and it can't be ignored that at least for a couple of seasons, he instilled a sense of confidence and a will to win that has not often been seen at Wrigley (at least for the home team).
It's hard to say for sure if Piniella was the right choice back in 2007. Joe Girardi went on to win a World Series with the Yankees, but would he have done so with the Cubs? Jim Hendry might still get his shot at Girardi next season, though I doubt he'd leave a stacked Yankees team for a rebuilding Cubs squad. We'll never know for sure what a different manager would have accomplished over the last four seasons, but what we do know is this:
1) Piniella failed in that he didn't win a World Series, or even one playoff game.
2) The second half of 2007 and all of 2008 provided some of the most enjoyable baseball Cubs fans have seen in a long time. The team's 97 wins in 2008 were the most since 1945.
3) Piniella succeeded in that he built on what Dusty Baker started, elevating the expectations of a fan base that once did little but adore their "lovable losers."
They're not always so lovable any more, which in a strange way is a compliment to Lou and something he could add to his long and impressive resumé. Of course, he no longer needs a resumé because, after 41 years on the field and in the dugout, Lou Piniella has said goodbye to the game of baseball. Though he may be remembered best for his legendary rants on the diamond, it's what he did as a player and then later in the dugout and the clubhouse that makes him one of the game's legends and a potential Hall of Famer. But those rants do speak to Lou's primary characteristic during his many years in baseball: a true passion for the game. There's no doubt he'll miss the sport now that he's away from it, and the sport will certainly miss Lou.