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Don’t Blame the Managers

The Cubs and Sox both fizzled this year; sometimes in baseball it just doesn’t happen.

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When the White Sox acquired Jake Peavy, shortly before the interleague trade deadline on July 31, he was supposed to be the addition that would make them serious World Series contenders. Yet by the time he actually debuted on September 19, not only the team's championship hopes but their mere playoff aspirations were all but dashed.

It was that sort of baseball season on both sides of town. It was the summer that wasn't.

Peavy's Chicago debut, which turned out to be not a turning point for this year's Sox team but an audition for next year's, shone a light on the summer's dark and deeply disappointing aspects in Chicago. Both local teams suffered significant injuries—Carlos Quentin for the Sox; Aramis Ramirez, Carlos Zambrano, and Ted Lilly for the Cubs—and both suffered horrendous late-season road trips that all but sealed their dooms. The Sox lost nine of ten in Boston, New York, and Minnesota at the end of August and beginning of September, and the Cubs lost five in a row in mid-August, followed by five of seven on the west coast to fall from contention.

"It's been a long season," admitted Cubs manager Lou Piniella at the start of the early September makeup game against the White Sox at Wrigley Field. "I've said that many times myself. It hasn't been easy. It has been grinding." Yet prodded to call the year a disappointment, he resisted. "I don't use the word disappoint," he said. "I don't view it that way. I look at it as the fact that we expected better. Sometimes it happens, sometimes it doesn't."

Team chemistry —that is, the chemistry of players who hang out day after day for eight months, sometimes developing a knack for winning and sometimes not—remains as elusive to managers as anyone else. To this day, the pithiest expression of the successful baseball formula has come not from a player or manager, but from the fictional Henry Wiggen in Mark Harris's baseball novel The Southpaw: "Winning makes winning like money makes money." A team on a roll tends to stay on a roll, and a team that never gets on a roll winds up an also-ran. Blame usually falls on the manager; but this may be changing, as fans, general managers, and players themselves recognize the difficulties of dealing with millionaires. Peavy's comeback reflects the change.

As bad as it was for Chicago baseball, this was a very good year for Chicago baseball writers. Every day they went to work and were entertained by two of the most astute and if not exactly eloquent then voluble personalities in baseball. It was pure pleasure to hear Piniella and Ozzie Guillen pontificate, and never more so than when they were facing each other. Early on, when the Sox visited Wrigley Field, Guillen at one point stood up in front of the media in the cramped visitors' dugout, bending over so as not to knock his head against the roof, and craned it out to peer at the field. "Look at that ugly motherfucker," he said. I turned to see the potbellied Piniella just beyond the infield. "I told my wife," Guillen said, sitting back down, "if I ever look like that, get divorced." Later, when the Cubs visited Sox Park and stole a win, Guillen made his postgame remarks in the media interview room, got up, and wondered why the reporters remained in their seats. It turned out Piniella was about to be ushered in. "That's the real bullshit," Guillen said, walking out. Piniella laughingly called Guillen a "philosopher" before their late-season game at Wrigley.

The kidding masks the great respect Guillen and Piniella have for each other, and though both their teams performed poorly this season, what could the managers have done differently? Having driven his teams hard the last two seasons only to watch them choke in the playoffs, Piniella adopted a mellower approach this season. Yet he never displayed the ennui, what I've referred to as "Bayloritis," that afflicted his predecessors Don Baylor and Dusty Baker, both of whom came in gung-ho but succumbed to the Cubs' century-old culture of losing. The worst thing that could be said of Piniella's managing is that two years after forming the misshapen mass of players he was handed into a team, he let its apparent strength on paper make him overly reluctant to tinker with the lineup. There were times in September when Piniella seemed resigned to the team's fate, but he never seemed to give up, and there were other times when he showed the old fire, as when he called recalcitrant outfielder Milton Bradley a "piece of shit."

If the Cubs just never caught a spark, the Sox were even more difficult to diagnose. Their season peaked with Mark Buehrle's perfect game on July 23, which tied them for first place in the American League Central Division with the Detroit Tigers, but they immediately fell back, losing five of six against their archrivals in Detroit and Minnesota. Later came that horrendous road trip to Boston, New York, and Minnesota, and the Sox never recovered.

Peavy's acquisition provided an emotional boost that he couldn't back up physically: his return from the disabled list with a bum ankle was delayed when he was struck on the pitching arm by a line drive during a rehabilitation start in the minor leagues. Worse for the team was the waiver-wire acquisition of Toronto outfielder Alex Rios in August; for all his talent, Rios played out the season in a fog, and his addition sent Jermaine Dye—the most valuable player of the 2005 World Series—into a funk because it all but stamped his ticket out of town. General manager Kenny Williams had without a doubt improved the team on paper, but he'd ruined its fragile chemistry and Guillen couldn't restore it.

Guillen recently acknowledged the troubles he and Piniella share with an offhand but dead-on imitation of his Cubs counterpart: Guillen tilted his head to the side, shrugged his shoulders, turned up his palms, and said, with a nasal inflection to his thick Venezuelan accent, "What can I do?" Managers are increasingly powerless over their veterans—what good does it do to call Bradley a "piece of shit" when he's into the team for $30 million guaranteed? It's up to the players to police their peers.

Which was the point Guillen seemed to be making just before Peavy's Sox debut. "He's the type of pitcher, when you don't play good behind him you're going to hear from him," Guillen said, and compared him to Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez, the demanding bell cow of the 2005 pitching staff. "That's good. That's good to have. If you're mad because somebody's not playing the game right, you have all the right to do that."

Reminiscing about his playing days as a White Sox shortstop, Guillen recalled his teammate Carlton Fisk calling out opponent Deion Sanders for not running out a pop-up and his teammate Tom Seaver letting him know in no uncertain terms he expected quality play behind him. Guillen's implicit point was that now, when most major-league players are millionaires, managers can no longer act in the demanding, tyrannical way of, say, an Earl Weaver 30 or 40 years ago.

The players must enforce discipline themselves, Guillen seemed to suggest, but few will and he was looking to Peavy as someone who would. Yet this assertiveness is a double-edged sword: the Cubs brought in Bradley over the winter as someone who might add a welcome intensity to the Cubs' locker room, but he didn't fire up his new teammates so much as alienate them. (The same might be said of the Cubs' mercurial ace, Carlos Zambrano, or their erratic, exceedingly well-paid left fielder, Alfonso Soriano.)

Yes, the White Sox responded to Peavy's debut with a 13-3 victory, and they looked sharp in shutting out Detroit behind him six days later, but otherwise they went on with their listless ways. Guillen unleashed another profane postgame scolding last weekend, but the next day said it was mainly for the impressionable rookies on the expanded September roster, not the veterans, who might have been a lost cause. In the end, the Sox got wonderful late-career seasons out of Scott Podsednik, A.J. Pierzynski, and Paul Konerko but squandered them.

Who's to blame? Anyone who said a few months ago that Chicago's teams were both good enough to win their divisions—I'm thinking of several local sports talk-radio hosts—can't blame the general managers who put the teams together, and with a few small reservations neither can I. And I can't blame Piniella and Guillen, the managers who provided the season with its most enjoyable moments. Sometimes, as Piniella said, it just doesn't happen. I'm reminded of the immortal line of Rocky Bridges, later borrowed for a book title by Jim Bouton: "I managed good, but boy did they play bad."   

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