The fall guys

Rick Renteria

H ope is on the run.

Like the protagonist in a movie chase scene, the spry, white-haired guy in the business suit is moving quickly through the kitchen area of a hotel, trying to remain inconspicuous. Suddenly, as he turns the corner for the elevator, he is made.

"Rick Renteria!" shouts a chef. "Rick, I'm a huge Cubs fan. Please, please, take a picture with me."

It is Jan. 18, 10 weeks from Opening Day, and the new manager of the Chicago Cubs and his wrangler are hustling from one appearance to another at the Cubs Convention in the Sheraton Chicago. Renteria has just wowed a packed ballroom with a speech about the future of the franchise -- "I'm not concerned about the past!" -- and now he's scheduled to do a TV interview.

But he stops dead in his tracks to stand arm-in-arm with the cook and smile for a cellphone camera.

As the skipper apologizes for having to go, the chef says to him, "Maybe this is the year."

Uh, probably not

Renteria is a positive force, but not even he truly believes that 2014 will be the year the Cubs win the World Series for the first time since '08. That's 1908. They lost 96 games last season, and, on Nov. 7, Renteria became the 51st (or 52nd) different manager the Cubs have tried since Frank Chance shepherded them past the Detroit Tigers in five games way back when. The hiring of Renteria was, by and large, the only impact move the Cubs made in the offseason.

The Las Vegas odds on the Cubs winning this year, the centennial of Wrigley Field, are 125-1. That is much better than the mathematical probability of a single team not winning a World Series in 105 seasons, which is roughly 250-1. Like Stonehenge, crop circles and the Voynich manuscript, the Cubs are one of the world's great mysteries.

There is no shortage of explanations. There is even a book written by Chris Neitzel and published last year called " Beyond Bartman, Curses & Goats: 104 Reasons Why It's Been 104 Years." The wind. The game times. Wrigley. The Wrigleys. Sonovia the goat. The Lou Brock-for-Ernie Broglio trade. The Gatorade that was spilled on Leon Durham's glove. Steve Bartman. Even the nonintimidating persona perpetuated by their cute Cubbie name and the royal blue color of their uniforms -- Reason No. 95 in Neitzel's book. (The recent introduction of the mascot Clark the Cub certainly doesn't help that.)

No matter the reason, though, the blame almost always lands on the manager. It's that way for every franchise, of course, but with the Cubs, a fall guy is as much a tradition as the ivy. Jim Marshall, who managed the team 1974-76 and now works for the Diamondbacks as a senior adviser, says, "A few years ago, I asked the Cubs how come they didn't have a reunion for all the ex-managers. I was told it would be too expensive -- there are so many of us."

Indeed, 17 (or 18) of them are still kicking, and four of them are in their 80s: Marshall, Joe Amalfitano, Jim Frey and Don Zimmer. "What doesn't kill you makes you stronger," says Dusty Baker (2003-06).

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