The fall guys

There were three people sitting in the visitors dugout of Jack Murphy Stadium, watching the grounds crew prepare the field for Game 5 of the NLCS: me, Peter Pascarelli of The Philadelphia Inquirer and Cubs manager Jim Frey.

Writers loved Frey, more than his players did, in all likelihood. He could be both profane and profound, and he knew his baseball -- he had managed the Royals to the 1980 World Series, where they lost to the Phillies managed by Dallas Green, who had then taken over the Cubs and hired Frey.

Anyway, in the sanctity of the dugout before Game 5, Frey asked us, "Did I make the right decision, holding Sutcliffe back?" It wasn't a trick question. He really wanted some assurance. Peter and I both told him we'd have done the same thing.

We were lying.

After five innings, the Cubs had a 3-0 lead, and that pregame conversation seemed moot. But the Padres scored twice on two sac flies in the bottom of the sixth. In the seventh, Durham's one-out error tied the score and opened the door to disaster: single by Alan Wiggins, two-run double by Tony Gwynn, RBI single by Steve Garvey ... all of a sudden, the Padres had a 6-3 lead, and Frey was walking out to the mound to replace Sutcliffe with Steve Trout.

That's the way the score stood right until the end, when delirious Padres fans cavorted with the players, the desolate Cubs faithful bemoaned their fate and second-guessing baseball writers typed away in the press box.

After the game, Frey sat behind the desk in the visiting manager's office and answered all the reporters' questions as graciously as he could until there were only three people left: him, me and Pascarelli. We two writers didn't say much. We just told him how sorry we were.

We weren't lying.

Sad as it was, the memory comes with an epiphany that recalls the last line of the baseball novel "Bang The Drum Slowly": "From here on in I rag nobody." From there on in, I saw managers differently.

IT'S ANOTHER GLORIOUS morning at the Cubs' brand-new spring training complex in Mesa, Ariz., and over on Field 1, the players are taking BP while the spry, white-haired guy wearing No. 16 hits ground balls to the infielders. The scene is played out every day in thousands of ballparks, but there's something mesmerizing about the way Rick Renteria handles this duty, with a softness in his hands, a crispness in his stroke, and a happiness in the choreography between batting and fielding practice.

"We talked to a lot of people," Theo Epstein is saying. "We couldn't find one person who had anything negative to say about Rick. He won universal praise from coaches, players, executives. When we asked Adrian Gonzalez about him, he told us about a time with the Padres when he didn't run hard on a ground ball, and he said Rick quietly took him aside to tell him that wasn't acceptable. That impressed us."

Epstein is talking about the interview process that Renteria went through with the Cubs. Because Renteria had recently undergone hip replacement surgery, Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer interviewed him at his Temecula, Calif., home. "That was nice because it made it more personal. Certain walls didn't exist.

"We weren't the only team to interview him, either. At one point, he called to say he had gotten an offer from a contender but that he would prefer the opportunity we could give him. That pretty much sold us."

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