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."
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).
Alive or dead, it is an impressive array. Besides Chance, there were his double-play partners in poetry, Joe Tinker (1916) and Johnny Evers (1913, 1921), as well as eight other Hall of Famers: Roger Bresnahan, Rabbit Maranville, Joe McCarthy, Rogers Hornsby, Gabby Hartnett, Frankie Frisch, Lou Boudreau and Leo Durocher. There would be another if you counted the day -- May 8, 1973 -- when Ernie Banks inadvertently became the first African-American manager after he took over for the ejected and coincidentally named Whitey Lockman. Hence, the discrepancy about the number of Cubs managers.
It isn't as if they were all incompetent. Hornsby, Frisch, Boudreau, Durocher and Lou Piniella had managed World Series winners before they took over the Cubs, and Joe McCarthy would win seven championships with the Yankees after Mr. Wrigley kicked him to the Clark-and-Addison curb in 1930. McCarthy got his revenge two years later when the Yankees swept the Cubs in the Series.
The Cubs have tried six Jims, a Rabbit and a Fox. They've tried hard guys (Leo "The Lip" Durocher) and softies ("Smilin' Stan" Hack and "Jolly Cholly" Grimm). And they've tried an entire College of Coaches (1961-62). Four of them have managed international teams: Renteria (Mexico), Tom Trebelhorn (Italy), Jim Lefebvre (China) and Jim Essian (Greece). Maybe one of the reasons the Cubs haven't won in so long is because the average tenure of a manager is so short (2.08 years).
Adding texture to this epic fail is the way they've been fired. Owner Charles Murphy canned Chance in January 1912 when the two men argued over players in Chance's hospital room after he had just had brain surgery. Phil Cavarretta was fired 15 days before the start of the 1954 season because, said owner P.K. Wrigley, "Phil seems to have a defeatist attitude." On May 4, 1960, Wrigley literally switched the jobs of radio announcer Lou Boudreau and manager Charlie Grimm.
Even the most recent firing had a funny feeling to it. Dale Sveum, hired by new president of baseball operations Theo Epstein in 2011, was fired by Epstein after two seasons and 197 losses because of "communication issues." Sveum says he was "blindsided," which seems to indicate ... communication issues.
Here's the thing. Each of these men -- most of them good baseball men, many of them good men, period -- began his days as a Cubs manager hopeful (some might say delusional) that he would be the one to bring the denizens of Waveland to the promised land. "I believed it," says Marshall. "We all do. But then August rolls around."
Some have even gotten past August. But the only one to get the Cubs as far as a Game 7 of the World Series was Grimm in 1945. You could blame that loss on the Cubs refusing to allow Billy Sianis to take his goat Sonovia to the game. Or you could be a little more rational and attribute it to Grimm starting an overused Hank Borowy because his best pitcher, Claude Passeau, had broken the nail on his middle finger. Yes, the very digit that fate has given Cubs fans for 105 years.
Deepening the mystery is the passion of a fan base full of people who know and love and support their Cubbies. You would have thought by now that someone would have figured out a way to harness that power.
Any of the other 29 major league teams would love something as festive and popular as the annual midwinter Cubs Convention. This January, some 15,000 fans of all ages and from all over the Midwest descended upon the Sheraton in the middle of a blizzard to show their allegiance.
They listened to state of the franchise addresses by Epstein, President of Business Operations Crane Kenney and Chairman Tom Ricketts. At one point, a fan voiced this sentiment to Ricketts: "Last night, I met Rick Renteria, and I'm very impressed with him. ... I just hope that we can hurry it up and put some players on our field so that he doesn't get broken down."
Therein lies another dilemma. Like outfielders baffled by the wind at Wrigley, Cubs fans don't know whether to go back to the "glory" of Banks, Ron Santo, Billy Williams and Fergie Jenkins, run forward to thoughts of Javier Baez, Kris Bryant and C.J. Edwards, or stay right where they are and root for Renteria to keep his job. Or, they can go sideways and concentrate on Clark the Cub, the rooftop bars across the street that are holding up the stadium renovation or the sacrilege of a giant "Get Well" card to the late Santo (he died in 2010) being found in the trash this past October.
Their gluttony for punishment was on full display the first night of the convention when the Cubs held a reunion for the '84 team, the group who won the first two of a five-game NLCS against the San Diego Padres and then lost the next three. Among those who came back were Rick Sutcliffe, Lee Smith, Scott Sanderson, Jay Johnstone and Gary Matthews. In a panel discussion, Matthews said he recently asked new Phillies manager and Cubs Hall of Famer Ryne Sandberg how often he thought about the loss in '84. "Every day," Sandberg told him.
They also discussed Durham's costly error at first base in Game 5, when a ground ball went under his glove shortly after someone had spilled Gatorade on it. But the real scapegoat was manager Jim Frey, who had decided not to use his ace, Sutcliffe, for Game 4, thinking he could start Game 1 of the World Series or Game 5 of the NLCS if it came to that. Matthews said he asked Frey about the decision on the flight to San Diego. "He looked at me as if I had just opened the door to a plane at 40,000 feet. I just turned around."
Then Johnstone asked Matthews, "Why didn't you push him out?"
A funny line, yes, but one that's patently unfair to Frey and, by extension, every manager. For one thing, we too often take for granted the hours that managers put in, the prima donnas they have to soothe, the fools in the media and the seats they have to tolerate, the responsibility for the coaches and players under their command, and the stress of being judged on a daily basis by the standings. As for being the Cubs manager, well, to quote Nigel Tufnel from "This Is Spinal Tap" (1984), "The numbers all go to 11."
For another thing, I was there in '84.
IT WAS A Sunday -- Oct. 7, 1984 -- so long ago that I had flown to San Diego on Pan Am and transmitted my stories to Sports Illustrated from a gray, plastic box called a Portabubble. To further date it, the crew doing the game for ABC included Don Drysdale, Earl Weaver, Reggie Jackson and, roving through the stands, the young Tim McCarver.
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."
Renteria also came with a nice backstory. Born on Christmas Day 1961 and raised in Compton, Calif., he was such a good player at South Gate High School that he was drafted in the first round by the Pirates in 1980 despite his size (5-foot-9), just ahead of Terry Francona (Expos), Billy Beane (Mets) and John Gibbons (Mets). He had a cup of coffee with Pittsburgh in '86, then got traded to Seattle, which used him as a utility infielder. The Mariners released him. The Tigers released him. The Expos released him. The Tigers released him again. He bounced around the Mexican League and persevered through a fractured skull and a spiked eye until Rene Lachemann, the manager of the expansion Florida Marlins, brought him back to the majors as a utility infielder in 1993. As Lachemann, who managed the Cubs for one day in 2002, says, "I'd pay to go see a movie about Rick Renteria."
When his playing career ended, Renteria took a few years off to help his wife, Ilene, raise their four kids, then rejoined the Marlins in 1998 as the manager of the Brevard County Manatees. He paid his dues in the minors, managing in the Marlins' and Padres' systems, until Padres manager Bud Black -- the pitcher who served up Renteria's first major league home run -- put him on his staff in 2008, first as the first-base coach, then as the bench coach.
More hands-on than Sveum and relentlessly upbeat, Renteria clearly won over the Cubs players early in spring training in Mesa. "He came up to me the first day," said newly acquired pitcher Jason Hammel. "And he slapped me on the face almost like your grandfather talking to you. He made me feel very welcome. I'm excited."
"So far, he's been really good," catcher Welington Castillo said. "Like, 'Hey, I've got your back, enjoy the game and play hard.'"
Delightful as he's been, Renteria has left the beat writers a little frustrated because he plays it close to the vest and doesn't give them much information. But then, that's because they're after headlines and he doesn't want to make them.
That's another thing about being a Cubs manager. You're working for millions of owners, not just one. "Everyone wants to help," says Trebelhorn, the manager in 1994 and now a coaching mentor in the Giants' organization. "And that doesn't help."
Then again, there is this fabulous resource: the Fall Guys, the fraternity of former Cubs skippers. So, as much for our edification as for Renteria's, we went in search of them.
"The Peerless Leader" passed away in 1924. But if you think you're safe in assuming he has nothing to offer us in the way of advice, you would be out.
Chance left a gift to his successors in the form of "Maxims Of The Peerless Leader: Chance's Don'ts for Baseball Managers," published in Baseball magazine in 1912. They go as follows in the boldface; our annotations are in the italics:
Never trade a man you have any use for. The time will come when that man may fill in. Dennis Eckersley and Dan Rohn were traded to the A's for Brian Guinn, Dave Wilder and Mark Leonette, April 3, 1987.
Don't kick needlessly, but don't let any one impose upon you. It doesn't do any harm to let the other fellows see that you are watching every move. Leo Durocher needlessly played hooky in the middle of the 1969 pennant drive to visit his new wife's son in summer camp.
Don't give any room to troublemakers. Malcontents make trouble for managers and owners and ruin a baseball team. You mean like Hack Wilson, Joe Pepitone, Dave Kingman, Steve Trout, Milton Bradley, Carlos Zambrano...?
Don't turn a player down too quickly. Give him a chance to develop and show what he has in him. Lou Brock, Jack Spring and Paul Toth were traded to St. Louis for Ernie Broglio, Doug Clemens and Bobby Shantz, June 15, 1964.
Don't get discouraged over one mistake. Mistakes are often the most valuable experience a manager can get. In 1925 spring training, Charlie Grimm made the mistake of holding a golf ball atop a tee in his teeth for a photo op with a club-wielding Rabbit Maranville. Grimm never did that again.
Don't do any umpire baiting. The most successful teams are those that keep off umpires. In 2011, his only full season as manager, Mike Quade led the majors in ejections with seven.
Don't let the players run the club. Run it yourself and let the men know you are in command. To placate the players during a brutal August 1979 stretch, the club treated them to dinner at a posh Chicago restaurant. But Ted Sizemore and Dick Tidrow stormed out when they were told there was a two-bottle maximum per table.
Don't be unreasonable but don't stand for indifference. A player must give the best there is in him to his club. The owners demand it and the fans expect it. Neither the club nor the fans expected that left fielder Lou Novikoff (1941-44) would be allergic to ivy.
Don't encourage rough work but make your players take every chance. The man who flinches in a tight place has no place on your ball team. Chance participated in team poker games to get a sense of how his players thought under pressure.
By the way, Chance played with Tinker, who played on the 1911 Cubs with Heinie Zimmerman, who played on the '18 Giants with Waite Hoyt, who played on the '37 Dodgers with Bert Haas, who played on the '51 White Sox with Minnie Minoso, who played on the '80 White Sox with Steve Trout, who played on the '88 Mariners with - ta-da! -- Rick Renteria.
So there's only six degrees of separation from the current Cubs skipper to the last one to win a World Series. Time flies, doesn't it?
If you're looking for someone with an actual pulse, the first guy to talk to would be Marshall, who took over for Whitey Lockman midway through the '74 season and had the Cubs on an upward trajectory from sixth to fifth to fourth in the standings when he was replaced by Herman Franks after the '76 season. The Diamondbacks still lean on 82-year-old Marshall for his Pacific Rim expertise because he played and managed in Japan.
"We had some good players, guys like Billy Williams, Don Kessinger, Bill Madlock and Rick Monday, but just not enough of them. Certainly not enough pitchers, and that's really what the Cubs need. You start out with all this hope, and one day you look up at the scoreboard, and it reads 21-1 for the other guys.
"It's a tough job, but it's a great job. I've been very fortunate to have stayed in baseball for 60 years, and I fondly remember my three years with Mr. Wrigley and the Cubs. I don't know Rick Renteria very well, and I wasn't successful enough for him to take my advice very seriously. I'd just tell him, 'Make sure you have enough arms.' The Cubs never seem to have enough pitching."
Amalfitano replaced Franks when he resigned with a week to go in the '79 season, then took over for Preston Gomez after 90 games of the '80 season. He would have had the whole '81 season to himself except that it was a strike year and they played only 57 games, finishing sixth out of six. Like his old Giants roommate Marshall, Amalfitano is still active as an adviser to the Giants' minor league department.
"I was there, you know, in '69 when the Mets overtook us. I was one of Leo Durocher's coaches. We both loved the Cubs. After he retired, I went to visit him in Palm Springs, and he talked about how much he regretted not bringing a world championship to Chicago. Here was a guy who everyone thought was as hard as nails, who had won a World Series for the Giants in '54, but that really ate at him.
"Nobody really cares what I think, but since you're asking, here is what I would tell Rick Renteria. On one of your first days at Wrigley, get there very early, and take your cup of coffee and your fielding charts and your books out to the dugout. Then sit there, and every once in a while, look up from your homework to see the place come alive. The grounds crew will get there first, and then the clubhouse guys and the security and concessions people, and then the pitchers will come out of the tunnel for batting practice, and the media will start to gather. Sit there in that dugout until it's 1 o'clock and there are 30,000 people cheering in the seats. If he does that, he'll realize just how fortunate he is. And that will make the job easier."
It's hard to reconcile the big man in the No. 4 Braves uniform - the one who's watching and quietly counseling various minor leaguers -- with the Rant Heard Round The World back in 1983. (Here's a heavily edited, cleaned-up version.) But that is indeed Lee Elia leaning up against the cage on a back field at the Braves' complex at the Wide World of Sports. What's more, the special adviser to Atlanta GM Frank Wren doesn't really mind talking about the day (April 28) he vented his frustrations about the fan base: "Eighty-five percent of the f---ing world is working. The other 15 comes out here. A f---ing playground for the c-------ers."
"I'm not making any excuses because I never should've done it. But here's the situation. I came from the Phillies, so I was used to winning. It was my first major league managing job, so I'm somewhat immature. We'd just lost a one-run game to the Dodgers at Wrigley to drop us to 5-14. I had just broken up a fight between two of my players (Keith Moreland and Larry Bowa) and some fans. There was no cooling-off period then, and I have to fight my way through all these Dodger reporters to get to my desk. So when a reporter asked me a question about fan support, I lost it.
"Dallas [Green] almost fired me that night. But he kept me on, and I have to say, the team moved up in the standings after that. Not enough to save my job, though. I actually loved Chicago -- played there for Leo, or rather sat there for Leo since I backed up [Glenn] Beckert, [Don] Kessinger and Santo. If I had to live that day over again, I never would have said it. But a couple of years ago, we came out with a cleaned-up version of the tape that we sold with autographed balls for charity, so some good came out of it.
"My advice to Rick, who's a good man, is to take advantage of that cooling-off period they have now."
No, Frey was not run out of town after the '84 NLCS. In fact, he wasn't fired as manager until '86, replaced temporarily by John Vukovich (two games) and then Gene Michael. After that, he became the Cubs' color commentator on the radio, then the general manager, replacing Dallas Green, who had resigned. Frey brought back his high school buddy from Cincinnati, Don Zimmer, to manage, and together they forged a 1989 team that won the NL East, only to lose to the Giants in the NLCS. Now retired, enjoying his family and playing a little golf in north Florida, Frey remains as feisty as ever.
"To be honest with you, that whole trip to San Diego in '84 is a blur. I do know I'm still second-guessed about not using Sutcliffe on Saturday, but that's part of the job, and you can't go back and change things. You can only do what you feel in your heart is right at the time. That's what I would tell Rick Renteria or any new manager.
"What people forget is the way we finished that season. We lose to [Dwight] Gooden and the Mets 2-1 in late July, and they're ready to bury us. But then we win 12 of the next 14 games to move into first place for good. We raised the attendance by what -- half a million? -- over the year before, and by the end of the decade, we're up another half million.
"No, it's not impossible for the Cubs to win. Just takes a little luck, that's all. I would've thought they'd have done it by now. I wish they would so I wouldn't have to answer any more questions about '84."
Let's just say that Michael and Dallas Green had a personality conflict that often played itself out in the newspapers. Now 75 and an adviser for the Yankees, "Stick" stopped to talk in the press box at Legends Field in Tampa.
"I had 'em when it was still all day games at home, and you couldn't get extra work in. Then we'd go on the road and play night games. No wonder the players were tired all the time. No wonder they got hurt. I lost Sandberg for eight to 10 weeks, then Dunston for eight to 10 weeks. Now they've got day games and night games, but they also still have the cold and the heat, the wind blowing in and the wind blowing out. I would suggest they get more than 25 players, but they don't allow that."
They called the '89 Cubs that won the NL Central "The Boys of Zimmer," and he called the clinching night the highlight of his long career. But the Giants, managed by his old Dodgers and Mets teammate Roger Craig, made quick work of the Cubs in the NLCS, winning in five games.
Two years later, Zimmer and Frey ran afoul of Tribune Company management and were let go.
Now 83, Zim is an adviser for his hometown Tampa Bay Rays. He couldn't talk for this story because he was under the weather, but there is something he once said about the end days of a manager that might be worth tucking away:
"I'll tell you when you know you're really in trouble, because I've been in that situation a few times. It's when your traveling secretary that you've had fun with, and this writer that you've had fun with and people that you talk to in the front office ... all of a sudden, they don't want to look at you. They're not mad at you, but they're embarrassed. Because they know something. They might have been told something. This is going to happen, maybe tomorrow or the next day. And you can smell a rat."
Shortly after he was fired by the Mariners, Lefebvre was hired by new general manager Larry Himes to replace interim manager Jim Essian. In his two years, Lefebvre flipped the Cubs from 78-84 to 84-78, only to get fired by Himes. Now retired, busy with charity work and content to listen to his son Ryan Lefebvre call games for the Royals, Lefebvre says the Cubs job was "the highlight of my career."
"I know Rick, and he's really bright, the right man for the job. He's got the greatest fans in the world, passionate but forgiving, appreciative if you put out a full effort. The press can be a little tough, so you need the support of management, which, unfortunately, I did not have. At the end of the '93 season, Himes and I spent three hours going over our plans for the club. The next day he fired me, telling me, 'I have to do what's best for me.' Nice, huh?
"That's been part of the problem for the Cubs: no continuity. But they've got some smart people running the club now, and hopefully they'll give him some time. What I would tell Rick is to establish an identity for the club and stay with that. Listen to your heart [pause] and not people like me."
The former high school teacher and Brewers manager lasted only a year, and a strike-shortened year at that. But he left a lasting impression when he held an impromptu town hall meeting at the fire station on Waveland Avenue after a double play killed a rally against the Rockies that would have ended the season-opening, eight-game losing streak.
"When a writer asked me after the game what I was going to tell the fans, I kiddingly said, 'Tell them I'm headed over to the firehouse to answer their questions.' I did like going over there and hanging with the firemen, but now, all of a sudden, word gets out and it's a media circus.
"It wasn't like the French Revolution or anything, but there I was, standing on a bench, talking to the mob and answering questions -- there was a radio guy up in some tree. It started out a little hostile, but pretty soon things were under control. They appreciated my honesty and willingness to answer their questions.
"I loved Chicago -- best city in the world if you take away the winter. A few years ago when I was with the Orioles and we were visiting the White Sox, I snuck back to visit Yosh Kawano, the clubhouse guy, and some of the men in the firehouse. I was honored that they still had my Cubs photo up in the bay.
"I hope they give Rick the time they didn't give Jim Lefebvre or Zim, who was the perfect riverboat gambler for the job. Have them change that crazy schedule, with all the different start times screwing up the biorhythms. And tell them not to let Greg Maddux go to Atlanta."
Frank Chance would have applauded Riggleman for calling out Sammy Sosa in '97, and thus following Maxims 2, 3, 7 and 8. Even Sosa later admitted he had it coming. In '98, the chastened Sosa hit 66 homers, Kerry Wood arrived on the scene, Rod Beck saved 51 games and the Cubs made the postseason by winning 90 games and beating the Giants in a one-game playoff for the wild-card spot. (They were swept by the Braves when Maddux bettered Wood.) Riggleman talked during a preseason workout with the Reds' Triple-A Louisville Bats, the team he now manages.
"I'll always have that scene at Wrigley after we beat the Giants in the playoff. It's a special place, Chicago, and the fans are tremendous. They deserve more of those.
"I think they're on the right track now. Find a core group of players, like Andy MacPhail did for us, and be patient. We fell apart in '99, and I probably deserved to go because they needed another voice, but it bothers me that we weren't able to sustain it.
"What I would tell Rick is this. 'Don't think of all the things people complain about, the wind and the game times and the old ballpark, as disadvantages but as advantages. You know the conditions better than the opposition does. Use them.'"
The Cubs had high hopes, and a high payroll, after Baylor's team won 88 games in 2001. When MacPhail fired him in the middle of the disappointing 2002 season, one-game interim manager Rene Lachemann famously said, "It's not like he took dumb pills in the offseason." Now the hitting coach for the Angels, Baylor grabbed a picnic table in Tempe to talk.
"It's tough to win there. I certainly didn't do it, and I still haven't figured out why. You got the wind blowing in when you fill out the lineup card in the morning, and by the time the game starts, it's blowing out. You got the thick grass that negates speed. You got the weight of history. And you got the demands of the fans and the media. Let's put it this way: It's a short-term lease.
"But if the Red Sox could do it, the Cubs can do it. That's why they got Theo. Here's what I'd look for. Athletes. Players who can play in any weather condition, on any field. Pitchers who don't care which way the wind is blowing. Get yourself enough of those, and you might have something."
When Baylor was relieved of his duties, the Cubs called up Kimm, the manager of their Triple-A Iowa affiliate. The Norway, Iowa, resident is now retired, and pleased that someone even remembers he was the Cubs' manager for a time.
"Growing up in Iowa, I knew how much the Cubs meant to the people of the Midwest, and for a moment there, I thought, 'Hey, wouldn't it be nice if I could bring my friends and neighbors a world championship?'
"But reality hits you pretty hard. What was I, 33-45? It was a nice experience and all, and I'm glad I managed in the majors, but really, I don't think Rick Renteria needs to hear from me. If anything, I'd tell him this: 'Make sure you get a bullpen.'"
He took a 95-loss team and brought it to the brink of the World Series in one season, so think twice before blaming him for the implosion in the eighth inning of Game 6 of the NLCS against the Marlins. And don't tell the gentleman farmer from Sacramento that you think the 2014 Cubs have no chance.
"Why do you say that? How do you know? What about the Miracle Mets in '69? They went from ninth place to World Series champions. I know. I was with the Braves team that lost to them in the division series that year.
"See, that's part of the problem with the Cubs. People are always waiting for the worst to happen instead of the best. One night in 2003 they tried to bring a billy goat into the park, and I call Andy MacPhail and tell him to get that goat out of there. He says, 'If we don't let him in, they'll blame us.' We're trying to win the division and we've got to worry about some damn goat. We didn't let him in.
"Look, being positive will help Rick Renteria big-time. Don't let 'em tell you you can't win. Don't let 'em talk about billy goats or curses or the past. Just go out there and prove everybody wrong."
GM Jim Hendry hired the former Yankees, Reds, Mariners and Devil Rays manager to replace Baker. Piniella had won the 1990 World Series for Cincinnati and steered Seattle to 116 regular-season victories in 2001, but what he did with the Cubs was even more impressive: taking a 96-loss team to back-to-back first-place finishes for the first time on the North Side since, yes, Frank Chance in 1908. After being swept twice in the postseason and then watching the club slide back into mediocrity, though, Sweet Lou bid a sweet goodbye at the tail end of the '10 season.
Now semiretired, Piniella makes himself scarce. But he did have this to say to Paul Sullivan of the Chicago Tribune this past August.
"It was an experience. Unless you're there and you do it ... it's different than what you think going in. You know, you win three or four games in a row, and you're going to win the pennant. You lose three or four games in a row and the season is over. It isn't an easy place to manage.
"Let me tell you. If I had to do something over again over there ... I've given it thought ... what I would've done was, when we went into the postseason, I would've told the team, 'There is no pressure on you guys. No one expects anything.' Take the air out of the balloon ... with the Billy Goat and the fact that the Cubs haven't won and so forth, that might've been a nice approach."
Small world: Two of the past three Cubs managers (Quade and Renteria) played on the 1982 Class A Alexandria Dukes. When Piniella suddenly retired in August 2010, Quade took over on an interim basis, then was named manager by Hendry in October. He's now working in the Yankees' minor league system.
"I had a rough year, but it's still a great memory. I'm from the Chicago area, and getting the job in front of family and friends was something. Rick is a good man, and I wish him well. He'll do fine. ... It's Chuck Tanner's line, I believe: The three things you need are patience, patience and patience. That and embrace the wonderful Chicago media."
On Oct. 1, the day after he was fired by the Cubs, Sveum got a call from Royals manager Ned Yost, whom he once replaced as the Brewers' manager. So this spring, instead of running the show in Mesa, he was in Surprise, Ariz., as the Royals' new third-base coach.
"I was the third-base coach for the Red Sox in 2004, so I saw that it could be done, and I was hoping to be the manager to do it for the Cubs, especially with Theo at the helm. The passion in the cities is similar, but the competition is different. The Red Sox had to compete with the Yankees, which meant they had to spend money.
"The Cubs are doing it the right way, but it takes time, and I thought I had more of it than I got. I'm not proud of my record there, but I am proud I was able to develop players who are going to form the core for years to come. I still believe in myself, and I want another chance to prove people wrong.
"Look, no hard feelings. They made a great choice in Rick. It'd be presumptuous of me to tell him what he should do. But if there's one thing I would tell him, it's to be true to himself. At the end of the day, you're the person you have to answer to.'"
ALMOST EVERY MORNING during spring training, Renteria holds a little news conference for the beat writers, and, on this morning, he's dispensing news ("Barney will start at shortstop today") and answering routine questions about Starlin Castro's injury and Edwin Jackson's decision to throw only fastballs in his last start. He doesn't give them much, but he does it in the nicest way possible.
He has a few more minutes before he has to get on the bus for an away game, so he consents to a conversation in his office.
"When I was a player, I never really thought about being a manager. I was too busy trying to stay in the game. It was John Boles, the farm director of the Marlins, who first talked to me about it after I was released, but I wanted to spend time with the family because I had been playing year-round for 10 years. He called me the next year, and I said no. The third year, I said yes.
"That first year in Brevard County, the players responded to me in a positive way, so I thought, 'OK, I can do this.' It's funny how your experience comes into play. Because I was a utility player, I had to watch every pitch of every inning, thinking about situations when I might be called on. I might not play an inning, but I would be exhausted. So that helped me as a manager.
"None of us get here by ourselves. There were the guys I played for, great managers I could learn from. Dick Williams. Jim Leyland. Rene Lachemann. But the manager who influenced me the most was my manager for the Alexandria Dukes in 1982, Johnny Lipon. He was a World War II veteran, an infielder like me who had managed the Indians, and he was a legend. He brought joy to the park every day and treated every player with respect. He's gone now, but I try to bring a little of him to the park every day.
"Yes, I've been getting a lot of advice, mostly along the lines of, 'Be yourself.' And I will be. That doesn't mean I'm going to be happy all the time -- I can get hot sometimes. I don't like to lose, and I expect to win every day. If I perceive a lack of hustle, or a lack of preparation, I'll let you know, but quietly, behind closed doors. But for now, I'm just trying to set a positive tone, take an even-keeled approach."
Asked for his favorite baseball memory, Renteria has a somewhat unusual choice. "I was in camp with the expansion Marlins in '93, trying to get back into the majors after five years of bus rides, winter ball, a fractured skull. Toward the end of the spring, I'm doing the math, and three guys are going for the 24th and last spot on the roster. We had an exhibition in Nashville, I think, that got canceled, so now we have to fly back to Miami.
"So I get dressed in the clubhouse, quiet as a mouse, wondering if somebody is going to give me the bad news. But nobody says anything. I get on the bus to the airport. Nobody taps me on the shoulder. Now I'm on the airplane, which is sitting on the tarmac. Richie Lewis, one of our pitchers, whispers, 'You made it.' I tell him shush. It wasn't until we took off, and we were at 30,000 feet, that I would allow myself to think that I had made it.
"That was a pretty good feeling."
Maybe that's how it'll happen. All of a sudden, without foreboding billy goats or I-told-you-so experts or reminders of '84 and '03, a Cubs manager will hold the World Series trophy aloft.
"I work for the Giants," says Trebelhorn, "so that's where my loyalty lies. But I will be a very happy man when that day comes in Chicago. And I hope it comes soon."
This may not be the year. This could be the time, though.