By Tim Baffoe-
(CBS) You’ve been burned before. Lured by the siren song of a sexy, established managerial name sure to quench your thirsty Cubs fan soul. And yet you still haven’t seemed to learn.
First it was Dusty Baker, a three-time Manager of the Year, hired by the Cubs in 2003. Remember “In Dusty We Trusty?” Say that out loud now. It feels like looking at your high school yearbook picture — what in holy hell were you thinking with that haircut? Baker was hired in favor of other managerial candidates Bob Melvin, Buck Showalter and Fredi Gonzalez. The free agent signing buzz at the time was that of Damian Miller. Ah, such simpler times.
“I’m not a miracle man,” Baker forewarned at his introductory press conference at Wrigley Field, knowing full well that the thirst in Cubdom was real. “I don’t know if it will take two or three years or whatever, but we’re dedicated to winning.”
It took four years for Baker to wear out his trustiness (he told you flat out from the start, “My name is Dusty, not Messiah”), and the 2003 playoff run that ended in historic heartbreak was realized in hindsight to be more a product of the talent on the field than the mind in the dugout. In the Cubs encyclopedia, the Baker Era is designated with a picture of an ulnar collateral ligament.
Baker was immediately followed by Uncle Lou Piniella, a two-time Manager of the Year. Cubs nation was a bit fractured with this decision, because Piniella was chosen over former Cub and haircut you can set your watch to, Joe Girardi. But hey, you recognized Piniella at least. He was notoriously fiery and would give the Cubs the kick the pants they needed after years of having it easy in Cabo San Dusty.
Instead Lou was just like your uncle — well-intentioned but tired and confused and maybe a little drunk and inappropriate in public. He seemed genuinely confounded by the Cubs fan culture that was quickly evolving around him from “Hey, it’s a party that happens to have baseball” to “Dude, win a damn championship.”
In fairness, those two managerial hires were part of the old regime. Neither had the fingerprints of Tom Ricketts, Theo Epstein or Jed Hoyer. As though the current front office would have a manager like Baker who once said:
“I think walks are overrated unless you can run. If you get a walk and put the pitcher in a stretch, that helps, but the guy who walks and can’t run, most of the time he’s clogging up the bases for somebody who can run. Who have been the champions the last seven, eight years? Have you ever heard the Yankees talk about on-base percentage and walks? Walks help. They do help. But you aren’t going to walk across the plate. You’re going to hit across the plate. That’s the school I come from.”
By now, it’s evident the new school Cubs are privately flirting with a new school manager who happens to be a free agent, Joe Maddon, a two-time Manager of the Year. Both parties are mum about it all, but national media almost everywhere believe there is a realistic chance of Maddon being hired on the North Side. The Wild West of “personal sources,” Twitter has declared it a done deal.
Regardless of Hot Stove validities, here you are again, clamoring for the name and face you know because familiarity in sports free agency breeds attraction. Especially since it would buck the Epstoyer trend so far of managerial hires that left you saying, “Who?”
Maddon is a good manager, which isn’t breaking news. He has made chicken salad out of more than one Tampa roster of chicken salaries. Epstein wanted him to manage the Red Sox in 2003. Maddon is as capable as anyone of bringing a championship to the longest-suffering franchise in sports. For purely selfish reasons, I’d take him here because he’s a genuinely quirky and interesting guy whose personality provides for a lot of potential ink to be spilled — unlike his predecessors, Dale Sveum and Rick Renteria — should he be hired.
Maddon is also decidedly not Baker or Piniella. But is he the critical piece to the century-old puzzle? Fans continue to resist the reality of it, but a baseball manager usually isn’t the determining factor in team success or failure. Neil Payne wrote for Five Thirty Eight:
“Sabermetrics tells us that most dugout decisions barely have any effect on the outcome of the game. Furthermore, if we look at effects on player performance, it’s evident that hardly any manager can distinguish himself from his counterparts. Based on my analysis, 95 percent of all managers are worth somewhere between -2 and +2 wins per 162 games. Last year alone, 21 batters and seven pitchers were worth more to their teams than nearly every manager of the last 112 years.”
Where a manager is most crucial is in the postseason, as the sample size and margin for error are both so much smaller and have greater immediate impacts. Maddon is 13-17 in the playoffs, and he’s not unblemished in his decision-making.
Managers are important for not borking the playoffs. Maddon has been so-so at that.— Jesse Spector (@jessespector) October 24, 2014
The Cubs are moving toward being a playoff team, perhaps even in 2015. Renteria didn’t do much to show he’s incapable of success at the job he currently holds. And really, he did nothing to establish himself as all that promising, other than not let the 2014 Cubs be an embarrassment.
But Rick Renteria isn’t a name. Or at least isn’t one until he does something big as a manager.
He won’t have a chance, though, if the sexy name and recognizable face is brought in, not that Renteria is necessarily owed anything in this business of winning. But if that’s the case, hopefully you don’t get burned by another popularity contest.
Tim Baffoe is a columnist for CBSChicago.com. Follow him on Twitter @TimBaffoe.