June 22, 2010 in Sports

Commentary: Nothing easy for Piniella

Larry Stone Seattle Times

CHICAGO — Randy Johnson threw out the ceremonial first pitch on opening day at Safeco Field, surrounded by old Mariners teammates.

Ken Griffey Jr. came back for one more season, only to get in his car and bolt June 2, yet to be seen or heard from publicly since.

And on Tuesday, another icon of Seattle’s golden baseball era comes to town.

That would be Lou Piniella, whose Cubs will be playing in Seattle for just the second time ever, and the first since 2002. Piniella himself hasn’t managed at Safeco since 2005, when he came with Tampa Bay.

Frustrated by Tampa Bay’s continued struggles, Piniella stepped down after the ’05 season. He sat out the 2006 season, then took on perhaps the greatest challenge of his career in 2007: Cubs manager.

It’s a job that has brought down many a gilded skipper; just ask Piniella’s predecessor, Dusty Baker, in town this weekend with the Reds. None has succeeded in the ultimate goal of leading the Cubs to a World Series title since player/manager Frank Chance won it all in 1908. That’s 101 years of frustration, and counting.

It has been a trying season for Piniella, amid growing speculation it could be his final year with the Cubs. His contract expires after the season, and he’s noncommittal about his future.

“At the end of the year, we’ll decide,” he said. “I haven’t given it any thought. I really haven’t. We’ll see what happens. I don’t think any decision has been made one way or the other.”

The Cubs — the team, the rabid fan base, the media — seem to be wearing Piniella down.

After a 12-0 drubbing by the Angels last Saturday, the Cubs stand 30-38, which doesn’t bring joy to Cubs nation. And the losing has been draining to Piniella, whose fiery persona, fondly recalled by Mariners fans, may have been muted by the passage of time but still flashes to the surface on occasion.

Just ask White Sox announcer Steve Stone, the subject of a scathing rebuttal by Piniella after second-guessing his use of rookie Tyler Colvin.

“I come to the park every day enthusiastic to see if we can put together a winning streak and get ourselves closer to .500,” Piniella said. “That’s all you can do. I’m not down.”

Yet Cubs legend Ron Santo, the third baseman and longtime announcer, realizes how the Cubs’ struggles are eating up Piniella.

“You know how Lou takes games,” said Santo. “We lose, he really wants to be alone. He’s trying to do the right things. And he does the right things. But they haven’t produced. That’s a talented ballclub. It’s just not living up to standards.”

The Cubs have had bullpen and clutch-hitting issues. They’ve lost more one-run games (16) than any team in baseball — two more than the Mariners.

There has even been some speculation that Piniella might be replaced by his bench coach, Alan Trammell, prompting general manager Jim Hendry to assert his support for Piniella.

“He’s a great manager, a terrific guy,” Hendry told me. “He’s been a joy to work with as a GM. We’ve had a great relationship. We both feel badly. We didn’t see it coming that we’d be seven or eight under .500 in the middle of June. We thought we had a pretty good club.”

Hendry noted that Piniella’s first Cubs team, in 2007, struggled early but came back to win the division.

“Hopefully, Lou can work some of the magic he always has, and we can get back to .500 and make a run at it,” he said.

Piniella’s legacy as Cubs manager could depend on it. That ’07 team was swept in the first round of the playoffs by Arizona. The Cubs repeated as division champion in 2008 but were swept in the first round by the Dodgers.

Last year, when Milton Bradley’s troubled presence was just one of many issues, they dropped from 97 to 83 wins and finished 7-1/2 games behind St. Louis. Now the Cubs are chasing both the Cardinals and Reds.

“Lou’s a competitive guy,” Hendry said. We’re going to keep plugging. We just need a couple of good weeks and we’re right back in it.”

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