10/01/07 8:37 PM ET
Piniella has put swagger back in Cubs
After weathering stormy season, skipper back in postseason
By Carrie Muskat / MLB.com
This is Lou Piniella's first season in Chicago, but he knows all about being in the spotlight in October. The show gets underway on Wednesday when Piniella and the Cubs open the National League Division Series against the Arizona Diamondbacks.
Piniella won World Series with the New York Yankees, as a player, in 1977 and 1978, and with the Cincinnati Reds, as a manager, in 1990. He guided the Seattle Mariners to a 116-win season in 2001. The 64-year-old Floridian, whose face doesn't hide his feelings, has 1,604 wins as a manager, 15th on the all-time list. Ahead of him is Ralph Houk, with 1,619.
This has been a difficult year. He's had to tweak the lineup, trust rookies, break up a couple fights and try to instill what he called a "Cubby swagger."
"Lou, in my opinion, has been the difference this whole year," Cubs radio broadcaster and former third baseman Ron Santo said. "Everybody knows it."
"We had to tinker quite a bit," Piniella said. "We let a lot of games get away from us. Myself and my coaches were always confident that sometime in August, we'd be in a pennant race."
In mid-May he told team president John McDonough not to worry. McDonough didn't. Now, the Cubs will be playing baseball in October at Wrigley Field.
"We trust each other and we trust ourselves and our ability to go out there and play good ball," Chicago's Mark DeRosa said. "We've got a lot of character in here and we have a lot of guys who have been to the postseason and experienced it. You try not to change anything and try not to get caught up in the moment. This is what you play for."
The Cubs have had an uphill climb. The second-half surge is a credit to the players and Piniella.
"Let's not forget we had a very poor start, and I think we all felt we weren't too far away from saying, 'Wow, this is going to be a tough year here,'" Cubs general manager Jim Hendry said. "I think Lou did a good job weathering the storm and keeping everybody together, and the flip side of that is if you have enough characters in the 25 putting on the uniform, then you're going to come out of it. That's the main reason we got back in it.
"Lou didn't panic, Lou kept them together and the character guys we had here and brought in started to show up," Hendry added. "It's not easy to play when you're eight, nine down, like we were, and in last place. It was not far from being a serious situation that you couldn't get out of. This last month, when they've had to play hurt and had to play tired, they've played winning baseball."
There wasn't one turning point. How about turning points, like Ryan Theriot taking over the starting shortstop job from Gold Glover Cesar Izturis after not playing any shortstop in Spring Training? Or Piniella's well-timed dust-up with third-base umpire Mike Wegner the day after the Carlos Zambrano-Michael Barrett dugout scuffle? How about sticking with rookie Mike Fontenot during his red-hot June when he hit .397? In the NLDS, Piniella might start rookie catcher Geovany Soto because he might have a better chance against the speedy Diamondbacks.
"I think it was a collection of things," Cubs closer Ryan Dempster said of the team's evolution over the season. "We were playing bad, and we started playing better."
Piniella has kept the focus on the players. He doesn't like to talk about himself.
"These kids deserve it," Piniella said after the Cubs clinched the National League Central Division on Friday in Cincinnati. "They've had a lot of emotion and it's been a rough summer for us. It hasn't been easy. These kids endured and they got the job done."
What about that swagger that Piniella talked about in Spring Training? Is it there?
"I think when Lou talks about that swagger, he's just talking about a confidence," Cubs first baseman Derrek Lee said. "I think we're a confident baseball team right now -- I think it shows in our pitching staff, I think it shows in our offense, our defense -- we're playing with a confidence. When you get in the postseason, in these big games, confidence goes a long way."
Piniella gave the players that.
"We had some bumpy roads along the way," Piniella said. "Our team has endured and these kids have played hard. We've been through a tough pennant race in the last six, seven weeks. I think that will pay some dividends for us in the postseason."
This will be Piniella's last job. He was comfortable as a broadcaster in 2006, but opted to sign a three-year contract with the Cubs last Oct. 17. This also may be his toughest job: He acquired a team that had lost 96 games. But he also inherited a fan base that has not been to a World Series since 1945, and has not won one since 1908. Piniella doesn't believe in curses, and doesn't even know much about Cubs lore, actually.
In his 11th trip to the postseason, his sixth time as a manager, Piniella is confident he knows what he's doing.
"If I didn't think I could win in Chicago, I wouldn't be here," he said.
Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.