BY GORDON WITTENMYER
GOODYEAR, Ariz. –With a few more wrinkles, a few less pounds and an upbeat energy that belies his 72 years, the man who knows best what Joe Maddon faces this year shuffled back and forth as he talked, occasionally tapping a fungo bat on the ground for emphasis.
“The Cubs?” said Lou Piniella. “Listen, they’ve done a nice job over there. …
“Look, they’re going to very formidable.”
The former Cubs manager is in a Cincinnati Reds uniform again, a senior advisor for the rebuilding Reds, and for his 2½ weeks in spring training that means joining coaching staff meetings, working with manager Bryan Price (his former pitching coach in Seattle) and getting on practice fields with players.
Until last week, he hadn’t been in Arizona since his final season with the Cubs in 2010, and on Saturday when the Reds play the Cubs in a spring game in Mesa, he’ll attend his first Cubs game since then.
But he has followed the Cubs enough to praise the young core, the left-handed presence in the lineup and a starting rotation he calls “as good as anybody in baseball.”
What he knows without following them is the part he already has lived.
“Last year the expectations weren’t quite there yet,” he said. “This year they’re front and center. So you’ve got to wait and see how the club responds.”
Piniella said Cubs manager Maddon has the veterans to combat the target they say they’re “embracing” this year.
But so did Piniella’s 2008 team that followed big expectations with a 97-win season – and a 3-and-out playoff crash.
This is the first season since then with expectations as high in a market unique for the forces that drive the height, and heat, of expectations when the team looks strong — something Piniella admittedly did not see coming.
“With the Billy Goat, everything,” he said. “It’s a wonderful city, and a wonderful sports town, there’s no question. But you win four or five games in a row and you’re world champions, and you lose four or five games in a row and the season’s over.
“There’s no in between,” he said. “I think a lot of the doomsayers over there enjoy being doomsayers.”
In fact, he wonders eight years later if he should have taken a different approach to help ease the 100-year elephant in the room heading into the playoffs.
“Look, when I played with the Yankees, you were expected to win. When I managed Cincinnati, we didn’t [have an added burden],” said Piniella, the sun catching the 1990 World Series ring he wore on his right hand. “What I failed to recognize was that the Yankees and Cincinnati had winning traditions. They had winning history.
“And even though my second year there [with the Cubs], when we won 97 ballgames, we had a veteran club, but the organization hadn’t won. And I think they put too much – I wouldn’t say pressure – but I think they probably wanted it too much.
“My meeting should have been, `Look, nobody expects us to do this. Relax, just play baseball, and good things will happen.’ We didn’t do that. We went just the way we did it during the season. We didn’t change anything.”
Players from those teams said the same thing about entering the 2008 playoffs. Ryan Dempster called it a sense of “urgency.”
It probably didn’t help that the team’s top executive, Crane Kenney, enlisted a Greek priest to bless the dugout before Game 1.
Piniella’s actual message to the team before the Dodgers playoff series wasn’t especially intense.
“I just told them that we had a good baseball team; I expected us to play really well in the postseason, and to go out there and get after it,” he said. “That’s it.
“But I could have lessened it a little bit.”
He said conversations in recent years with former Yankees manager Joe Torre, who won four championships in five years in the New York media pressure cooker, made him think more about that.
“He did a good job of that, of lessening the expectations,” said Piniella, who described Torre’s method of making his team believe it was the opponent who had all the expectations and pressure. “I could have probably done the same thing. And I didn’t. Now would it have made any difference? I’m not sure. But possibly. And if there’s a possibility, well, then you’ve got to explore it.”
The whole experience, and enduring reality, still seems to boggle his mind.
“There’s no reason the Chicago Cubs should go 100 years in a major city without winning a world championship. It seems almost impossible,” he said. “But you’ve got to have total commitment, and I think that’s there right now from ownership, down to the front office to the staff on the field.
“They brought in Theo, who had to go through the same thing in Boston,” he said of team president Theo Epstein. “He was probably the right guy to get this thing going forward and end that drought.”
If anything, this Cubs organization after four years of overhaul reminds Piniella of his championship Yankees teams as a player.
“They’ve done it the right way. They’ve done it from building the farm system and getting good young players at the big league level, and then using the free agent market as a specialty,” he said. “That’s what the Yankees did when I went over there and we started winning world championships. We had a fairly good nucleus of young playes, and then they added a Catfish Hunter, a Reggie Jackson, a Goose Gossage.
“At the time that free agency started, Mr. Steinbrenner used the system better than anybody, by far,” Piniella added. “And it looks to me now like the Cubs are basically doing the same thing. I think they’ve gotten a jump on free agency. But you can only use free agency if you’ve got enough pieces in place. You can’t build a team with free agency.”
Next: Getting past the expectations.
“Look, good talent overcomes expectations,” Piniella said. “It’s a long season; you’ve got to stay away from injuries. But the talent is there. Joe does a nice job the way he handles the team as far as keeping them nice and loose and relaxed.
“I’m expecting them to really, really play well and be a big factor in the postseason.”