Lou Piniella Needs To Learn How To Win at Wrigley Field
"What kind of baseball do you play?" That question was addressed to George Castle by Cub manager Lou Piniella yesterday when Castle questioned his strategy in the eighth inning of a Cubs loss to the Washington Nationals.
The question asked was why with a man on second and nobody out and Mike Fontenot at the plate and the Cubs trailing by a run that Piniella didn't have him bunt him over to third.
Castle has been a long-time media member following the Cubs. He's a guy with the reputation of asking the tough questions and in this case, may I say, the smart question.
Piniella going off on him and questioning his baseball acumen tells me it's time for me to question Piniella, Cubs GM Jim Hendry, and the rest of the crew if they have a clue how to win at Wrigley Field.
I wrote this during the winter and sent it to new Cubs owner Tom Ricketts a few weeks back. I haven't heard a response yet, but I think it's time I put something out there that nobody else knows because it's never been done by the Cubs: Winning the World Series playing at Wrigley Field.
Here it is.
Before I can answer the question of how to win a championship playing at Wrigley Field, you have to understand why the Cubs have failed to win the World Series since they started playing there in 1916. Does anyone know why the Cubs can’t win at Wrigley?
You have to know why the Cubs lose every year so you can change the repetitious cycle of constantly building the same type of team year in and year out for so many decades. I haven’t watched them play since 1916, but I have watched them on a regular basis since the Sixties, and there is definitely a pattern there.
They say the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.
The Cubs have always been a power hitting team, and the thought is to win playing at Wrigley, that’s the type of team you have to have. Growing up in the sixties, the best team the Cubs had was the infamous ’69 club laden with power with Billy Williams, Ron Santo, and Ernie Banks. But that team was missing one piece, and he was traded in 1964 and his name was Lou Brock. Brock was a classic leadoff hitter; one of the best of all time.
Had they kept him, I seriously doubt they would have ever ‘celebrated’ the 100th anniversary of their last championship. It’s the missing ingredient the Cubs have continually failed to address.
Wrigley Field is perceived as a home run hitter’s paradise and that is a fallacy. What most people don’t know is that the wind blows in at Wrigley Field more often than it blows out. Andy MacPhail mentioned that to me in an interview I did with him some years ago in a study they conducted.
If you build a team based on power with little or no speed, you are doomed to failure playing at Wrigley Field.
Chicago is almost always cold in both April and May and sometimes even into June. It’s difficult for the hitters in those early months because the wind is blowing in and the ball is not flying out of the park. You have to be able to manufacture runs.
It’s also cold in October, and now November, when the playoffs and World Series are played. You have to build the type of team that can win the marathon of the regular season, but is also capable of winning the sprint that is the playoffs.
Twice in my lifetime the Cubs have come close to getting to the World Series. That was in 1984 and 2003. There are similarities in both teams and the most striking one is they had an excellent leadoff hitter that played center both years, Bobby Dernier in ’84, and Kenny Lofton, who came over in a mid-season trade in 2003 from the Pirates.
Those teams also had excellent number two hitters with Hall of Famer Ryne Sandberg manning the spot in 1984, and Mark Grudzielanek batting in the two hole in 2003. Ideally the second hitter in the lineup can handle the bat very well, and can do what is necessary to get the leadoff hitter into scoring position. If he can also steal bases as Sandberg could do, it’s an added bonus.
Having a very good leadoff hitter is the key. He has to be able to steal and put pressure on the pitcher to concentrate on him over at first, and pay less attention to the batter. That worked brilliantly for the White Sox in 2005 when they traded for Scott Podsednik in the off-season and added Tadahito Iguchi in the number two spot.
The Sox were traditionally a power hitting team since moving to US Cellular Field. But trading away a power hitter in Carlos Lee and acquiring Podsednik changed the whole dynamic of the team and led to the Sox winning their first championship since 1917. The last time they previously played in the World Series was 1959, when they were known as the Go-Go White Sox with Luis Aparicio leading off and Nellie Fox batting behind him.
I had a chance to interview Jim Hendry after the 2003 season and I asked him what he was going to do about the leadoff position if he didn’t resign Lofton. He told me that he had a lot more important things to worry about like finding a catcher and trying to revamp the bullpen. He didn’t understand how important the leadoff hitter really is and how it makes everybody in the lineup better.
The Cubs made the playoffs in 2007 and 2008, but they were never in the hunt to get to the World Series with their three and out showings, and barely even competed in the games. Alfonso Soriano was not the right person for that position, and that’s why the team that won a weak division two years in a row failed so miserably in the playoffs both years.
Along with the first two batters, you need to have a balance of speed and power. You have to have hitters that can get on base and run, as well as hit home runs. You don’t want a team full of home run or strikeout type hitters that clog the bases. I’m not saying you can’t win with a hitter like that on your team, but you don’t want to have too many of them.
To win in October, you have to find ways to score, and the more ways you have to do that, the better chance you have to win.
During the season, the Cubs play 81 games at home and eighty-one games on the road. If you have a team of outfielders that can possibly be adequate at Wrigley Field, what are they going to do in the bigger parks on the road, where there is a lot more ground to cover and maybe the ball is even harder to hit out of?
I prefer power type pitchers in the playoffs because they are harder to hit. That’s why the Atlanta Braves with Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine only won one World Series. They could get to the playoffs every year, but they couldn’t win it and that’s the only thing that matters.
Ground ball pitchers are also preferable to fly ball pitchers, but you can get away with a pitcher who serves up home run balls if he’s also a strike out type of pitcher.
Having a top notch closer or as I prefer, “fireman” is essential to succeeding in the playoffs. There are certain positions where you can settle, but that’s not one of them. You have to stop the other team and put out a rally, and that’s how I employ my closer.
You want to be strong up the middle defensively, but you also have to understand situations and be able to react in a split second to them, so I want smart baseball players.
There is one other quirk associated with Wrigley Field and that is the amount of day games played compared to other teams. There are some players that are known as "night owls", and you want to research the players you bring in and know their habits and character before you make a commitment to them.
No matter what you do, there is never a guarantee you’re going to win the World Series. But if you have a plan and an idea that hasn’t been implemented before but has proven to be successful, your chances for success increase tremendously.
That is what I sent to Tom Ricketts along with another longer piece where I go into how to build a winning baseball organization. Hopefully he takes heed, and understands that the people currently working for him are not capable of getting the job done.
They're doing the same things they always do and expecting a different result.
That's what the Cubs have been doing for over a century.
Perhaps utilizing another strategy might change the bad juju that is associated with the Cubs.
If you managed to get through this and read the whole thing, do my ideas make sense?
It's not going to happen overnight, but would implementing my ideas help the Cubs overcome the "curse" of bad management and finally win what all Cubs fans have been waiting forever for: The World Series?
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