When Lou Pinella announced his retirement this past fall and the Chicago Cubs tapped career minor leaguer Mike Quade as their new manager, a storm of epidemic proportions befell the front office.
First, general manager Jim Hendry hired an unknown relative to continue the starving organization's quest for its first World Series title since 1908. As if that wasn't enough? Hendry also spurned one of the most popular Cubs players in franchise history, Hall of Famer Ryne Sandberg.
While the decision boggled the minds of many fans, it wasn't so much that Hendry made the decision, but rather how he made (and subsequently handled) the decision and its fallout.
Sandberg wasn't immediately offered his previous post as the manager of the Iowa Cubs, where he was named the Pacific Coast League's Coach of the Year in 2010. Instead, he was sent to pasture. A slight on one Cub is a slight on them all in this brotherhood of pain. Hurt by the perceived slight, Sandberg took an identical Triple-A job with the Philadelphia Phillies.
Needless to say: many Cubs fans were livid about the move.
From boycotts to threats of changing allegiances, many fans were huffing and puffing. Hendry had slighted one of their own. Sandberg set that perception in place the following week when he made his rounds on the talk radio circuit.
Hendry was a pariah in many bitter circles. They already struggled with the contracts Hendry had brought in (see Alfonso Soriano and Kosuke Fukudome) as well as some of the head-scratchers (see Milton Bradley). However, many believed the growing pains would be bearable under the leadership of one of the most popular Cubs in history.
Hendry stood at a crossroads, and he couldn't do right. He signed power-hitting, defensive-minded first baseman, Carlos Pena, at the beginning of December. Fans wept. Hendry began negotiating a possible trade for Tampa Rays starter Matt Garza. Fans scoffed. Hendry faced a lose-lose situation, and the Cubs faced a crisis of image (no matter how many teary episodes of "Undercover Boss" team owner Todd Ricketts appeared on).
Then Ron Santo, arguably the most popular Cub of all time, passed away.
Former teammates, friends and fans swarmed to his funeral, paying respects to a guy who loved the Cubs as much as he loved oxygen. Pallbearers included Hall of Famers Ernie Banks, Fergie Jenkins and Billy Williams, and one such guest was taken aback by his return home to pay his respects.
That guest was "Kid-K" himself -- Kerry Wood.
Before Santo's spirit left the building, Hendry and Wood promised to speak again about a possible return to Chicago. Wood was a free agent, having just played a major role in solidifying the New York Yankees bullpen. He was due a large payout in the range of $7-10 million, yet something pulled him back into the most masochistic love affair in sports.
Within a week, Wood was signing a hometown discount deal for $1.5 million, and the ire of Cubs fans began to subside. Less than a month later, the Cubs finally landed Matt Garza and also brought back Augie Ojeda and Reed Johnson,two other fan favorites who had left the organization, as non-roster invitees.
The angry Cubs fans began warming up to Hendry again, muttering things like, "I love you, Cubs, but I just don't like you very much right now." Classic signs of an abusive relationship. Suddenly, Hendry was being likened to the outlawed friend of a friend who was now welcomed over for Pay-Per-View fights and the occasional night out for a drink. Awkward, but tenable.
Appealing to their nostalgia, Wood serves as an olive branch to the fans. Coexisting isn't nearly as fargone a conclusion as it originally seemed. The only other moves he's yet to make are bringing back Lou Brock, Mark Grace and the ghost of Billy Sianis and his billy goat.
Making amends takes time, effort and a fan base who is willing to forget the last 102 years of futility because -- say what you want about Cubs fans -- their loyalty runs deep.
Hendry may still be in the doghouse, but it's an upgrade from where he was three months ago: the outhouse. Only time will tell if the move saves his reputation in Chicago, or if he is shown to door to oblivion like those who have come before: Larry Himes, Ed Lynch, Dallas Green and John Holland. But this relationship's going to take some time, and perhaps a few W's in April, to return to the glory days of 2007 and 2008.
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