On a September morning in 1966, as the Cubs prepared to put a 59-103 exclamation point on the Terrible Twenty years of the Wrigley Reign of Error, I paid my dollar and joined 20 or 30 other fans in the left field bleachers waiting to see Kenny Holtzman face the Braves, a team that not only was completing its own Year One in Atlanta, but also a club that was in the midst of a stretch drive to finish the season over .500.
As I sat down in an almost empty front row, I was ready not only to get a close-up view of Durocher’s youth movement in action, but also to see an Atlanta team that included Hank Aaron, Eddie Mathews, Joe Torre, Rico Carty, and Tony Cloninger, as well as the original Dominican Dandy and Alou family patriarch – Felipe himself – who, at that moment, stood 20 feet in front of me, casually taking outfield practice in the last days of what would prove to be his career year.
Just then, a ball went over Alou’s glove to the base of the wall and, as he jogged toward me to pick it up, I took the opportunity to talk a little inside baseball with him: “Hey, Felipe,” I yelled down, “How come you guys are playing so good? What happened?” Looking up, Alou gave me an answer that I still remember almost every time I see a mediocre baseball team start playing .650 ball over the last few dozen games of a lost season. Smiling ear-to-ear and cupping his hand to his mouth while speaking in a stage whisper, baseball’s Original Alou offered an insight that should resonate with any current owner who may be shopping for a new manager: “We got rid of Bragan,” he said.
All you need to do is remove Bobby Bragan’s name and substitute that of your own managerial target, and you’ll not only see the surface wisdom in Alou’s candid comment but, if you take a moment to look a little deeper, you’ll realize that a mediocre team that suddenly starts winning after a late-season managerial change is mostly reaping the benefits of addition-by-subtraction. Under those circumstances, it makes almost no difference who fills-in as the new manager – the season is shot, the players are loose, and the games mean nothing more than a chance for everyone, including the new manager, to pad their resumes.
Of course, there are parallels between that long-ago Braves team of Aaron, Mathews, and Alou and the 2010 Cubs of Ramirez, Lee, and Soriano. For example, each club began the season with an established manager in his fourth year with the team, and each team experienced exceptional success after hiring a third base coach to perform clean-up managerial duty in August. The Braves under Bragan were 52-59, before staging a 33-18 stretch run under Billy Hitchcock, while this year’s Cubs were a staggering 51-74 under Lou Piniella before Mike Quade’s welcome 24-13 stint to close-out our own Year One under Team Ricketts.
I have no idea if Braves management back then saw Hitchcock as only an interim skipper before his sudden run of success but, in fact, Atlanta did wind up hiring Billy to manage in 1967, when he went 77-82 before being fired with three games left. I haven’t done the research to confirm that Hitchcock’s failure is typical of late-season managerial fill-ins who land a year-long gig but, as we contemplate what appears to be a growing resignation among Cubs fans to the idea of Quade in 2011, it may be useful for fans and owners alike to show healthy skepticism when assigning value to the success that even bad teams like the 2010 Cubs enjoy in the wake of a late-season managerial change.
As the Cubs’ new owners enter what may be Year Three of their due diligence to decide who should run their team, let’s hope they’ll see the Cubs recent success for what it most likely is: a nice way to end a dismal year. The Q-Bounce isn’t any more likely to carry-over to 2011 than the short-lived success of Billy Hitchcock’s late season run with the Braves in ‘66-‘67. Like Hitchcock, Mike Quade would be an easy target from Day One, and a losing record would signal the end for both Q and Jim Hendry at the finish of another wasted year. Even with an extra round of playoffs, 77-82 won't be good enough for the postseason, or for a fan base that will demand change.
Now is the time for ownership to show good faith by hiring leadership for the long term – either Girardi or Sandberg in the dugout along with a new front office team, or, if absolutely necessary, Joe or Ryno, with Hendry given another contract extension. In other words, anything but a continuation of the present uncertainty that surely will lead to another lost season, where, come next September, some bleacher fan may be asking Fonzi the same question I asked Alou.