Chicago Cubs general manager Jim Hendry speaks to the media before a game between the Chicago White Sox and the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by David Banks/Getty Images)
I have only met Jim Hendry a couple of times personally, just briefly at a couple of Cubs Conventions. So I can't really say much about what he's like as a person, other than that he seemed personable and friendly.
That's the impression I have of him in his job, too -- friendly, outgoing, a guy who'll go have a few drinks with you, slap you on the back, tell you some funny stories, and has a zillion friends throughout the baseball world, where he's spent his entire adult working life. Among those years are 16 years spent in the Cubs organization, where he was farm director from 1995-2002, and major league general manager since July 5, 2002, a shade over nine years. That makes him the eighth-longest-tenured GM in baseball, behind Brian Sabean (1996), Billy Beane (1997), Brian Cashman (1997), Dan O'Dowd (1999), Kenny Williams (2000), Mark Shapiro (2001) and Dave Dombrowski (April 2002).
That's a long time, and the long relationships Hendry has made with other GMs has helped him make many deals. Some of them were good for the Cubs, others not. We've sliced and diced those so many ways -- that's not the point of this post.
Here's the point: Jim Hendry is very loyal. That is both his best quality and his worst. His loyalty to his players has helped players get pensions (Chad Fox) and slots with other teams when there was no place for them with the Cubs (Scott Moore, since returned, and Sam Fuld). Players and coaches and managers and scouts want to work for a guy like that -- wouldn't you? How many of you work for a boss who's loyal to people who work hard for him or her? Not many, I'd bet.
But Hendry's loyalty has also led him to keep players far past their shelf life; has led him to give jobs in both management and on the playing roster to friends, old college buddies, or buddies of buddies, and that's not the way to run a winning baseball team. You can't do it as an old-boy network. While Hendry did do a good job of building a division titlist in 2003, and again in 2007 and 2008, it was his attempted "tweaking" of that 2008 division champion to try to get to the next level that has led to his undoing.
Jim Hendry is a friendly guy. So when Milton Bradley managed to smile and make nice at dinner with Hendry before the 2009 season, Hendry pretty much ripped apart the 2008 champions to sign him. Bradley never was the kind of player the Cubs needed to get over the top, but somehow he convinced Hendry -- or Hendry convinced himself -- that he was.
The aftermath of that signing has also been sliced and diced here and it's not my purpose here to do that again. But the team is still paying for that aftermath and the aftermath of the aftermath (Carlos Silva), as Hendry tries to scramble to recapture the 2008 magic, which is long gone. The aftereffects of the large contracts with NTC's handed out like Halloween candy in the waning days of the Tribune era are also hurting the Cubs right now, although many of those will vanish after the end of this season. Blame for those, I think, can be spread between Hendry and Tribco management, trying to bump up the value of their asset for sale. Whether Hendry would change his M.O. once the contracts come off the books is the question that needs to be asked and answered by Tom Ricketts as this season spirals into a disaster.
There hasn't been much good to come out of the first half of this season; a few fun victories, and the play of Starlin Castro, have been about it. The team needs retooling. Over the next three weeks, we'll see if Hendry -- who is certainly not going to be fired now, in the middle of the season -- can get some value, any value, out of veterans and maybe save a little contract money, although I suspect any deal made for any Cubs veteran who has a large contract is going to wind up with the Cubs eating all the money.
There's one other thing that a lot of you have mentioned -- a lack of accountability. This, I think, goes back to Hendry's friendly, glad-handing nature; he doesn't want to seem like the bad guy, and so no one ever gets held accountable for poor play, or bad coaching or managing. This obviously has made Hendry a lot of friends in the business, but it doesn't go very far in making a team that knows it has to produce or be gone. His first manager, Dusty Baker, was very much this way. Lou Piniella wasn't -- at least in his first couple of years. Later in his tenure, Lou was very much laissez-faire: "Look, what do you want me to do?" And Mike Quade is much the same way.
This attitude has to change. Tom Ricketts, in his opening press conference in October 2009, said people would be held accountable if they didn't produce. It's time to do just that on the baseball side of things.
As most of you know, I have defended Jim Hendry for a long time -- not always defense, but at the very least trying to provide a countering voice to many of you who have had your torches and pitchforks at his door, blasting every move he has made. Some of his moves, admittedly, have been pretty bad. No one can defend the Juan Pierre deal, or the Aaron Miles signing, or the John Grabow signing (yes, clearly I was wrong on that one). But other moves he's made may have seemed like they were the right thing at the time, only to blow up in his face. To me, he has neither the best nor worst record of current MLB GM's; he's in the middle of the pack. I give him credit for getting the Cubs to the postseason more than any Cubs executive in the last 70 years. That counts for something.
And that said, I do think it's time to move in a new direction. As I've said, Jim Hendry is very loyal. There's no reason to think that if he's retained, the team would go in any sort of substantively different direction than they're headed now, which is not a good direction. At all.
Some of you are already discussing, in this FanPost, your "wishlist" for manager and GM. Many of the names mentioned would do fine work. I'd love to see the Cubs get Brian Cashman. He's done a great job (granted, with virtually unlimited resources). Those unlimited resources probably keep him in New York.
No, I think the man for the job is right under our noses, already in the organization, and we know that Tom Ricketts is someone who likes to promote from within.
That's Oneri Fleita.
Yes, Fleita was hired by Hendry, was recruited by Hendry while he was at Creighton and has worked under him for the entire time he's been in the organization. But I don't see him as any sort of continuation of Hendry's gladhanding ways. Fleita has helped build up the Cubs' minor league system, as Vice President of Player Personnel, to the point where it's now producing quality major league position players, with several more (as well as some pitchers) in the pipeline. He'd bring a fresh viewpoint, even though he's been in the organization, and that would also be a bonus, since he's already familiar with all of the organization's players. Fleita is more than a decade younger than Hendry and closer in age to many of the "young Turk" GM's currently in the game -- and already knows them, too, so wouldn't have to start from scratch building relationships.
Here's a profile of Fleita written by Patrick Mooney at CSN Chicago this past March. It shows a man who knows how to recruit international talent -- something the Cubs have now made a strong push to do -- and to build an organization from the ground up. It's time for him to step up to the next level and bring experience, but a new view, into the GM's chair. Management also needs to give its baseball people the resources, and freedom, to build a winning organization their way -- because marketing the ballpark experience alone isn't enough. The team needs to win, or people are going to stop showing up.
Thanks to Jim Hendry for bringing us some playoff thrills. The fact that the teams never won the ultimate prize isn't his fault -- those teams had their shot, and the players just couldn't get over the hump. Many of you may disagree with this choice. And I'm not saying Fleita is the only choice. But it is definitely time to close the book on Jim Hendry, and start new.