Despite the fact that Jim Lefebvre had led the Cubs to a winning season in 1993, he was fired after that year; the Cubs hired Tom Trebelhorn, who had been modestly successful (422-397) with the Brewers for several seasons, to replace him.
It was a spectacularly bad choice, and the 1994 Cubs got off to a weird start. I say “weird” because they simply could not win at home, though they did all right in road games early. Swept at home by the Mets, they went 3-2 on a road trip to New York and Montreal, then came home and lost five straight to the Braves (including a 19-5 blowout) and Astros. They followed that with a decent 3-4 road trip to Colorado and Houston, and came home for a Friday, April 29 matchup with the Rockies at 6-14 — 6-6 on the road, 0-8 at home.
Trebelhorn promised Cubs fans he'd talk to them if the Cubs lost another home game, and lose it they did, 6-5 to the Rockies, despite having the bases loaded with one out in the last of the ninth -- Glenallen Hill killed that rally off with a game-ending double play.
So Trebelhorn dressed (in "jeans, a Cubs turtleneck and a beer-company baseball cap", according to the Tribune) and went out to meet fans in front of the firehouse that sits across from Wrigley Field on Waveland Avenue. Joseph A. (no longer "Joey") Reaves of the Tribune tells what happened next:
Several fans already had burned copies of the Chicago Tribune to show their disgust at Tribune Co., which owns the Cubs. And there were chants of “Kill Larry Himes” — the Cubs’ general manager — when Trebelhorn emerged from the left-field entrance at Wrigley Field and waded into the crowd.
Four Cubs security guards surrounded Trebelhorn and got brushed aside as soon as he made it through the mob and climbed atop a green park bench outside Fire Engine Company 78.
”OK. Now what do you want to know?” shouted Trebelhorn, above a stream of obscenities. “What can I do for you?”
For the first 10 minutes, the crowd threatened to get out of hand. Most of the fans were men in their 20s and 30s, some of whom had clearly been drinking. They were in no mood to listen.
As it turned out, it was probably the best thing Trebelhorn ever did as manager of the Cubs. Calmly and slowly, he answered fans' questions and slowly got them on his side:
Three dozen questions covered everything from the now-fabled weak pitching to whether the Tribune Co. was hampering his ability to get better players. Trebelhorn answered what he could, as best he could.
Obviously, many things can’t be explained. The failings of athletes have baffled and frustrated fans and managers forever.
But after 30 minutes, one thing was clear: Trebelhorn had won over almost everyone who bothered to show. One fan drew a loud ovation and whoops of support when, before asking a question, he said: “First, I appreciate you coming here because I think it takes a lot of guts.”
All town meetings should end so happily. By the time one of the firefighters from Engine Co. 78 stepped up to invite Trebelhorn inside for a broiled chicken dinner, it was pretty clear the skipper had done one of the best jobs of managing in Cubs history.
Can you imagine Dusty Baker doing that? Or Lou Piniella? Or Mike Quade? Dale Sveum, who played for Trebelhorn in Milwaukee -- now, I could see Sveum doing something like that. Hopefully, Sveum's future will be bright enough that he won't ever have to.
The 1994 Cubs finally won a home game -- but it took three more losses, for an 0-12 home mark, before they finally beat the Reds 4-2 May 4 for their first home win. Their horrendous start stretched to 11-24 before they finally won a few games; from that point to the abbreviated season's end they went 38-41, although they still couldn't win at home, going 20-39 there, as opposed to a 29-25 road record (which was the third-best road record in the National League, behind the Braves and Expos, both of whom won far more games overall than the Cubs did). It's probably just as well, from a Cubs' fan standpoint at least, that the '94 season ended when it did. Trebelhorn, for all his candor with fans, was dismissed after the season and never managed in the major leagues again. (Sound familiar?)
Maybe they should have made him press spokesman instead of manager.