On June 22, 2002, St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Darryl Kile, only 33 years old, was found dead in his hotel room in Chicago. The Cardinals were in Chicago to play the Cubs in a game that was scheduled to begin shortly after noon that Saturday afternoon.
Game time came and went and no one was on the field. In that pre-Twitter, pre-Facebook age, we in the stands knew something was up but didn't know what.
Soon after, the Cubs and Cardinals walked slowly out of their dugouts and a microphone was set up. Joe Girardi, then in his final season as a Cubs backup catcher, spoke:
"I thank you for your patience. We regret to inform you because of a tragedy in the Cardinal family, that the commissioner has canceled the game today. Please be respectful. You will find out eventually what has happened, and I ask that you say a prayer for the St. Louis Cardinals' family."
The leadership Joe showed that day, and great respect for baseball, has shown in his post-playing career. After two years as a Yankees broadcaster, he served as Yankees bench coach in 2005, which led to his hiring as Marlins manager in 2006. That didn't work out very well; Girardi publicly called out Marlins ownership and wound up being fired soon after the season ended. When Dusty Baker's contract wasn't renewed at the end of that season, Girardi applied for the Cubs job.
Cubs management decided they wanted someone with more managerial experience than Girardi had at the time, and hired Lou Piniella. Lou's tenure in Chicago has been good and bad -- he led the team to a pair of playoff appearances and became the first Cubs manager to lead the club to three winning seasons in his first three years with the team since Charlie Grimm in the 1930s.
The other day, Gordon Wittenmyer of the Sun-Times decided to confront Girardi at the All-Star Game and ask him if he'd ever be interested in managing the Cubs. Girardi, under contract to the Yankees -- but only until the end of this season -- was, of course, noncommittal:
"That's not something I would talk about now," he said. "I grew up in Peoria. I grew up a Cub fan. But right now, I'm extremely happy where I'm at.
"You're asking me hypotheticals, and I don't deal in hypotheticals," he said. "I am under contract. I love what I do. And I love managing."
There's no doubt, now, that Girardi has sufficient experience to be qualified for any managing job that opens up. I'd think that after he brought the Yankees to the World Series title in 2009 and has a good shot at another one this year, that they'll renew his deal -- with the passing of George Steinbrenner this week, it's likely the Yankees organization has other things on its mind.
The only man who has managed the Cubs with any success at all, since their last pennant in 1945, who also played for the team, is Don Zimmer. Others (Stan Hack, Phil Cavarretta, a few others more briefly) have done so and failed. It used to be that teams would hire men who had been longtime players in their organizations as managers; the Giants, for example, did not hire a manager who had not been a player for them until 1977 (Joe Altobelli). The job of a field manager was somewhat different in past eras, which made this easier to do. Now, it's a rare team that hires someone specifically because they were a player with that organization -- although Girardi qualifies with the Yankees, having been a catcher for three of their World Series championship teams in 1996, 1998 and 1999.
It may be more relevant for a future Cubs manager than for many other teams, however. Both Dusty Baker and Lou Piniella noted, after having managed the Cubs for a time, that they didn't quite realize the intensity of the job or the "Cubbie occurrences" (as Lou put it) that seem to plague this franchise.
Girardi, who played for a Cubs playoff team in 1989 and also on one that contended deep into the season before fading in 2001 (seven Cubs seasons in all), surely understands what it means to be a Cub; further, he understands what it means to be a Cubs fan, having grown up as one in Peoria and played his college baseball (and graduated with a degree in electrical engineering) at Northwestern.
Girardi might not have been the best fit, with little managerial experience, for the veteran team put on the field in 2007. I can understand the hiring of Piniella then. But with several more years under his belt now, and likely a younger team in 2011, he'd probably be a perfect fit next year. The problem, of course, is that he isn't likely to be leaving a job where they pay him well and they commit the resources needed to win every single year. Cubs fans have been told by Tom Ricketts that new ownership will do that, but it's too early to see any results from that.
So it's not likely that Girardi will be available, even if he's an excellent choice. So, then, who? The Daily Herald's Barry Rozner says Ryne Sandberg has paid his dues and is ready:
Like anyone else who hadn't done it, Sandberg never would have guessed the education necessary to prepare for a big-league managing job, and he can see why managers with no experience struggle.
"This is not the kind of thing where you can learn on the job up there," Sandberg said. "You have to be prepared for everything, but managing is dealing with the unexpected and taking care of things immediately.
"When you have no experience, I think it lessens the quality of leadership that you could have at major-league level, and like we saw in Arizona (with A.J. Hinch), it didn't last very long.
"I can tell you that looking back on it now, four years ago I was not ready to do a good job. It takes a lot of different skills and this was the right route for me to take to learn those skills.
"It's not like I was a hitting coach or a first base coach. Down here, you're everything every day and running the whole group of 30 people and managing a pitching staff on top of that.
"It's a crash course and it's been well worth it for me to put in the time and wait for a chance, making sure I was ready.
"I've taken this very seriously. It's like anything else I've ever done. I wanted to be very good at it."
Sandberg, the most popular Cub of his era (with apologies to Andre Dawson and Mark Grace, he is), would be a popular choice -- but also a well-qualified choice, having paid his dues in the minor leagues, learning his craft. Not many Hall of Fame players would do that. If Girardi's not available, Sandberg ought to get the job.
Because it's time to bring the Cubs' managerial job back in the family, to someone who understands what it's like to be a Cub, play at Wrigley Field, take the pressure put on you by an extremely loyal fan base, and handle the local media.
Bring the job home, Tom Ricketts. Lou and Dusty got us most of the way there. It's going to take one of us, I believe, to lead us to the promised land.