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Imagine Lou Piniella's Tears If He Had Won It All

Lou Piniella took off his baseball uniform for the last time Sunday, and real tears flowed.

That was tough to watch even in the cynical, backstabbing world of sports journalism.

No matter what you thought of his handling of the Cubs, be it in the 2008 postseason gone horribly wrong or his final season that's shaping up as one of the worst in team history, you had to feel for Lou Piniella when he broke down after his final game as manager Sunday.

Consider all the thoughts that must have been racing through his head as he tried to talk in a jam-packed interview room he disdained from the get-go in 2007 -- forever taking his uniform off after a half-century with just one season missed,  the shaky health of his 90-year-old mother Margaret Piniella, leaving a city he had never had a previous relationship with but had grown to like.

Don Baylor exited stage left without comment when he was cashiered in Atlanta in 2002. He still has never shed light on his departure as Cubs manager amid veiled hints of a flawed organization. Interim replacement Bruce Kimm wore wrap-around sunglasses to hide his red eyes when informed on the final day of '02 he wasn't coming back. Dusty Baker held back the tears but was visibly distraught explaining that he was not continuing as manager for 2007.

Piniella always had the image of the emotional tough guy who played into the stereotype of there's no crying in baseball. The obsession with showing video of his post-game interview room eruptions was proof. Well, the video mongers got their parting wish for a money shot of a different kind. Piniella broke down like few others I've ever seen. Even when Mike Ditka proclaimed "this too shall pass" in 1993, it wasn't as emotional as Piniella's farewell, both before and especially after the game.

Maybe for a millisecond Piniella also wondered how he would have reacted if that 2008 team hadn't needed adult Depends against the Dodgers and had gone on to a World Series. The magnitude of a Cubs World Series triumph would have brought tears of another kind -- unadulterated joy. The ring he would have earned would have outshined the 1977 Yankees jewelry he displayed the other day in the dugout before a game. But now, thanks to the domino effect of free-agent signings gone bad and an under-producing baseball organization, Piniella had to end an 1,835-victory managerial career as caretaker of an expansion team.

Everything Piniella said Sunday was legit. He expected to win. He believes the Ricketts family eventually will bring that winner. He grew to love Chicago and Cubs fans. His doffed hats and waves to the crowd in a nice, brief pre-game salute proved it.

Can he cry about his record when it's analyzed? How about a furrowed brow?

Piniella turned around a sagging 96-loss franchise on a dime in 2007. That's when he performed his greatest managerial job, sifting out non-producers and changing the lineup on the fly going into June. And he can be defended on this end for pulling Carlos Zambrano after six innings in Game 1 of the NLDS against the D'backs.  He went to Carlos Marmol, a move that had worked for 2/3 of the season. That night, it didn't.

For one of the game's foremost hitting experts, he wasn't a bad handler of pitchers. He rarely overworked starters and relievers. Carlos Zambrano overworked himself, but that wasn't Piniella's fault -- or Baker's.

And Piniella basically let the 2008 Cubs play. Unfortunately, he needed to perform the best managing job of his career, given the stakes and the unique pressure in this franchise, prepping the team for the postseason and then guiding them through the minefields of a short five-game series.

Piniella became stubborn to a fault with key components of his lineup. Buffeted by more questions about moving Alfonso Soriano out of the leadoff spot than any other issue in his career, he kept the streaky, strikeout-prone slugger at No. 1 far past the expirations date of Soriano's leadoff abilities. And refusing to move Derrek Lee down from No. 3 this season (Marlon Byrd was the logical replacement) despite an utterly impotent bat was inexcusable. It's almost as if the flexibility of 2007 evaporated. He was loyal to a fault to Soriano and Lee. You wonder if 1990 Reds manager Piniella would have been so unmovable.

And if Piniella said he preferred a running team, where were the jackrabbits? He settled for a team of right-handed sluggers, susceptible to right-handed pitchers' quality breaking balls, in a Wrigley Field that requires a full-time speed element no matter which way the wind blows. You wish he had hectored Jim Hendry for speed the way Ozzie Guillen did with Kenny Williams on designated hitters.

A widespread public feeling that Piniella should have simply gone home when he announced his retirement July 20 ignored several facts. Piniella, who already had walked away from a awry Tampa Bay Rays gig, did not desire to leave a lasting image as a quitter. Plus Tom Ricketts doesn't have the megabucks -- especially in a year of drooping attendance -- to pay two managers, one having gone home.

You wish interim manager Mike Quade well in a thankless job.  Having been named an official candidate by Hendry for the 2011 manager's job, Quade has the thankless task of selling himself by somehow salvaging something from the Cubs' wreckage the final six weeks. Quade is a hyper-kinetic guy, full of energy that has long been drained from Piniella. He's also a good quote without the malaprops or outbursts of Piniella.

Others, led by Ryne Sandberg, have to be ahead of Quade despite Hendry's assurance he has no favorites now. No matter how badly the Cubs finish, Quade needs to be taken care of in some positive way by Hendry for being the good soldier. One peanut-gallery idea advanced Sunday was Quade serving as Sandberg's bench coach. Possible, although you might want a former manager with more experience in that job. Poor Alan Trammell -- he already was eliminated from consideration by Hendry. Trammell obviously won't stay in a place where he's been knocked out of the managerial derby when it's hardly even gotten started.

In the end, ruminating over Piniella or any other Cubs manager's strengths and foibles does no good until the Cubs field the best baseball organization in the business. They had one example come through town during the weekend in the Braves. Another blew past the White Sox into first place the past 10 days -- the Twins. Forget this obsession with mimicking the Red Sox. Look at teams that regenerate themselves from within, and then add the financial abiity to add a free agent or trade for a big-name player to plug select holes, not stock the lineup and pitching staff.

Bobby Cox may tear up on his final day coming soon. Knowing Ron Gardenhire, he may have a jolly laugh on his last day as Twins manager, whenever that comes. Neither will have reason to shed tears over seasons gone wrong. The Cubs will have truly arrived when a future manager soaked in champagne mixes tears to slobber over the commissioner's trophy. Too bad Piniella, Baker, Baylor, Jim Riggleman et. al. didn't have the chance to show that real men can show their emotion over the ultimate positive in baseball.