Friday, June 23, 2006

let the axe fall

this page first began its dusty baker watch on july 8, 2005. and it has been a long time coming -- but finally the mainstream media is beginning to show that those first rumblings of dissatisfaction from the tower have led to a decision.

What can Baker and his staff do to stop the growing speculation that a change is on the horizon? Winning four straight games for the first time this year would be a good place to start. Or how about an 18-4 streak? It will have to be something gigantic.

Playing consistently smart baseball also would help. Having outfielders who are able to hit the cutoff man would be a sign someone is listening to something besides the endless racket of clubhouse music.

No, the Cubs can't hit, pitch or run. But managers are charged with setting the tone and being able to teach and adjust to ever-shifting challenges.

Cubs management truly expected to be giving Baker an extension, just as Hendry got his two-year extension in April. But those best-laid plans turned out to be written in pencil.

meanwhile, the mother ship is repeating what this page said a month ago -- this is a team of epic awfulness.

with the Cubs on pace for a 98-loss season, fans who leaped on the bandwagon in 2003 are jumping off. The remaining loyalists are left to compare the current edition with some of the most memorable losing teams of the team's glory-challenged past.

Despite taking two of three in Cleveland, the '06 Cubs go into Minnesota on Friday having lost 35 of their last 50 games, a mind-numbing .300 winning percentage. While there's still more than three months left to turn things around, on their current pace this year's team would finish with the fifth-worst winning percentage since their inaugural season of 1876—excluding the strike-shortened 1981 season.

it 2006 all dusty baker's fault? of course not. jim hendry and andy macfail have constructed one of the worst teams in cub history -- one that has underperformed every minimal expectation of this page, which was in retrospect wholly too optimistic about this season.

baker can only be held to account for how he manages the terrible players he is given. but that is not the reprieve that some who would rather hide from the completeness of this train wreck wish it was. baker has been singularly awful in just about every phase of the game.

tactically, baker is one of the most inept managers this writer has ever seen at the major league level. it is sometimes befuddling as to how a man so incapable of understanding even the simpler aspects of game management ever became a big-league manager. there are hundreds of cases to cite and whole chatroom threads dedicated to the incidents of ineptitude such that there needn't be a recitative here, but a recent favorite is the game dusty helped to lose by needlessly double-switching inferior defender john mabry into right so that he could make the game-losing error in the eighth -- and, of course looming over all the others, there was baker's immortal panic attack in game six of the 2003 nlcs, in which he fell asleep at the switch and had no one up in the pen in the eighth for a visibly wilting mark prior; then, with disaster well underway and kyle farnsworth finally ready, brought on the reliever in a fit of confusion only to ask him to issue an intentional walk.

strategically, it is equally clear that baker is weaker than most. infamous comments and actions from "base-clogging" to lineup construction litter his record. of particular concern to this page is his long record of being one of the most abusive managers in the game to young starting pitching, a seemingly fatal flaw for kerry wood and mark prior. it is impossible to measure with confidence how much damage baker's tragicomical "strategery" have done to this team over time -- but what is certain is that he has done the team no favors and accorded it little if any advantage by his strategic actions.

it's also become clearer than crystal that baker and his staff simply do not handle young talent well. matt murton's failings this season may or may not be related to the coaching he's receiving, but the adventures of korey patterson in baltimore have opened some eyes in chicago as to how the baker regime may be holding player development back. watching prospect ryan theriot be called up to the disaster that is second base in 2006 and not even be used while useless transients like tomy womack are given starting jobs on a team going nowhere was infuriating; equally so has been the ridiculous shuttling of pitching prospects rich hill, angel guzman, jae-kuk ryu and carlos marmol back and forth between chicago and iowa while trash like glendon rusch continued to hold down a roster slot and even made spot starts. those who imagine baker is not part of this problem are deluding themselves. baker has significant say over who plays and who goes to iowa, and is as indictable as hendry on these counts.

but what may have surprised many is how devastating baker has been as a people manager. the cubs have too frequently behaved like a bunch of degenerate children on the field under baker's unleadership, from moises alou to carlos zambrano to michael barrett -- and the clubhouse too often radiates telltale signs of a team out of control, from bullpen pitchers sleeping in the clubhouse to boombox-smashing mysteries. his willingness to unleash the child within the man and refuse to enforce any accountability upon his crew cannot be said to have aided this club in any way -- indeed, one wonders how his unwillingness to force an inconvenience like daily practice upon his players has contributed to the laughable circus that takes the field daily, from regularly missed cutoff men to pitchers commonly forgetting to cover first to a tragic inability of many players to effectively lay down a bunt.

on this record, it seems abundantly clear that baker is simply a poor baseball manager with no outstanding qualities -- eminently replacable by just about anyone the cubs would now interview for the position (and many who they wouldn't). in retrospect it seems that baker had only really been granted the job in the first place due to his celebrity status as an aid in selling tickets, a ploy which was arguably successful. as one interested in winning, however, this page can not see the back of him quickly enough, and the pleasure derived from seeing his tenure come to an end will only be exceeded by seeing the tenures of andy macfail and indeed the tribune ownership end -- and, of course, by the turnaround in some distant age of the chicago national league ballclub from a perpetual loser to a winning franchise, an event in all likelihood predicated on these last three. needless to say, canning baker would be a step in the right direction.

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