Monday, March 05, 2007

the prince

lou piniella is an angry man.

it is spring training, to be sure, but we are almost three weeks distant from the initial reporting date of pitchers and catchers and piniella is getting a handle on what he has in the cupboard. and it must be a bit frustrating to try to evaluate, teach, mold and reform in the environment he has inherited from dusty baker.

baker, of course, was one of the most grotesquely irresponsible and enabling field managers imaginable, whose laxity and evasiveness created a clubhouse culture which tolerated just about anything -- including players calling up to the pressbox during games to complain about the criticism being leveled in television commentary, relief pitchers napping in the clubhouse, on- and off-field demonstrations of total self-absorption and childlike petulance, and an inability to execute basic strategy within the lines that haunted the team persistently. it is completely unsurprising to this page that baker remains without a job -- his charade was exposed in chicago, and he will need a long and unlikely rehabilitation of his image to ever be considered again.

confronting the remains of that dissipative environment has been piniella's first task, and it is one this page very much enjoys watching him perform -- but it won't necessarily be easy. in watching the superstation broadcast of sunday's tilt -- a terrible clubbing at the hands of the white sox in which the cubs played with even less spirit than is to be expected in a meaningless exhibition -- this writer wondered aloud (having watched aramis ramirez fail to make it halfway down the line on a groundball to short) if piniella was having trouble with it.

comments today give some shred of evidence that he is.

"I've only been here four days, but I certainly don't like what I see," Piniella said. "I'm being truthful. There's a whole lot of work to do. But I guess that's why we're in spring practice."

What's bothering Piniella the most?

Is it the .230 team batting average? The 9.32 earned-run average?

"I'm talking about everything," he said. "We walk people, and right after the walks come the [home runs]. The ball carries well in Arizona, but it seems like it's only carrying for the other side right now."

The Cubs have been outhomered 9-4 this spring after serving up five Sunday to the White Sox. Juan Mateo gave up a three-run homer to Jermaine Dye after two walks and a solo shot to Rob Mackowiak two batters later.

"Who likes to lose?" Piniella said. "Now does the win-loss record in spring training mean anything? The teams that win the most games in spring training usually don't do nearly as well during the regular season. But at the same time, you'd like to see games competitive … but we're getting lopsided here.

"I can't do anything about it right now. I've got to keep running these people out, because we need numbers. But I'll do something about it when it's cut time. And then we'll do something about it awfully quick."

Piniella reiterated that Cactus League wins are relatively meaningless.

"But at the same time," he said, "it'd be nice to win a ballgame once in a while."

piniella is ostensibly talking about wins and losses -- the cubs are 0-3 with a tie, having been outscored 36-15 -- but anyone who watched the game must know that the reason he is giving vent at this early stage -- when wins and losses mean nothing and even hits, walks and home runs allowed indicate very little -- is because of the dismal effort on display at hohokam. they were visibly outclassed by the sox. this looks like a team playing with a hangover.

piniella knows he has the trump card to play over the kids.

"We're getting lopsided here," he said. "I can't do anything about it now. I have to keep running these people out because we need numbers. When I can do something about it is cut time, and then we'll do something about it, and hopefully quick."

but it's pretty hard to convincingly threaten free agents and veterans, who understand their security and are unfortunately also those most set in their ways.

machiavelli long ago noted the difficulty in subjugating a city accustomed to a republic of its own laws to the authority of a new prince -- his favored methods of ingratiation under such circumstance were total destruction, intimidation from outside (enforcing the collection of tribute) or intimidation from within (residing within the city). given sweet lou's position not as a 13th c condottieri but as a ballclub manager, destruction is unlikely -- but intimidation as a strategy for instilling a durable loyalty will have to be one adriotly executed indeed. it certainly suits piniella's inherent disposition -- but whether he can muster the tact to indimidate without inspiring a lethal hatred remains to be seen.

one avenue would be (again referencing the florentine political philosopher) to strike an agreement of tribute, making vassals of his star players. this -- for all its manifest popularity in today's game -- is an unreliable method, one suited neither to complete control nor to the suppression of insurrection. (nor, would this writer say, is it particularly suited to piniella's passions.) it seems more probable that piniella would be best served to intimiate from within -- to reside in their city, commanding their obedience, laying down law, mitigating rebellion and carefully dispensing patronage and modest clemency. such a path is fraught with difficulty and will be bumpy -- but it is absolutely necessary if this corrupted organization is ever to field a competent and motivated team in the aftermath of dusty baker's corruption. this page, for one, wishes uncle lou the very best of fortune.

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