"Right there," Chicago Cubs general manager Jim Hendry joked, eyeing Piniella while conversing with a small group of reporters. "That's our team in a nutshell."
Indeed. Nothing about the Cubs in 2007 has been pretty. They've endured a dugout brawl, a major power outage, clubhouse strife and wild inconsistency from their best pitcher. It has been a season, frankly, not all that unlike the one Piniella endured as a player with the Yankees 30 years ago.
That campaign was so memorable, it was the subject for a book and the basis for the ESPN series, "The Bronx is Burning." And if the Cubs' season winds up the same way that one did for the Yankees -- with the team's first World Series championship in 99 years -- then the North Side of Chicago may well burn, too.
But let's not get ahead of ourselves. For now, the Cubs' lot is a good one, but it's anything but stable. They led the Milwaukee Brewers by 11/2 games and the St. Louis Cardinals by four in the National League Central, but given the sad-sack nature of that division, they hardly can be called a juggernaut.
Still, as Hendry said, this is the place they anticipated being back in the spring. And since it took them the season's first 145 days to establish this big a margin, they might as well enjoy it.
Heaven knows they've come through some serious turbulence to get here.
"We all felt like we had a pretty good team coming out of spring training," Hendry said. "So it was surprising how poorly we played. Then the frustration just kind of boiled over."
Of course that's old news by now, but it bears repeating because you can't tell the story of Piniella's Cubs without it.
Eight weeks from the gate, Lou's crew was 22-29; the rotation's ace, Carlos Zambrano, was sulking and scuffling, because a pending ownership change shelved a contract extension; and the season was on the verge of imploding.
Then the Atlanta Braves came to Wrigley Field for three days.
On Day 1, Zambrano surrendered a late home run to lose 1-0 and responded by punching catcher Michael Barrett in the dugout, setting into motion Barrett's trade to the San Diego Padres three weeks later. On Day 3, with two more losses on the ledger, Piniella disputed an umpire's call, blew a gasket as only he can and drew a four-game suspension.
The Cubs are 44-30 since then, and Zambrano went 9-3 with a 2.20 over the next two months. Hendry said it is not a coincidence.
"It was one of those instances you can have with a team where you feel like your back is against the wall, and your season is going to go one of two ways," he said. "You're either going to pull together and turn things around, or you're going to go the other way and your season is going to be done."
All of which brings us back to that disheveled man in the dugout.
Wrigleyville is Piniella's fifth managerial stop, and his .517 winning percentage over 20 campaigns becomes even more impressive when you consider the three-year jail sentence he served on the top step of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays' dugout.
Piniella was 200-285 (.412) during that not-so-happy return to his hometown. Eliminate that from his record and his .536 winning percentage would rank him ahead of Tony La Russa.
"You have to have a guy on that top step who has to get everybody together," Hendry said of Piniella. "Lou knows how to do that. He has a history of doing that."
Nevertheless, this has been one of his better efforts. The Cubs threw $300 million at their problems after losing 96 games a year ago, and Piniella has succeeded in getting his high-profile stars to put their agendas aside.
He has mixed-and-matched his lineup superbly, helping the Cubs win in the wake of a serious injury to Alfonso Soriano (torn quadriceps muscle), a far-less-powerful bat from Derrek Lee (46 homers in 2005, but after a serious wrist injury in '06, only 14 this season) and yet another slide by Zambrano, who hasn't won since receiving (finally) an extension totaling five years and $91.5 million.
"It's a good group of guys that plays hard," former A's catcher Jason Kendall said of the team to whom he was dealt on July 16. "It reminds me a lot of last year. ... Guys play hard and play for each other."
Which, when you think about it, is as ideal a quality as you can want, no matter how it might look.
Contact Rick Hurd at email@example.com.
Around the horn
Items for this notebook were obtained from writers in other cities, Bill Arnold's Beyond the Box Score, various wire services and the Internet. Contact Rick Hurd at firstname.lastname@example.org and comment on his blog at http://blogs.contracostatimes.com/baseball/
What's more mind-boggling, 30 runs in one game or 25 runs over the final four innings? That's the question the Rangers inspired during their 39-run doubleheader Wednesday. The big rippers: Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Ramon Vasquez with seven RBI apiece.
1897 Chicago Colts
Any team holding a record that has lasted 110 years deserves a special mention every century or so. Thus, a tip of the cap to these Cubs ancestors, who with Cap Anson, Clark Griffith and Bill Dahlen, posted a mark (36 runs) even the Rangers' explosion couldn't top.
Brandon Webb, Diamondbacks
His 42-inning scoreless streak puts him in a class with Orel Hershiser (59), Don Drysdale (58), Bob Gibson (47)and Sal Maglie (45) for the longest such streaks since 1940. Once he allowed a run, he followed with six innings of one-run ball and halted his team's three-game skid.
What's more embarrassing, surrendering two grand slams, dishing up 29 hits or posting a bullpen ERA of 54.00? The Orioles did all that in the 30-3 humiliation against Texas. The big tippers: Brian Burres (ª IP, eight earned runs), Rob Bell (1-1/3, seven) and Paul Shuey (2, nine).
2006 Oakland Raiders
Any team that fails to put up 30 once during an entire season deserves a not-so-special citation. Thus, a plug of the nose to Al Davis' bunch for keeping this from being a football-free zone.
Billy Wagner, Mets
His blown save Thursday against the San Diego Padres came two nights after he allowed a tie-breaking run in another loss. He's posted two of his three blown saves in the past two weeks and has allowed five runs and 14 hits in 10ª innings since the start of August.
YOU DON'T SAY
BY THE NUMBERS
1. Angels Will deeply bruised wrist do what pitchers haven't done -- slow down Chone Figgins? 1
2. Red Sox Jonathan Papelbon becomes first Bosox to record 30 saves in consecutive seasons 2
3. Mariners Fatigue will be biggest challenge as they finish season with 44 games in 45 days 3
4. Yankees Andy Pettitte 5-0 this August, 44-16 lifetime in dog days, and 68-33 career following N.Y. loss 5
5. D'backs Brandon Webb retired 37 of 42 first hitters during his 42-inning scoreless run 4
6. Mets Billy Wagner's recent slide -- one blown save, one loss -- has Flushing fans in a panic 7
7. Padres So much for winning with pitching and defense; offense produced 40 hits in two wins at Mets 6
8. Indians Reversal of strategy: Manager Eric Wedge moves Grady Sizemore back into leadoff spot 9
9. Cubs Carlos Zambrano still trying to get his groove back after allowing 13 runs in past 12-1/3 IP 13
10. Tigers Free-falling AL champs get only one more series against AL Central-leading Indians 8
11. Phillies Chase Utley on target for return Monday to an offense that badly needs him 10
12. Braves Mark Teixeira driving in runs, driving up viewers; TBS local ratings up 72 percent since arrival 11
13. Dodgers Jonathan Broxton's 96ª-inning streak of not allowing HR ends as fifth-longest since 1958 19
14. Rockies Pennant hopes were nice while they lasted, but real splash should come next season 12
15. A'S Crowded waiting room: At least five players have been on the DL every day since April 23 16
16. Twins It's still not too late for them to make a serious charge in AL Central 15
17. Cardinals Only Connie Mack and John McGraw ever managed more games than Tony La Russa 17
18. Brewers Priority No. 1 no matter how this season winds up: Learn how to catch the ball 18
19. Blue Jays After one year moving up the ladder, they're entrenched in third place again 14
20. Reds Fantasy alert: Jeff Keppinger hitting .373 with only five strikeouts in 123 ABs 26
21. White Sox He can't be serious: Ozzie Guillen may bat Jim Thome first to aid chase for 500 HRs 20
22. Royals Not a bad find: Brian Bannister first K.C. rookie since 1992 to win at least 10 games 22
23. Rangers How long will it take them to score their next 30 runs? 27
24. Orioles Kevin Millar reaches base in 50 straight, breaks Ken Singleton's 30-year-old team mark 21
25. Pirates Something to build on? They have multiple 10-game winners for the second straight year 28
26. GIANTS AT&T Park's atmosphere feeling more like Dodger Stadium with each passing game 29
27. Nationals Manny Acta ought to receive more than passing consideration for Manager of Year 25
28. Astros One upside to such a down year: Time to unveil top prospect LHP Troy Patton 24
29. Marlins No sophomore jinx here: Hanley Ramirez becomes franchise's first with 40 steals, 20 HRs 23
30. Devil Rays In 16 career starts, Jason Hammel has never departed with a lead 30