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Morning Briefing

Cubs, White Sox fall far short of great expectations

September 27, 2009|Rick Gano | Gano writes for the Associated Press.

CHICAGO — Lou Piniella's first meeting with Tom Ricketts was brief. Just a handshake after a victory at Wrigley Field.

"I said, 'Hopefully, that's the first of many, many more for you,' " Piniella told the prospective new owner of the Chicago Cubs.

Not so. There haven't been nearly as many victory handshakes and pats on the back as Piniella and the Cubs expected this season. After back-to-back division championships, the veteran manager has endured a season in which just about everything bad that can happen has happened, testing his grit and patience after 45 years in the game.

The Cubs aren't the only defending division champions whose season has been a major disappointment. Just go across town. White Sox Manager Ozzie Guillen said last week he was behind the fans who have been booing his underachieving team.

Last season, the Cubs and White Sox made the playoffs and there was talk of a reprisal of the 1906 World Series, when they met for baseball's championship.

Nearly a year later, it's simply time to think about next season.

Piniella has dealt with injuries to star players, underperformers and Milton Bradley, the mercurial outfielder who was finally suspended for the final two weeks of the season by General Manager Jim Hendry for conduct detrimental to the team.

Bradley was supposed to be the offseason addition that would give the Cubs a left-handed bat and get them past the first round of the postseason, where they'd fallen flat two straight years. Instead, Bradley struggled -- 40 RBIs in nearly 400 at-bats -- and didn't fit in with a franchise that is closing in on 101 years without a title.

Bradley has been sent home twice -- first by Piniella during a game against the White Sox in June after an angry outburst in the dugout that ended with Piniella yelling a profanity at him. Piniella apologized for his language the next day.

And after Bradley criticized the atmosphere around the Cubs as too negative and said he could see why they hadn't won in 100 years, the $30-million outfielder was sent packing for the season.

Throw in subpar seasons by Carlos Zambrano, Alfonso Soriano and last year's rookie of the year, Geovany Soto. Add injuries to Aramis Ramirez, Zambrano, Ryan Dempster, Ted Lilly, Soto and Soriano, and it's no wonder Piniella joked on his 66th birthday last month: "I feel like I'm 76."

Several months ago, Piniella wouldn't confirm that he would return next season. He has since said he is planning to come back to honor the final year of his deal.

His critics early in the season said he was too laid back and had lost that fire that was part of his cap-throwing, dirt-kicking, base-heaving persona from early in his career, when he managed the Yankees, Reds and Mariners. Two years ago, in his first season with Chicago, the Cubs took off after one of those tantrums, but they have ceased to be a major part of his style.

Instead, he's tinkered with batting orders, switched lineups and tried about everything he could to get his team going.

"I take these losses hard. I don't enjoy losing, I really don't," he said. "It's been a struggle this year, no question, but again, there's some good talent here and with a little touch here and a little touch there we could be right back where we were last year."

Piniella did say fans should blame him for the team's shortcomings, often a familiar refrain for managers during a disappointing season.

"You want to blame me? Take your shots. It doesn't bother me one bit, OK?" he said.

A similar cry came from Guillen, who said he'd shoulder the responsibility for the White Sox's dismal finish.

Guillen's frustrations surfaced again last week in Seattle when he questioned his team's effort at the end of a 14-inning loss to the Mariners. He said the lack of focus over the final five innings bothered him so much he was tempted to run on the field and congratulate Seattle's Ichiro Suzuki for the game-winning hit.

Earlier, during a drubbing at Yankee Stadium, Guillen said he'd seen better baseball played during the Little League World Series.

"This is not major league ball," he said. "I'm getting a lot of money to manage this team, and I feel like I'm stealing money from [Chairman] Jerry Reinsdorf."

Throwing his team under the bus is nothing new for Guillen when he gets frustrated. It's Ozzie being Ozzie.

At one point, Guillen even went so far as to say that if management didn't like the job he was doing or wanted to go in another direction, they should let him go -- even though he is under contract through 2012.

"Unpredictable" is how Guillen described his team's erratic offense. And the defense? The White Sox, with a young infield, have committed more than 100 errors.

"The most frustrating thing is you don't know why," first baseman Paul Konerko said of the team's lack of consistency. "The effort given by everybody has been no different than the playoff teams I've been on."

Jake Peavy, brought in to bolster the starting staff at the trade deadline and make a push in September, just came off the disabled list and pitched his first game since June.

Outfielder Alex Rios, a former All-Star claimed off waivers from Toronto, has been an offensive bust. Veteran Jermaine Dye, the MVP of the 2005 World Series, is batting under .200 since the All-Star break. Ace Mark Buehrle put up a perfect game and then posted just one win in the next two months.

And just as Cubs fans have booed this season -- many of them directed at Bradley -- the White Sox are getting an earful as well.

"In the past I get mad at the fans for some stuff they do with no reason, but right now I'm behind them 100%," Guillen said. "They are right."

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