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Monday, July 22

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Cubs in Five

Skipper Search for a Sinking Ship
Jeff Webber

Dusty Baker still isn't fired? For crying out loud.

Well, it's gonna happen sooner or later, and when it does, here are some names you're going to hear thrown about as a possible replacement.

One: The Boring, Obvious, No Imagination In-House Candidate: Bob Brenly
Anyone who has snoozed their way through a Cubs TV broadcast over the past two years can tell you that Cubs on-air analyst Bob Brenly is no one to get excited over. I'm actually fairly certain I heard him bore himself to sleep during a Cubs-Pirates game last year. Still, the man's got a World Series ring on his finger (from skippering the 2001 Diamondbacks) and Cubs GM Jim Hendry may hope he can pull something off again. Best news if Brenly gets the job: he leaves the Cubs broadcast booth. Bring back Steve Stone!

Two: The Holy Crap Wouldn't That Be a Good Idea But It Will Never Ever Happen Choice: Bobby Valentine
Winning track record? Check. Thick skin for handling media? Check. Adept at handling a wide array of personalities? Check. Strong personality and the ability to quickly make over a team in his own image? Check. Bobby Valentine is crazier than a craphouse rat, but he wins. And with the Mets, he did it holding lunkheads like Bobby Bonilla and Rickey Henderson in check with one arm and the bloodthirsty NYC tabloids at bay with the other. Problem is, he's in Japan right now, where the Chiba Lotte Marines have given him unprecedented control of their franchise, letting him consult on everything from player moves to uniform decisions — a level of control that's right up the egomaniac's alley. Still, Bobby V. loves the spotlight, and if the Cubs can shake up their team enough to make it look like they can win again, he might not be able to resist the challenge.

Three: Chris Speier: Cheap Bastard Choice, or, Rabbit Out of a Hat?
If the Cubs decide to promote third-base coach Chris Speier to manager, it'll be hard to get a read on exactly what to expect. On the one hand, it will be hard to see the slate as really being cleared if the new manager comes from the old coaching staff. On the other, Speier is well-known to be one of "Hendry's boys," the scattered members of the coaching staff who have their jobs not out of association with Dusty Baker but out of allegiance to GM Jim Hendry. Hiring him would be Hendry's way of saying the team wasn't really in such dire straits, it just needed Baker gone and a realignment with the GM's own way of thinking. Hard to say what Speier would be like as a big-league manager... he's never even managed in the minor leagues as far as I know.

Four: Grow Your Own Ozzie Guillen: Fredi Gonzalez
Maybe the Cubs will want to eschew big name, experienced managers and go for a first-timer, hoping to catch lightning in a bottle like the Sox did with Ozzie Guillen. If that happens, look for Braves coach Fredi Gonzalez to get the call. He's unexperienced as a manager, but he'd be cheap and would likely be content to take the job for the remainder of the season on an audition basis. This would give the Cubs the chance to see if Gonzalez could transplant some of Bobby Cox's smooth professionalism and winning ways into the Wrigley clubhouse. And, if it didn't work out, they could try something else for 2007.

Five: Lou Piniella: A Big Heaping Helping of Foot in Your Ass
Tired of watching Aramis Ramirez jog around the bases when he should be sprinting? Sick of Mark Prior crying about a sneeze? Former Yankees, Mariners, Reds and Devil Rays skipper Lou Piniella is the kind of old school hardass who will have absolutely none of that. Is he the right personality to bring the Cubs back to contending? Who the hell knows. But if your frustrations with the current team have you thinking maybe Dusty was coddling a collection of loafers and malcontents, Lou Piniella is your man.

Sox in Five

Slumps and Chumps
by Steve Gozdecki

One: It's Never a Good Time to Lose Five of Six, But This Is a Riiiiiillly Bad Time to Do So
So, have you heard the one about the World Series champions who avoided the off-season complacency that hinders most champs, made some nice upgrades, and then suddenly became, like, the worst team ever? Yes indeed, the rampant macro White Sox bashing (as opposed to the micro bashing I dabble in) continued on this past week, with the team's recent poor play magnified by the four days off they had at the All Star Break. Meaning that two weekends ago, when they lost two of three at home against the Boston Red Sox, and this past weekend, when they traveled to the Bronx and suffered their first series sweep of the season against the New York Yankees, the news has been all bad Sox, all the time. Let's reverse this trend against them paper Tigers of Detroit.

Two: Hurly Buehrle and Unsteady Freddy
Have I mentioned lately that this year's starting rotation makes me a little nervous? Freddy Garcia has been troubling all year, ever since he proved unable to break 90 with his fastball back in the season's first few weeks. Of late, he's been downright dreadful, with a 6.75 ERA over his last four starts. Of course, those are stats that Mark Buehrle would kill for, as he has posted a 10.13 ERA over that same time span. The difference is, Buehrle is throwing with the same stuff he has always had (though the balls have not been thrown where they should be, resulting in hitters sending them a long way), while Garcia is trying to make the difficult transition from power pitcher to finesse pitcher, a move that claims the careers of the majority of pitchers as they age. Garcia's "big game" reputation may still give him some value on the trade market, and there has been chronic talk of just that lately. The next few weeks will tell whether it's all just so much smoke or if the team can in fact get a player or two of value for this oft-doob-ious performer.

Three: Falling off a Cliff
Few things have to be more stressful for a major league general manager than playing the annual round of reliever roulette. One year an aging pitcher goes out there and throws 80 or so nice innings; the next year he craps up the joint. Consider that in 2004, the world champion Boston Red Sox had a great 1-2-3 punch with Alan Embree, Mike Timlin and Keith Foulke — and the next year, two of those three guys were among the worst relievers in the game (while Mike Timlin was still Mike Timlin). Last year, the Cleveland Indians and your world champion Chicago White Sox had great bullpens, and this year both kinda stink. For the White Sox, the poster child of the bullpen decline would be Cliff Politte, who failed as a closer in Toronto a few years back, posted league-average numbers for the Sox in 2004, pitched incredibly well last year, and completely fell apart this season. The problems posed by Politte's decline are compounded by Dustin Hermanson's bad back (he has yet to make an appearance in the majors this year), the offseason trade of Damaso Marte (who became a marginal figure in the 'pen last year anyway), and the slight regression by Neal Cotts, who is still the team's second-best reliever. At the same time, the Sox gambled and won big by taking Big Bobby Jenks after the Angels released him a few years back, and also has received some good innings from former Mariner Matt Thornton this year. So what I'm getting at here is that relief pitching is highly variable/unpredictable, and the uninspiring performance of this year's White Sox bullpen shouldn't be that big of a surprise despite last year's successes from the same group of guys.

Four: Caution — May Contain Vaguely Hitter-like Substance
While he's still only hitting .233 on the year with power just a smidge better than last year's rate despite his recent hot streak, Juan Uribe looks much improved at the plate over the last few weeks, briefly staying my frequent calls for his head. Kudos also to centerfielder Brian Anderson, who got his average back to .200 on Sunday as he continues his long, slow climb to semi-respectability with the bat. (And hey, maybe that whole facing lotsa lefties as part of a platoon arrangement is helping, too.) Unfortunately for those of us who have been following the rookie's progress, his once-stellar defense hasn't been quite as good of late, with some misreads on balls that he would've caught earlier this year and a continued lack of foresight/forethought regarding what base to throw the ball to after making a play.

Five: Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow
White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen apparently suffered a facial hair trimming accident over the weekend that led to him shaving it all off and appearing clean-shaven on Sunday for what may be the first time ever in his baseball career. From the mighty porn 'stache of his rookie campaign to his dangerously John Waters-thin Van Dyke of recent years, Ozzie has always been a bit fashion-backward with the crumb duster. Here's hoping that his new look helps reverse the team's recent misfortunes.

Fire in Five

Please Stop Asking Me When Soccer Will Get Popular In The US
by Steve Gillies

OK, so the World Cup's over now and hopefully that means I'll be able to go another four years without having to read another news story or listen to another radio call-in show telling me how much Americans like me don't care about soccer. The ratings have come in, and if you combine the ABC rating and the Univision rating (a lot of non-Spanish speakers tuned in to avoid the college basketball commentator), you're looking at a number that's up there with the World Series and the NBA Playoffs. So this myth about Americans not liking soccer is either flat out wrong, or it's coming from people with a very narrow idea of what an "American" is. Now if you want to argue with me that most Americans don't know or care about the MLS, well, you win. You're right. The challenge is getting Americans to believe that the MLS is good soccer, and that it's their soccer. And that brings me to my first point:

One: 16,000 People Came Out on a Wednesday Night, Mostly to Root for the Other Team
Wednesday night the Fire played a popular Mexican professional team, Club America, in an exhibition match. Other than a small but very vocal supporters group for the Fire, it felt like a home game for the Mexican team. You could look on the gloomy side, and say that here are a bunch of Chicago residents that won't support a Chicago team. In fact, they viewed the Chicago team with enough disdain that they actually booed the mascot. That's right, they booed a dalmation. Or you could be a pro like Chris Armas and realize that you've basically got 16,000 people who already like soccer coming out and getting exposed to your team. Armas, who many Mexican fans would recognize from World Cup Qualifying battles in the past decade, signed autographs for America fans, talked with them and generally behaved like the captain that he is. Unfortunately, the Fire management decided to view the opportunity more cynically, raising ticket prices for the game and fielding a weakened team (that didn't even feature Armas) to save the starters for Saturday's league game. While the reserves managed to string together a decent performance after a very shaky first 30 minutes and end up with a creditable 2-1 loss, a lot of Club America fans left that game without a real idea of what the Fire is capable of as a soccer team. So congratulations Fire management, you made a bit of money off the Mexican fanbase in Chicago for one night, but I don't think you made a lot of Fire fans.

Two: If You Live In Chicago, It's Actually Pretty Hard to Get To A Chicago Fire Game
My second trip to Toyota Park for a league game featured a very different audience from Wednesday's. Looking at the regular league crowd, I had to wonder if the Fire and the MLS aren't guilty of the same myopic view of "America" as all the soccer bashers. It's not just playing an insultingly weakened team against a Mexican opponent. There's also the issue that the games are very hard to get to by public transportation, which cuts out a huge amount of soccer fans living in the city. Watching the endless announcements of suburban youth soccer teams at the league game on Saturday I had to start to wonder why the Fire (and MLS) is really only aiming for such a small portion of the soccer audience in this country. OK, sure there was a giant, scary fight at the Club America game, and there are elements of that crowd that the Fire don't want to court. But that's a slim minority, and one that a decent security staff would be able to stamp out very quickly. The fact is that the Fire need to pull from the entire soccer fanbase if they want to survive, not just suburban kids and their parents. Maybe it's actually a good thing that the stadium was only half full for the Dallas game this weekend though. With the World Cup fresh in their minds, Americans have a pretty good idea of what good soccer looks like, and they sure wouldn't have seen it from the Fire this Saturday. Which brings me to my next point...

Three: We Need to Fire Our Manager — No This is not a Repeat of Cubs in Five
It's been three years and I've been patient. But I'm officially on the Fire Dave Sarachan bandwagon. Saturday's lead-blowing loss brought together far too many of Dave's faults as a coach and I can't defend him any more. In typical Sarachan fashion, he put out a starting lineup that featured a number of players playing in positions where they aren't comfortable. Diego Guitierrez, who has spent his entire career as a center midfielder or outside back, played sweeper behind two central defenders (CJ Brown and Dasan Robinson) who were forced to play further wide than normal. And for some reason, left back Ivan Guerrerro played in the center of midfield for most of the game. Unsurprisingly, this confused-looking defense gave up a goal within eight minutes.

Dave also has a track record of making substitutions that backfire on him. This Saturday he put Calen Carr in as a right midfielder (not his natural position) in order to move Logan Pause into the center of the midfield to provide a more defensive option than our playmaker, Thiago. With a 2-1 lead and 30 minutes to go the Fire basically stopped playing soccer and tried to sit on their lead. They've done this every time they've had a second half lead this season and the number of times it's backfired is astronomical. So it wasn't a surprise when in typical Fire fashion they proceeded to give up two goals, both of which came from substitute Carr's side of the field.

The most damning thing to me about Dave's tenure as coach though, is the absolute lack of heart his teams have shown. Too many games, I've seen them losing in the dying minutes at home without putting up any kind of fight. In Saturday's game the Fire, down 3-2, had a corner kick very late in stoppage time and didn't send goalkeeper Zach Thornton into the penalty area to try to get the equalizer. Sure, it would have taken a couple of minutes for him to get up there, but once a referee calls a corner kick, he lets the team take it. And think of the havoc that a man of Zach's corpulent mass could cause in the box. So why didn't they risk it and send him up? Were they scared of losing 4-2 instead of 3-2? Or was it the more likely fact that they just didn't think to do it, because they didn't care that much about losing at home?

Four: While We're at it, Can We Get Rid of Herron Too?
OK, so Costa Rican striker, Andy Herron, has finally repaid the faith that's been shown in him and started scoring goals (including a pretty amazing bicycle kick). Watching him play though, it's clear he still doesn't quite gel with the rest of the team. In case you're wondering, "doesn't quite gel with the rest of the team" is polite columnist speak for "he's a lazy headcase with a selfish streak." His second goal on Saturday came from an angle he shouldn't have shot from and he had an easy pass across the goal to an open teammate. He got very lucky that the Dallas goalie screwed up and let the ball through his legs. In the long run, that one goal will probably cost the Fire at least five this season, as it encouraged Herron's bad habits and most goalies won't let that kind of shot in. I say we trade him while someone out there might be fooled into thinking he's worth something. Maybe we could get a right midfielder for him. We've only needed one of those for about four years.

Five: On the Bright Side, Justin Mapp's Hair has Been Looking Really Good Lately
I certainly don't want to become one of those cranky fans that does nothing but complain about his team and take a perverse sense of pride in their failings. And really, there are a lot of talented young players on this team. So I'm going to say a few nice things about the Fire here. Justin Mapp, ever since he came back from his broken face, has been going out there every game and playing with really, really great hair. I don't know if he found some kind of new product during his injury break or if it's just the sun, but his hair has looked positively lustrous lately. I also have it on good authority from my ladyfriend that despite the fact that he runs like a girl, Nate Jaqua is quite a handsome man. So there you have it, ladies. It's under two hours to get there from the city, why not go to Bridgeview? Handsome men playing soccer!

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Comments

VinceJose / July 18, 2006 3:20 PM

I have to agree with Gillies that the Fire front office has done a terrible job of promoting long term fandom for the club. All those crazy ticket packs make my head spin.

JeffD / July 20, 2006 4:57 PM

Can you point to a source for the soccer ratings? I can't find an appropriate comparison like the one you make. I'd like to use the source, with actual numbers, if possible. Thanks!

Steeve Gillies / July 21, 2006 4:07 PM

Oh man, I have to back my half-baked assertions with cold, hard facts? To be honest I read an article that made that general claim without the hard numbers and I can't seem to find it now. I did, however, find an article with a lot of numbers here:
http://go.reuters.com/newsArticle.jhtml?type=domesticNews&storyID=12810370

My math (and knowledge of other sports) is kind of fuzz, but basically, combined for the final we're looking at 17 million. That's certainly not the Superbowl, but from what I've been told it's in the same territory as a World Series or NBA Championship game.

Jamie Trecker / July 21, 2006 5:44 PM

Actually, the final drew 10 million on ABC; worldwide it was closer to 3 bn and 34 bn cumulative.

WC2006 was the most-watched sporting event ever, according to Nielsen, anyway.

That aside, Steve's piece is pretty solid I'd hardly call them "Half-baked." I'm just pissed he beat me to the same topic because some national team coach got fired this week and I had to write about that...

Jamie Trecker
Senior Writer
Fox Sports/Fox Soccer Channel

 

About the Author(s)

Jeff Webber spends hours and hours every day taking in every printed, spoken, and broadcast word he can find about the Chicago Cubs, and each week till the end of the season he's boiling them down into five simple crib notes you can use to stay on top of any watercooler or corner bar Cubs discussion. Send comments to cubs@gapersblock.com.

Steve Gozdecki has been a White Sox fan his entire life, with the exception of an ill-advised flirtation with the 1984 Cubs in the days when his town wasn't wired for cable. Because he swears by the work of the "baseball outsiders," who believe that statistical analysis trumps old truisms like subjective evaluation and team chemistry, he found himself pleasantly surprised when the Sox won it all last year. Each week through the 2006 season, Steve will bring you five crucial talking points you can use the next time someone says, "Hey, how 'bout them Sox?" Send comments to sox@gapersblock.com.

Steve Gillies watches too much soccer to be completely healthy. He's been a Fire fan since he stood in a torrential downpour while the Fire beat New England 6-0 and he realized watching American soccer games in person was a lot better than watching European football matches on television. Each week he'll give you five things to talk about if you happen to get cornered by one of those soccer people at a party. Send comments to fire@gapersblock.com

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