August 19, 2011
The message that many Chicago Cubs fans had longed to hear was finally delivered on Friday.
Jim Hendry is out as the team's GM after nine World Series-free years on the North Side.
The way that owner Tom Ricketts made the move, however, was not as encouraging.
Ricketts said he came to the decision on July 22 and informed Hendry of his dismissal at that time. But both sides agreed to not make it official or public until almost a month later — after the team had gone through both the July 31 trading deadline and Aug. 15 deadline to sign this year's draft picks.
There's a couple of problems with this. If Hendry wasn't the guy for the future, why did Ricketts keep him around for two of the three most important dates on the GM's calendar? Why let him make decisions that would impact a 2012 that he was not going to play any part in?
And from a more human standpoint, if Ricketts didn't want to "switch horses mid-stream" before both of those important deadlines, why not tell Hendry after he had steered the team through that pressure-filled month? Why yoke someone you describe as a "great guy" with the burdensome secret that he'd be on the unemployment line in a month?
The way that Hendry's dismissal was carried out speaks well of the ousted GM, but it does not speak well of a Ricketts ownership regime that has been less than inspiring since it took over at the start of 2010. The next baseball move it makes with any conviction will be its first.
That said, this was still a move that had to be made, even if the timing was notably awful. Despite his likable everyman persona and three division titles in his first six seasons, Hendry hadn't moved the team any closer to ending its century-plus World Series drought and the time for new leadership was overdue. Hendry hitched the team to a cart full of unmovable contracts — from Alfonso Soriano(notes) to Carlos Zambrano(notes) to Milton Bradley(notes) — and oversaw a minor league system that didn't bear enough fruit. Since winning 97 games in 2008, his teams had gone a combined 212-235.
"We didn't win enough games," Hendry told reporters at Wrigley Field.
It was interesting to hear Hendry admit that his enthusiasm to end the World Series slump may have contributed to pulling the trigger on some of those ill-advised contracts. What always drove me nuts about Hendry's tenure was the way he never announced any concrete plan or vision. His first full season was that magical run in 2003 and it always seemed as if Hendry expected that every big name he signed or traded for thereafter would deliver like Aramis Ramirez(notes) after he was shed by the Pirates. Every year was run as if the World Series was right on the doorstep and the cost of doing business was simply writing off the future after the title as mere collateral damage.
That's no way, of course, to run a franchise because it doesn't provide any escape hatch for the obstacles that popped up after that two-year window of 2003-04. There was no insurance for the quagmire of injuries that knocked Mark Prior and Kerry Wood(notes) from their path to superstardom, nor was there an alternate route to take after 2006, when a 96-loss year led to a "Hey, we're serious about winning, please come back to the Friendly Confines" eight-year $140 million signing of Soriano.
Under Hendry — and, to be fair, the last few years of a Tribune Company ownership that was looking to inflate the team's price tag — the Cubs became the sports car modded up with plenty of flashy and expensive add-ons with almost no attention paid to what was going on under the hood.
It probably goes without saying that this is really a huge turning point for the Cubs and how they do things. For the Ricketts and the Cubs to succeed going forward, they're going to have to pursue a candidate that actually buys their "Year One" strategy and doesn't feel the pressure of the interminable wait for a title. If the Ricketts family and Cubs fans really want the team modeled after the successes of the Boston Red Sox, it's not a facelift that's going to be completed in just one offseason. If the Ricketts bring in a guy and immediately order him to sign Albert Pujols(notes) because Wrigley Field had a lot of empty seats this year then, well, there was really no point in giving Hendry the boot.
But if the Ricketts can really go out and identify a smart candidate to lay down a solid baseball blueprint and — more importantly — give him the time to do so, they'll be putting themselves in a great position.
There will be no shortage of parties interested in becoming the one who finally engineers a World Series winner at Wrigley Field. Hopefully Tom Ricketts will do a better job of identifying that candidate than he did in finally letting Hendry loose.
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