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North Side blues

CHICAGO – Heh.

That was how Lou Piniella described his job Saturday morning. In between two seminal events in the Chicago Cubs' season – starter Carlos Zambrano auditioning for the next version of "The Contender" on catcher Michael Barrett's face Friday and Piniella's own kicking-and-screaming meltdown that got him booted from Saturday afternoon's loss to Atlanta, the Cubs' sixth straight – Piniella grasped for the right way to explain his first season on the North Side.

"Managing the Cubs," he said. "Heh."

He's starting to get it. The carefree Piniella who trotted around the Cubs' spring-training complex, belly over belt and looking like a shaven Santa Claus, is about as distant as the North Pole. No one inhabits Wrigley Field without leaving unscathed, not even those gifted a dandy new roster laden with $300 million worth of free-agent contracts.

Forget the billy goat, forget Steve Bartman and forget whatever other excuses exist. The Cubs, no matter their talent, are a flawed team – one piece from 25 different puzzles – and that dawns on Piniella more by the day. So, running out of ploys, knowing full well that a classic Lou blowup would make the Zambrano-Barrett aftermath the second biggest sports story in town, he turned powder keg.

The situation mirrored dozens of others this season. The Cubs make a dumb mistake, in this case Angel Pagan stopping at second base without looking at the third-base coach on a should've-been triple. The Cubs compound that mistake, as Pagan tried to steal third on a ball that trickled away from Braves catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia and was thrown out.

Well, this time, Piniella thought Pagan was safe. He tromped out of the dugout, ran up to third-base umpire Mark Wegner and threw his hat to the ground. Wegner ejected him immediately, and that sent Piniella into a head-bobbing, lip-flapping, dirt-kicking conniption.

It was a good tantrum, even by Piniella's high standards. The consequences could be severe, too, if Piniella clipped Wegner's leg during his Rockette act, which crew chief Bruce Froemming alleged. Piniella denied it, though he did admit replays showed Pagan was out.

"I was going to argue whether he was out, safe or whatever," Piniella said. "It didn't make a damn bit of difference."

Which goes along with the ethos Piniella espoused earlier in the day: "I'd rather have a little wildfire than no fire at all." At very least, the Zambrano-Barrett fracas – which started in the dugout after Zambrano publicly excoriated Barrett's play, then spilled all the way back into the clubhouse – showed Piniella that the Cubs weren't on a ventilator. Barrett escaped with welts under both eyes and six stitches in his lip, and Zambrano, though relatively unscathed physically, damaged his reputation heading into free agency this offseason.

Piniella met with both separately Saturday morning and plans to meet with them together Sunday or Monday. Such get-togethers are getting tiresome.

"I've had more meetings here in two months with players," Piniella said, "than I've had in my entire career managing all these other places that I've been."

Before he went to Tampa Bay in 2003, Piniella had known success almost exclusively. He won a World Series with Cincinnati in 1990 and 116 games with Seattle in 2001.

Now he watches the Cubs affix leeches to themselves on a daily basis. In the 230 days since Piniella took over the Cubs, he has seen general manager Jim Hendry go on a legendary spending spree, Kerry Wood injure himself falling in a hot tub, Mark Prior undergo arm surgery, the contract extension negotiations with Zambrano swirl down the toilet, the Cubs blow almost a dozen games with stupid errors and a 22-31 record that leaves them in fifth place in baseball's worst division, eight games back of first-place Milwaukee.

"I've gone through my freshman and sophomore year in two months," Piniella said. "I've gotten a quick education."

What has he learned?

Well, first, advertising slogans really work: "What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas." That was Zambrano's cute way of saying that he didn't want to offer the details of what happened in the clubhouse with Barrett, though we can presume it included some choice words, closed fists and grunting.

Also, the transitive property: "I'm a human being. Humans make mistakes. Therefore, I make mistakes." That was Barrett going all Confucius on us.

And, finally, the value of vulnerability: "People think it looks easy, but it's not easy." That was Piniella himself, raw and honest and real, far more so than the show he put on at third base.

In Piniella's mind, that production served a great purpose: He wanted to show he still cared, that after tweaking the lineup and holding meetings and emphasizing fundamentals he had left himself a bullet.

Well, he fired it.

And the man who goes to what figures to be a long fight with an empty gun usually doesn't last too long.

"I'm proud to be here," Piniella said. "I get a thrill every day of putting on a uniform and walking out on Wrigley Field and watching this team play. I really do. It's something special. This city is wonderful. It's a great sports town. People love their baseball.

"We've just got to give them a better product. That's all. And that's what I was brought in here to do. I hope I don't get judged by my start. Just give me time to get this thing straightened out."

Heh.