Commentary

Change has come to Cubs

Forget bison dogs and new bathrooms; real progress was made in ousting Hendry

Updated: August 20, 2011, 12:13 AM ET
By Jon Greenberg | ESPNChicago.com

CHICAGO -- Earlier this summer, Jim Hendry, then the embattled general manager for the Chicago Cubs, not the former, was talking about his upcoming trip to Omaha, Neb., for the 20th anniversary of the College World Series team he managed at Creighton.

It would be a welcome break during a miserable season. The celebration was to take place at TD Ameritrade Park, the new stadium named for the company that gave the Ricketts family the enormous wealth it took to buy the Cubs.

"Do you get any special perks?" I asked.

"I don't think I'm really in the position to ask for any perks," he said, laughing as he walked away.

Jim Hendry
AP Photo/Charles Rex ArbogastJim Hendry was a popular and respected general manager, but few would disagree that it was time for him to move on.

A month later, he was fired.

The Jim Hendry era, which resulted in three division titles and one franchise-defining collapse, ended four weeks ago in his office at Wrigley Field, when Tom Ricketts made his first big decision in two years of owning the club.

In 34 years, spanning four jobs, the 56-year-old Hendry had never been fired. He built a winner here in 2003 and went for broke in 2007-08. He kept his job as the organization changed hands, but Ricketts and his siblings finally pulled the plug as the team battled through a second dismal season.

"Tom Ricketts is a good man," Hendry said. "We just didn't win enough ballgames. That's the bottom line. It's professional baseball. We didn't win enough games over a couple years."

If only the marketing department had been clued in to Hendry's private exit. It could have sold tickets to lusty fans. That's something people would pay for. The Cubs could have brought in Donald Trump for some slick cross-promotion.

"Trump fires Hendry and sings the seventh-inning stretch! It's a win-win!"

There were 42,343 at Wrigley on Friday, a season high. Saturday, they're firing manager Mike Quade. Sunday, they're firing Hendry again.

As his tenure waned, Hendry would have killed for President Barack Obama's current approval numbers. Fans hated him and everything he stood for as the steward of an overhyped, overpaid team that broke hearts annually.

Hendry's job status was a dominant topic for years, and if he were brought back for a lame duck season, it would have been a constant distraction and perhaps an albatross for a team that needs to rebuild.

I feel for Hendry, but it was time to go. This franchise needs a fresh start, and if the owners want to stop bleeding fans, it was necessary to make a move that said change is here.

Because truly, this is an organization that needs more than cosmetic fixes. New bathrooms and bison dogs don't mean much, and I do believe Tom Ricketts knows that.

Will he make the right hire to replace Hendry? It will be fun to find out.

"The search for a new general manager effectively begins today," Ricketts said Friday.

He'll have two dozen résumés on his desk by Monday. His email and voice mail will be full by Saturday morning. Heck, his phone rang during his news conference.

Hendry had his blind spots, but he was a better GM than some of his critics give him credit for. However, it was time to go in a new direction. I agree with Ricketts' decision. You won't find too many, outside of Hendry's closest associates, who thought he should stay.

Hendry I leave here with nothing but gratefulness to be part of this organization for 17 years. Not many get to do that. Not many get to be the GM for nine years without a world championship. I got more than my fair chances to do that. I'm disappointed in myself that we didn't do it in the first five to seven years when I thought we could.

-- Former Cubs GM Jim Hendry

To his credit, Hendry agreed he would stay on through the non-waiver trade deadline and last week's deadline to sign draft picks.

"It would've been easy to trade a few guys just so it looked like we were clearing the deck, you know, 'Jim's cleaning house,'" he said. "I think a few guys still really may want to be here, and the next general manager and Tom may still want them to be here. I felt, and I told Tom, that it's a really important winter. Moving forward the next person should be making the decision on those guys."

Ricketts defended his decision as being sound, but he shouldn't have had to. For whatever you think of Hendry, he's a consummate professional, and if he had left July 22, it would have hurt the organization. The team signed the guys it wanted to sign for a club-record $12 million.

One source who was in the room with Hendry when first-round pick Javier Baez signed said Hendry "acted like this guy would be playing third base for him for the next 10 years."

Hendry sacrificed some pride to make sure those picks were signed and his scouts' work didn't go unrewarded.

"He's worked hard these last few weeks," Ricketts said. "He never missed a beat. I think it's really a credit to his character that we were able to operate under that kind of awkward situation and do as well as we have done."

For those few weeks, Hendry said, he kept the news secret from all but a few people, but some of us doubt that. He's a consummate talker. However, he went about business, signing draft picks, trading Kosuke Fukudome and effectively ending problem child Carlos Zambrano's tenure with the organization.

All in all, quite a busy month for a guy on the gallows.

"It may be one of the best-kept secrets in Cubs history," Hendry said Friday morning during a 20-minute conversation with reporters in which he choked back tears. True to form, he made a joke about that, too.

"Once I stop acting like Dick Vermeil today," he said, when asked about his future plans. Then he started crying again about being a better dad.

Hendry's life for the past 17 years was the Chicago Cubs first and everything else second. Family, golf, his health, everything took a backseat to work. Now he finds himself a man without an organization.

"I leave here with nothing but gratefulness to be part of this organization for 17 years," he said. "Not many get to do that. Not many get to be the GM for nine years without a world championship. I got more than my fair chances to do that. I'm disappointed in myself that we didn't do it in the first five to seven years when I thought we could."

It was humbling to watch Hendry well up and say goodbye in the dungeon-like interview room, reminiscent of watching Lou Piniella exit baseball last season. But every story has an ending. Everyone leaves.

Well, except for Alfonso Soriano and Crane Kenney. I think they're here until End Times.

Hendry's hits and misses are well known by now. He stole Aramis Ramirez, Kenny Lofton and Randall Simon from the Pirates, and came within five outs of sending the Cubs to the World Series in 2003.

He traded for Nomar Garciaparra in 2004, which didn't help the Cubs from collapsing down the stretch.

On his tombstone, he's joked in the past, will be the words "He gave Milton Bradley a $30 million deal." That was his crowning disappointment, probably. He also was made the fall guy in the cumbersome Soriano deal, even though the excessive years were agreed to by his bosses. Still, it's on his résumé.

After 2008, Hendry became the scapegoat for all the Cubs' failures. Some of the mistakes are on him, and he wore the responsibility like it was one of his many short-sleeved dress shirts.

"Probably my enthusiasm a few years back and my aggressiveness to finally knock my door down probably led to a couple decisions I shouldn't have made, and ended up being not good for the organization," Hendry said. "It certainly didn't turn into more wins."

In February 2010, when he was greeting the early ticket buyers at Wrigley, I asked Tom Ricketts what it felt like knowing this was his house.

"I don't know about that," he said. "It's everyone's house."

Two disappointing seasons later, he's letting everyone know he's running things. He stressed that the new GM, like Hendry, will report directly to him. He said the prospective replacement should have a background in advanced statistics but not be slavish to them.

He said, repeatedly, that he won't be updating anyone on candidates or progress, but his front office is leakier than his ballpark.

The prospects will come fast and furious. My short list is former Dodgers executive (now working for MLB) Kim Ng, who, like three-quarters of the board of directors, graduated from the University of Chicago, and would be the first woman GM; Andrew Friedman, currently employed by the Tampa Bay Rays, who has a background in the financial world and a rep for being part of the new breed of sabermetricians; and Rick Hahn, the well-regarded assistant GM on the South Side.

The new GM surely will hire a new manager to replace Quade, and will have to fight to keep respected front-office workers Tim Wilken and Oneri Fleita, if they choose to stay. Fleita's office is next to Tom Ricketts', and the owner seems to like both men.

"The new general manager will report directly to me, and it will be my job -- as it has been since day one -- and my No. 1 priority to make sure that I give that general manager freedom to operate and all the support that they need to bring a championship team to Chicago," Ricketts said.

I hope that in a few years, the players drafted in 2011 pay dividends, and Hendry can look back with joy over the work he did after he was already fired. An organization man until the end.

After the Cubs' comeback 5-4 win in 10 innings Friday, the clubhouse opened to the media with Bob Marley blaring from the speakers. Life goes on.

"I shot the sheriff!" Matt Garza sang as he dressed near Zambrano's empty locker. "But I didn't shoot his deputy!"

Veterans such as Soriano and Ramirez lamented Hendry's firing.

"A lot of veteran guys are making a lot of money and not performing like they should," Ramirez said. "Somebody had to pay the price."

I don't know how Hendry will be remembered, but I will always think about how he got to the top.

Two springs ago, in a spartan dugout in Scottsdale, Ariz., he was talking about his start in the big leagues. He was a scout for the Florida Marlins, working under Gary Hughes.

"I was doing so good in scouting that in the middle of the 11th round, he called me to the front of the room," he reminisced Friday. "I thought it was to get my opinion on which player I wanted to take next, and he informed [me] that his secretary or assistant couldn't leave the computer, so he needed me to get the fat-free Fig Newtons at the grocery store."

Hendry said he swore and pouted all the way to the Publix. He was in his mid-30s and had passed up college coaching jobs to stay with the Marlins. But all the "tough love" paid off. It's a testament to what some are willing to do to achieve their dreams.

"I was Joe Hot Shot College Coach," he said. "Four years later, I ended up running the minor leagues here at the Cubs. I'm a very fortunate guy. Who gets to work in those four places for 34 years before he has to go home?"

It was a sad goodbye to the past Friday, but the future, finally, is now at Wrigley Field.

Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.

Jon Greenberg

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com. He has lived and worked in Chicago since 2003, and is a graduate of Ohio University and the University of Chicago.

SPONSORED HEADLINES

ALSO SEE

MORE MLB HEADLINES