- Jon Greenberg, Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
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CHICAGO -- "Like I said, I know everybody thinks I'm nuts ..."
Famous first words from Rick Renteria, the new manager of the Chicago Cubs, a man who challenged the Cubby Gods on his first day in office by saying, "It'll probably be very rare for you to see me without a smile on my face, even in difficult times."
Sure, Rick. Because if there is one thing Cubs managers are known for, it's smiling. If Crest were a Cubs sponsor, that brand would be defunct.
We couldn't see Renteria's pearly whites after he accepted his fate as the 53rd ex-manager of the Cubs, but after a 30-minute teleconference I think he realized he was the only guy smiling.
Recuperating from hip surgery in Southern California, Renteria talked to reporters over a conference call Thursday afternoon, and he exuded a clear sense of optimism in talking about taking over a team that lost 197 games the past two seasons and is in the crux of a massive structural and existential rebuilding project.
In talking to reporters, Renteria acted like the typical manager on the day he gets hired, when he envisions every ground ball is handled with ease and every belt-high fastball is smoked into the bleachers. Renteria sees nothing but W flags in his future.
"I mean, if I was to come in here and assume we were going to lose, well, what kind of expectations am I laying for the players here?" Renteria said. "The reality is my expectation is we're going to compete and win."
Reality is a funny word to use when you're talking about winning. The Cubs haven't been about winning for years.
So, no, we don't think you're nuts, Rick, we just think this job is going to be difficult for a first-time manager with a sunny disposition.
This isn't San Diego, where you coached on one winning team in six years. This isn't Pittsburgh, Seattle and Florida, where you played on losing teams in the 1980-90s.
Renteria won a managing award at Kane County in 1999, but Chicago isn't Geneva, Ill.
You know, Dale Sveum thought he was going to whip this team into shape, too. People said the same things about Sveum in 2011 as they did about Renteria. But it didn't work out. Losing rarely does.
The Cubs fired Sveum, in part, because he wasn't positive enough for his struggling young players. Communication sometimes seemed lax and generally the environment soured after two straight seasons that resulted in summer sell-offs. There weren't any fights, but the two best players, Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo, had bummer seasons.
Renteria, a Southern Californian through and through, seemingly has the good cheer, and baseball acumen, to finish up the nastiness of a franchise "renovation." He's well-respected as a "baseball man," and as he joked, a father of four in a perpetual youth movement.
"You can't find a bad word or even a neutral word on Rick Renteria," Cubs president Theo Epstein said. "We took our time and wanted to be thorough. We had the benefit of doing so. It was clear to us that Rick was the right man for the job."
But what's the job? Is it teaching young players? Is it creating a winning atmosphere? Is it actually winning games? It's all three, really. That's why it's so hard.
I'm all for the rebuilding plan going on here. Epstein, general manager Jed Hoyer and scouting guru Jason McLeod, among others, have done a widely praised job building that "foundation for sustained success."
The Cubs have stockpiled power bats in the minors and they'll come up in waves over the next few years. In a few years, if everything goes right, the Cubs will be a very young, very dangerous team with a lot of money to spend. When he fired Sveum, Epstein said the Cubs are "coming fast and the Cubs are coming strong."
That wasn't enough to lure Joe Girardi away from the Yankees, I guess.
Fans are excited for the fast and the strong. As Epstein would say, "baseball is better" when the baseball is better. This city needs a good Cubs team again.
While 2014 isn't looking like a breakout season for the Cubs, Renteria should get a chance to manage the star prospects currently in the minors, starting with Javier Baez, in the coming years. But first he needs to change the culture at Wrigley Field.
How will he deal with the players who have been scarred by the past few years?
"It might sound kind of crazy, but they happen to be human beings that are playing baseball," he said. "One of the biggest things that I know players need is confidence. I lend myself to that ability. Over the time I've been in the game, I've been able to impact the confidence of players."
You could see Castro and Rizzo need that confidence. Maybe Renteria is a guy they can believe in.
Part of that change is forgetting the past. Renteria, like every manager hired before him, doesn't want to talk about Cubby occurrences and 101-loss seasons. He doesn't want to dwell on the prospects of another losing season.
"I think there's a lot of talent here," he said. "All I can do is keep my positive attitude and my direction leaning forward. I understand what's behind us, but quite frankly, I've got to keep leaning forward."
No one expects Renteria to win, to really win, with the talent he has on the current roster. Maybe in 2015 or 2016. Definitely by 2017.
While he's stressing smiles and positive thinking, Renteria knows that outside expectations are minimal for this season, with "an understanding that everybody is going to possibly just count us out."
"My personality doesn't allow for being counted out," Renteria said.
I'm not sure Renteria has any idea what he's in for here, but I'll be watching to make sure that smile never disappears.
New Cubs skipper Rick Renteria exudes a clear sense of optimism when it comes to the team's future, writes Jon Greenberg.