New manager says it'll be a challenge; he's right

CHICAGO -- Well, it was interesting; I'll give Lou Piniella that much.

In the hour or so he spent at Wrigley Field talking to the media Tuesday, the newest Chicago Cubs manager sweated through his white dress shirt, casually flashed his 1977 New York Yankees World Series ring, declared all Billy Goat-related curses non-existent, accidentally referred to the White Sox as being on the city's North Side, and playfully proposed to increase the Cubs' crummy on-base percentage by "getting eight midgets up there and walk a lot."

Sure, why not? The Cubs will try anything if it means ending a World Series winless streak so old that it qualifies for Medicare. Not since 1908, when the USA was no bigger than 46 states, have the Cubs been world champions. Piniella is here to change that.

"If you look at the history, you say to yourself, 'OK, that's a challenge,' " said Piniella.

A "challenge?" Doing The New York Times crossword puzzle is a challenge. Fixing the Cubs is like splitting the atom in an airplane bathroom during an electrical storm.

The Cubs appear unsolvable. They are America's leading cause of gray hair, primal screams and sub-.500 records. Lovely Wrigley Field, whose famous red marquee flashed "Cubs Welcome Lou Piniella," is a managerial graveyard.

The latest tombstone to go up belongs to Dusty Baker, who four years ago arrived in Chicago with the same optimism and expectations as Piniella. They all do. They're going to change the culture of losing …they're going to turn the day games into a competitive advantage … they're going to prove once and for all that the franchise doesn't suffer from snake bites.

And then, like the ivy leaves that fall to the ground each winter, they're gone.

Baker, interims Bruce Kimm and Rene Lachemann, Don Baylor, Jim Riggleman, Tom Trebelhorn, Jim Lefebvre, Jim Essian, interim Joe Altobelli, Don Zimmer … all gone. And that's just since 1990. The Cubs haven't had a manager last longer than five seasons since Leo Durocher did it in the late '60s, early '70s. Your local McDonald's doesn't have this much employee turnover.

Piniella and Cubs general manager Jim Hendry said all the right things Tuesday. Well, most of the right things. Piniella is going to have to stop referring to Chicago's tony Magnificent Mile along the lakefront as the "Michigan Mile." And he might want to cool it with the midget references. Otherwise, he was fine.

As expected, someone asked Piniella about the possibility of luring Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez to the Cubs. And as expected, Piniella activated the deflector shields and said he hadn't had any discussion with Hendry about acquiring A-Rod. Hendry later said any conversation involving Rodriguez would constitute tampering and that the topic was "inappropriate."

This is called doing the "We Don't Want To Get Fined by Commissioner Bud Selig" dance. Of course, the Cubs (and especially Piniella) are interested in Rodriguez. How could you not be interested in a player of A-Rod's star power?

The Cubs can't say it publicly, but they can -- and did -- say Tuesday that they're looking to acquire "another outstanding hitter." Hendry's words, not mine.

Hmmm. Outstanding hitters, eh? That shopping list could include Miguel Tejada, Alfonso Soriano, Carlos Lee and, ta-da, Rodriguez, who, like all players, can be had for the right price.

There are still a lot of moving parts to any of these possible trades or free agent signings. But in A-Rod's case, the Cubs would love to explore a deal if, A) the Yankees make Rodriguez available; B) A-Rod, who has four years left on his contract, waives his no-trade clause; and, C) the Yankees don't ask for Cubs cornerstone pitcher Carlos Zambrano or first baseman Derrek Lee. Anybody else on the roster, including Aramis Ramirez or even Mark Prior, wouldn't automatically be ruled out of a trade equation.

Rodriguez's agent Scott Boras told ESPN.com's Jerry Crasnick on Tuesday that A-Rod "doesn't want to go anywhere," and that he has a clause in his contract that would allow him to opt out of his existing contract after the 2007 season, and "theoretically" after the 2008 and 2009 seasons.

"What team is going to go out and trade a huge package of talent for a player they know could possibly leave them?" Boras said.

The better question is this: What player would risk opting out of a contract that pays him more than he'd likely ever receive if he became a free agent again?

Rodriguez is owed $95 million for these last four seasons, an average of $23.75 million per year. I can't imagine somebody writing him a check like that in a new deal.

Boras might be right -- maybe A-Rod isn't going anywhere. But it won't be because the Cubs didn't try. Afer all, Piniella, who is extremely close to Rodriguez, didn't come to Chicago to eat the deep-dish pizza.

"We're going to win," said Piniella. "We're going to win. That's really the end of the story."

Actually, it's just the beginning. Hendry said that while he hasn't yet been given a hard payroll number for 2007, he knows it won't be lower than last season's nearly $100 million player budget. Piniella made a special point to mention that he asked for -- and received -- assurances from ownership that the franchise would provide him with the "resources" to succeed. Translation: The Cubs payroll is going up.

"You've got a nice nucleus of players here," said Piniella. "Obviously we're going to have to add a few."

Hendry is ready to add and subtract. When it became obvious that the 2006 Cubs were as doomed as any character in "Saw III," Hendry pulled his pro scouts and had them concentrate on assessing potential free agents or trade material. He paid more attention to the Asian baseball market. And he decided Baker was no longer the right fit.

"We got the right man for the job and we're going to move forward in tremendous fashion," Hendry said Tuesday.

Forward is a rare direction in this franchise's history. If this doesn't work, then there's not much left for the Cubs to try. They've hired every kind of manager, general manager and president. They've spent money -- not always wisely, but they've spent it. And they've pretended they aren't cursed by goats or been the victims of something as simple as fate.

Shortly before the afternoon press conference, Cubs director of media relations Sharon Pannozzo told Piniella that he was the 17th manager she had introduced to the media since joining the club in 1982. Piniella made a crack about her having to introduce No. 18 one day.

Great. Piniella has a sense of humor. He'll need it.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn3.com.