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Saturday, October 10, 2009
Must-see Cubs TV

By Jon Greenberg
ESPNChicago.com

CHICAGO -- It's finally, almost, just about to happen. The Cubs will have new owners any day now. Maybe by Halloween. At the very latest, by my 31st birthday on Nov. 8. If not then, no later than Thanksgiving.

Wait, when is Boxing Day again?

Seriously, all that is left is a stamp of approval from the bankruptcy court, crossed T's and dotted I's and the Ricketts family will own a fixer-upper stadium and a fixer-upper baseball team. (If the Cubs were a real estate listing, the ad would say, "Vintage North Side house. Needs a lot of love. Includes 24 baseball players and one Milton.")

We're all anxiously awaiting the first public words from new chairman Tom Ricketts, the Chicago-based point man of this family-owned venture, and more importantly, for him to start making decisions that will affect the state of the franchise this season and beyond.

One of those decisions will be the next manager of the Cubs. This is a big one.

Lou Piniella
Replacing Lou Piniella will be a tough task. Naturally, it would also make for a fantastic reality television show.

Lou Piniella has one more year left on his contract, and he's made it known he's interested in serving his time and high-tailing it back to Tampa, where he will spend his golden years eating breakfast with other Steinbrenner loyalists at Legends Field, spending time with his two loves: his wife and the Daily Racing Form.

Given the solid odds the Cubs don't set the baseball world on fire next season, one of the main media-driven narratives will be Piniella's successor, and it will prove annoying to Ricketts and to Piniella.

Cubs Hall of Famer Ryne Sandberg continued to make it known he's The Guy last week, telling reporters at Wrigley Field, and on XM Radio, that he is very, very interested in the job.

"That's no secret," Sandberg told the Tribune's Paul Sullivan, among others, after singing during the seventh-inning stretch. "This would be the ultimate."

Sandberg's naked ambition to be the Cubs' manager surfaced after the disastrous 2006 season, when he made himself a candidate to replace Dusty Baker. General manager Jim Hendry offered him a start in the minor leagues, where, by all accounts, he's acquitted himself well. Sandberg hasn't reinvented the wheel in Peoria or Tennessee, but, on the surface, he seems to be acclimating himself to the game.

His penchant for getting rung up by umpires is a complete, and purposeful, 180 degrees from his playing persona, which was workmanlike -- impressive but lacking in panache. One of the knocks on Sandberg's managing career is that he dived in to stave off the boredom of civilian life, and his regular passion plays show, at the very least, that he's cognizant of his reputation.

There was a brief, fleeting idea that Sandberg, supposedly a Ricketts favorite, could fill the open hitting coach role and get used to coaching major leaguers, but that was quickly squashed. So Sandberg will continue to ride the buses of the Southern League for another season, but he won't be a stranger to the sports pages. He won't be alone either.

So I say to Tom Ricketts: Don't ignore the elephantine second baseman in the room. There is a perfect way to market this search and drum up some more, much-needed cash for the franchise.

Two words, say it with me: reality show!

If you have any brains, you're going to want to start a Cubs channel in the next few years, a la the Yankees' YES Network, which basically prints money. You'd be crazy not to explore the idea. It would be wildly popular in the Midwest, through the Great Plains states and into Arizona. Cubs fans, as we know, are everywhere, and they love anything associated with their team.

So here's a chance to market the brand and tinker with some show ideas to fill time on the future channel, between retrospectives of Cubs World Series championships. It can air on Comcast and simulcast on Cubs.com, with each episode going live a week after it's filmed, like HBO's "Hard Knocks."

First, we need a title. How about "Being Tom Trebelhorn"? Too dated.

"Fantasy World Challenge: Cubs in October:" Fantasy doesn't begin to describe it.

"The Goat:" Too negative.

"Win a Chance to Hang out with Larry Rothschild:" Too scary.

How about "True Blue: The Search for the Next Scapegoat"? Just right.

We've got a name; now we need some contestants. Sandberg's a lock. He'd be in makeup before our producer/host Jeff Garlin (a natural for dark comedy after serving as executive producer for "Curb Your Enthusiasm") hung up the phone.

Did I mention Sandberg wants the job?

We need a foil for the good guy Sandberg. I'd suggest Wes from the "Real World/Road Rules Challenge," but I'm afraid he'd win and then get banned for, um, foreign substances.

So let's go with ex-Cub Rafael Palmeiro as the villain. He's got a mustache, which looks dastardly, and I have a feeling he and Sandberg would have some beef.

We need another former Cub, and I think the natural choice is motor-mouthed Shawon Dunston, currently a special assistant for the San Francisco Giants. It would bring back the Shawon-O-Meter, which is a plus.

Next, we have Bob Brenly, the insider. Brenly has a World Series ring, a manly style that makes him instantly likable and a good enough idea of how to manage the talent on this team. Of course, Brenly could be gone by then. He told the Chicago Tribune he's had some bites from another general manager.

Carlos Zambrano
Here's a task for those competing for the prize of being the Cubs' new manager: teach Carlos Zambrano the "Serenity Now" mantra

Now we need to fill out the cast with some fill-ins. Art Howe's always available. Someone can wake up Dick Pole to join in. How about Neifi Perez? He also comes highly recommended by Baker. And to appease the Cubs blogger community, former Cubs skipper Jim Essian.

I'd throw in Alan Trammell, as hard-working an assistant coach as you'll ever see, but he's busy enough showing Cubs infielders how to field grounders. At least he's around as a wild card to throw in late in the process.

So what would they do? Well, the obvious reality show set-up would work here. Set the seven of them up in a rooftop building outside the park, where you film every second of their co-existence together. (Note: Don't steal Brenly's smokes.) They can mingle with Cubs fans who pay $200 to watch the game on a rooftop and embrace Cubdom at its finest.

The drama comes in the challenges, as our job-seekers have to perform tasks required of the Cubs manager, like trying to make it through five consecutive days of media interviews in the dungeon without throwing a tape recorder at a nettlesome writer's forehead. Extra points will be awarded for coming up with good one-liners, like "What do I need to show fire for? I'm not a dragon," or cooking up a memorable phrase like "Cubbie Occurrence."

Things get tougher from there. Each prospective manager will have to earn points by accomplishing difficult tasks like successfully teaching Carlos Zambrano the "Serenity Now" mantra, successfully moving Alfonso Soriano to fifth in the order and successfully walking Geovany Soto past the McDonald's on Clark Street without him running through a plate-glass window.

A good manager needs to know his players' swings, and the final three contestants would be assigned Kosuke Fukudome, Soriano or Soto as their pupils. The first to get their player to hit Zambrano's weight over a circumscribed period of time gets an automatic berth to the finals.

Then there are the "Passion Plays."

Cubs fans, who whined about Piniella's lack of zeal (or maybe that was just us reporters), want a fiery, dirt-kicking skipper to cheer, so each manager will have to practice getting tossed by umpires and going on clubhouse rampages. Bye-bye, postgame spread!

This will be done during off days with out-of-work NBA referees playing the umps. The Cubs can encourage fans who can't get tickets for good summer games to come, and still charge them the same amount for tickets. (Also, it's a "platinum" game experience.)

Dealing with injuries and distractions is one of the most challenging parts of being a Cubs manager. Mark Prior could make a cameo here. The first manager to get him to throw off a mound twice in the same month gets a bye to the finals. Towel drills do not count.

Being the next Cubs manager isn't just about what happens on the field either. A good Cubs manager will figure out how to fit a real 20th-century scoreboard in the outfield without spoiling the one they already have, and once that's done, they've got to sell the ads. "Hey Azteca Foods, it's me, Jim Essian."

Once that task is over, there is still the "Design the Triangle Building" contest, the "Get Crane Kenney out of the clubhouse" gambit and "Out-BS the Master" game, which consists of matching salty baseball tales with your future boss, Jim Hendry, over a couple of "pops."

After a strenuous final interview session with celebrity Cubs fans like Jim Belushi, Bonnie Hunt and George Will, the winner will be announced before the last homestand of the season in front of 30,000 fans who all paid $5 a ticket on StubHub to watch a .500 team play out the string again.

Will Sandberg come out on top? Or will Brenly usurp his dreams? Maybe Dunston becomes the Cubs' version of Ozzie Guillen. Can you imagine the ratings?

It's all just fun and games until 2011, when the real contest begins. Y'know, playing in the World Series. And actually winning.

Let's not get ahead of ourselves, though. There's a difference between a reality show and reality.

Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.