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Cubs need to land Joe Girardi for Theo’s sake

Updated: November 2, 2013 6:30AM



Maybe a homecoming by Joe Girardi is exactly what the Cubs need two years into this 197-loss rebuilding process. Maybe he’ll be the right manager at the right time to lay the groundwork for a farm load of young players to succeed and win in the next few years.

Or at least buy an attendance-hemorrhaging franchise a couple of more years of cover with the paying public, the way the hiring of team president Theo Epstein did two years ago.

Either way, they’d better get their man. They’d better get Girardi.

Because even if Epstein didn’t trade Dale Sveum’s hot seat for his own when he fired his handpicked manager in 2011, he raised the first major questions about whether this process is as sound as the “foundation for sustained success” it’s designed to produce.

Deciding after two years that the front office’s first managerial hire — the candidate the brass knew best even before an ­exhaustive interview process — was the wrong one:

Strike 1.

Failing to land the top free-agent manager available, who fits every criterion laid out by Epstein during a news conference Monday: That would be Strike 2.

Epstein said Monday, “There’s no pressure whatsoever to hire a big-name manager.”

But sources close to the situation say ownership and the business side of the operation have become increasingly concerned about an attendance decline that reached a 15-year low of 2.6 million — falling 20 percent during the last five seasons (at a revenue cost of more than $7 million for every 100,000 fans).

With no significant increases in player payroll spending in the works for at least another year, the team has precious few ­options for the face it will put on a billboard when tickets go on sale in the winter.

Enter the hometown hero, Peoria native and former Cub Girardi, whose contract with the New York Yankees is up.

Girardi, whose wife is from the northern suburbs, was an upper-management favorite for the job when then-general manager Jim Hendry hired Lou Piniella seven years ago, and he is said to have coveted the job for a long time.

Those close to Girardi say he and his family have a keen interest in returning to their Chicago roots and that it wouldn’t take winning a bidding war to persuade him to leave the Yankees.

Industry sources say the Cubs and Girardi have communicated mutual interest through back channels in recent weeks, even while the Yankees are expected to make a strong push in the next few days to try to persuade him to stay. The Washington Nationals also have begun to pursue him, sources say.

Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts and business president Crane Kenney are said to have pushed strongly for Girardi.

“We are clearly going to prioritize track record and managerial experience,” Epstein said, “or, in lieu of managerial experience, leadership — someone who’s a proven leader and not just on reputation.”

Girardi would fit either way. The former catcher was a team leader wherever he played, ­including perhaps his defining ­moment as a Cub when he tearfully addressed the crowd at Wrigley Field after Darryl Kile’s death in 2002.

Girardi, who has four playoff appearances and a World Series in six seasons with an aging Yankees team, also won a manager of the year award in 2006 with a young, rebuilding Marlins team that
included Rookie of the Year Hanley Ramirez.

Sveum’s failings, in management’s mind, involved the lack of progress with several young hitters on the club, and Epstein said that element of the job becomes even more important in the next two years as prospects such as Javy Baez, Kris Bryant, C.J. Edwards and Jorge Soler are expected to transition to the big leagues.

“We need that spark of a ­winning culture. We need certain things, in my opinion, we are more likely to find from someone outside the organization at this point,” said Epstein, who admitted somebody with Cubs experience “equipped to deal … with the gantlet” of the unique nature of Cubdom would have a built-in advantage.

But the bigger question might be how to persuade someone so familiar with the place that this is a good job.

“The talent in the organization will do all the convincing that we need,” Epstein said. “You don’t have to take my word on it, but I can tell you that outside the organization, outside the city, around baseball, the story is the Cubs are coming fast and the Cubs are coming strong. And that’s the reality. And when you take a step back and you assess the talent we have in the organization, that’s accurate.”

No manager is a sure thing in a new organization. But if not Girardi, then who?

When asked Monday whether firing Sveum was an admission that the hire was a mistake, Epstein gave a long response that didn’t answer the question.

But the outcome Monday at least has raised the first real hard questions about this regime and its processes.

“We know what we’re doing,” Epstein said. “I’ve hired two managers. One’s Terry Francona [in Boston], who may well be on his way to the Hall of Fame. And the other is Dale, who did a lot of very productive things here in two years.”

Next.

Email: gwittenmyer@suntimes.com

Twitter: @GDubCub



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