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McGRATH: Let’s give Cubs manager Rick Renteria a chance

Former major-league utility player Rick Renterispent three seasons as Padres’ bench coach before being named Cubs’ manager. | Sarah Glenn/Getty

Former major-league utility player Rick Renteria spent three seasons as the Padres’ bench coach before being named the Cubs’ manager. | Sarah Glenn/Getty Images

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Updated: December 11, 2013 6:27AM



Tony La Russa was an 18-year-old bonus-baby shortstop when he was called up to the Athletics for a 34-game audition in 1963. Charlie Finley, three years into his madcap tenure as the Athletics’ owner, was developing a thing for quirky promotions, so he had the tightly wound La Russa wear ‘‘Kid,’’ not ‘‘La Russa,’’ on the back of his uniform top.

I don’t know why I remember that. But because I did, I could say I had heard of La Russa when the White Sox named him their manager 16 years later. We know the rest of the story.

Speaking of La Russa, Jim Leyland was his third-base coach and his wingman during confrontation with loopy commentator Jimmy Piersall outside a TV studio in 1982. I recalled Leyland having that incident in his background when he was named the Pirates’ manager in 1986. Things turned out pretty well for him.

If he hadn’t been Mike Scioscia’s bench coach with the Angels for the 2002 World Series, I wouldn’t have known Joe Maddon from John Madden when he became the Rays’ manager in 2006. Seven years later, he’s considered dugout royalty.

And I was an eye-rolling skeptic in 1985 when newly hired Giants general manager Al Rosen summoned his former Astros pitching coach to run a team coming off a 100-loss season, the worst in franchise history. Roger Craig had mentored the pitchers on the Tigers’ 1984 World Series champions, but his managerial résumé was made up of two indifferent seasons (152-171) with the Padres. At 55, Craig was derided as one of those old-crony retreads who kept getting opportunities to turn bad teams into mediocre ones.

Shows what we knew. Craig was sharp, confident and totally in charge at his first news conference, an accommodating guy by nature but all business between the lines. He would win one pennant and two division titles in his seven seasons with the Giants and was the best manager I’ve been around, bold and innovative, equally adept at running a game, clubhouse or media session.

What these recollections amount to is a long-winded way of saying Rick Renteria deserves a chance to prove whether he was a good choice to manage the Cubs. At this point, nobody knows — most notably the big brains who hired him.

Some of the stories mentioned Renteria being known as the Marlins’ ‘‘secret weapon’’ during his tenure as a utilityman, and the nickname is appropriate. I have no recall of the guy as a ballplayer.

But that’s not an indictment because playing ability is rarely a predictor of managerial success. Neither Leyland nor Maddon played a day in the majors, La Russa was a .199 career hitter in 134 games and Craig went 15-44 in back-to-back seasons with the laughably bad early-’60s Mets.

The real issue is what the hire says about the state of the Cubs. Is Renteria the best they could do?

Joe Girardi was the people’s choice, based on his popularity as a player here and his track record as the manager of the Marlins and Yankees. But his allleged ‘‘back-channel interest’’ was faulty intelligence. If Girardi were going to leave New York, he probably would have headed for Washington and a young, talented Nationals team that disappointed in 2013 but is still much closer to winning than the Cubs are.

The brain trust is in trouble if it’s no more certain of Jorge Soler’s future than it was of Girardi’s intentions.

Meanwhile, ballpark renovations and the increased revenue they promise are no closer to reality than they were when they were announced nearly a year ago. And as they come off 101- and 96-loss seasons, the Cubs aren’t exactly dealing from strength as they hit up WGN for more jack.

I’m old enough to remember La Russa’s major-league debut, and I don’t recall a time when the Cubs seemed more listless and less relevant. Yes, it’s November, and Jay Cutler’s groin is just one of several enticing options vying for a sports consumer’s attention. But the Cubs used to be a 12-month story.

A deposit on season-ticket renewals is due Nov. 18. Cubs attendance has declined in each of the last five seasons, reaching a
15-year low of 2,642,682 in 2013. That represents a drop of nearly 20 percent from the 2008 franchise record of 3,300,200.

It’s going to take more than Renteria to turn that around.



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