Even now – or maybe especially now – that he’s no longer the General Manager of the Chicago Cubs, I’m sure Hendry would regale me with stories about the ill-fated 2003 team or the powerhouse 2008 squad. Joyful, funny stories. Deeply personal stories. Because, if there is one thing that has become clear in the wake of his firing, it’s that Jim Hendry loves the Chicago Cubs.
How else can you explain a man, subjected to as much vitriol as any Chicago executive in 25 years, offering to steward for a crucial month the very team looking to leave him behind?
That’s exactly what Jim Hendry did when he was told on July 22 that he would be fired.
He even agreed to keep the firing a secret from everyone, including the players he loves so much. To hear him speak of certain players, you’d think he was speaking of his children. Maybe he thought of some of them that way. I’ll confess, reading about Hendry’s emotional goodbye to the players in the clubhouse on Friday made me a little misty-eyed, too. The love was palpable.
And the Cubs’ organization loved Hendry, too.
Even after showing Hendry the door, Tom Ricketts had nothing but positive things to say about the man he’d just fired. He added that “we’ll all miss seeing him every day at the office, for sure.” Mike Quade called Hendry his “friend” no fewer than four times on Friday.
The players agreed.
“If you showed up on time and you played hard, he had nothing but good things to say about you,” Ryan Dempster said of Hendry. “We’ll be friends a long time after baseball is over with.” Kerry Wood said Hendry wasn’t a “typical GM,” and that their relationship would last for many years.
Alfonso Soriano, perhaps, put it best: “It’s very sad for Jim and for the players because we love him.”
Yes, Jim Hendry was loved by the players he’d watched over, and was a friend to the organization with whom he’d spent the last 17 years.
But that affection and loyalty – that friendship – was also probably Hendry’s undoing as a general manager. Frequently called a “player’s GM,” Hendry seemed to get too attached to “his guys.” He bent over backwards to accommodate difficult players like Carlos Zambrano – someone Hendry had signed to the Cubs’ organization as a teenager. He extended his favorites. He gave them no-trade clauses.
Too often, Jim Hendry put personal relationships above his own success.
That made him a great man, to be sure (a better man than I). But it made him a terrible general manager.
Sure, Hendry had his highs as a GM – landing Nomar Garciaparra for chump change in the most exciting deadline deal I can remember, adding Aramis Ramirez and Kenny Lofton for the 2003 stretch run, getting Derrek Lee for a shell of Hee Seop Choi. And who could forget him nailing down the Ted Lilly signing while laid up awaiting surgery.
And even many of the stinkers of his era – the Alfonso Soriano 8-year, $136 million monstrosity and Carlos Zambrano’s 5-year, $90 million extension – come with built-in excuses (the former was reportedly finalized by then-President John McDonough without Hendry’s approval, and the latter was arguably an under-market deal at the time).
But baseball is a business of results. Wins. Losses. Stats. These things matter, and, all too often, the back of Hendry’s baseball card fell short (you’d throw it out in favor of the stick of gum, lamenting that Hendry’s card made your gum stiff and tasteless).
And it was in large part because of Hendry’s loyalty to “his” guys – washed-up veterans, and two (now three) managers who should have been, but weren’t, fired at various times. Hendry also always carried with him a friendly, pleasant approach to dealing with other teams. Great for beer-drinking, not so great for winning games.
People tout the Cubs’ three playoff appearances under Hendry’s watch as the best in a generation, but what exactly did you expect in nine seasons with a payroll far eclipsing your closest competitors?
I expected more. I expected a playoff win in the last eight seasons. I expected a team that didn’t finish in the bottom half of the division more times than it made the playoffs. I expected results.
And Tom Ricketts knows how we feel. He also knows how Jim Hendry feels about the Cubs.
Ricketts, who had nothing but glowing remarks for Hendry, knows what way the wind blows. A successful business executive, Ricketts determined what had to be done as far back as early July. This new company needed new management. It needed a controlled burn. Jim Hendry had given Ricketts plenty of reasons to like him, and too few reasons to keep him.
With input from some of baseball’s brightest minds, Ricketts decided that it would be imprudent to toss Hendry overboard immediately. With the trade deadline approaching, as well as the draft pick signing deadline, Ricketts knew that he needed someone in charge who knew the system intimately well. Someone who could help keep up the appearance of stability. So he asked Hendry if he would stay on for a little while to help ease the transition to the next GM.
Hendry could have told Ricketts to pound sand. But Ricketts knew Hendry would offer to stay. Ricketts knew how Hendry felt about the Cubs.
That crummy GM with the bubblegum-stained back of his baseball card was a good man. A friend. He would stay.
You might say that Ricketts used Jim Hendry’s love of the Cubs to ensure a stable period of transition, rather than wade through a rudderless midseason, knowing that his favorite replacement candidates would not be available to interview any time soon. After all, Hendry leading the trade deadline and draft signing period – even if Hendry were on his way out the door – was better for the organization than an interim GM whose agenda might not square with Ricketts’.
Was it unfair of Ricketts to rely on Hendry to get the organization through this rough patch? To allow Hendry to face the brunt of the public’s ire for a disastrously quiet trade deadline? Maybe.
But it was certainly the best decision for the Chicago Cubs. And that’s where Tom Ricketts wins my support.
Jim Hendry is a funny, affable guy with whom no one shared a cross word. His players loved him, and the organization considered him a friend. He gladly put those relationships ahead of his own aspirations for success. It’s a wonderful story, but it doesn’t win championships.
When it comes to building a franchise, I’ll take Ricketts’ cold calculation over Hendry’s friendship. It makes me feel icky. It also makes me feel optimistic.
There are brighter days ahead for the Chicago Cubs, and Tom Ricketts’ vision will take the team there under the guidance of his hand-picked GM. But it’s ok to remember the last guy fondly.
Even if you’d rather have a beer with him than fill out a roster.