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Never Fear, Lou Is Here

Look what the wind blew in to the friendly confines of the NL's perennial losers: an irascible, impatient skipper

IN HIS last job,before he eased into the cushy life of a broadcaster and presumed successor toany major league manager on the hot seat, Lou Piniella did some hard years inpayroll purgatory. In three seasons with the Devil Rays, Piniella never fieldeda team that made more than $30 million in combined salary or ranked higher than29th in payroll among baseball's 30 teams. For a seething competitor who hasbeen known to morph from Sweet Lou to Sour Lou over far less than a trio of90-loss seasons, it was agony. Piniella's level of discontent was so high, hispatience for Tampa Bay's long-term rebuilding plan so thin, that he asked outof his contract after the 2005 season, leaving $2.2 million in salary on thetable.

So Piniella knewwhat he wanted to hear when he met, in secret, with Cubs general manager JimHendry in Tampa earlier this month. Hendry had just fired Dusty Baker, andPiniella's first question was why the G.M. wanted him to be Chicago's nextmanager. "We want to win," Hendry replied. So does every other team,but Hendry was speaking in easily broken code. The Cubs—perhaps you've heardsomething about a billy goat, a curse and a World Series drought going on 99years—really want to win, and unlike the Devil Rays, they're willing to spendserious money to do so right away. It's believed that their payroll could riseby at least $20 million, to $115 million, next season. "Lou's not aboutnext week, next month or next year. He's about today," a longtime friend,Mariners bench coach John McLaren, says. "It's not a put-on. There's nobodywho wants to win more than Lou."

Money talks,particularly when you're 63 years old and desperate to enhance your Cooperstowncredentials with one more postseason run. The Cubs' ballooning payroll is asgood a way as any to explain why Piniella, who signed a three-year, $10 milliondeal, took a job that otherwise seems to be one he should have run from. It'sno secret that he wanted to work close to his Tampa home; the Arizona-basedCubs don't even spend spring training in Florida. He wants to win right away;this year Chicago had the league's worst record (66--96), second-worst offense(4.4 runs per game) and third-worst pitching (4.74 ERA). "This is a totallydifferent situation [from Tampa Bay]," Piniella said. "It's a divisionthat's very competitive. If we do the right things, we can turn things aroundvery quickly."

Those close toPiniella say his first choice was the Yankees, but that may never have been apossibility. While George Steinbrenner reportedly considered firing Joe Torreafter baseball's richest team imploded in October, sources say that Piniellawasn't the next choice of the Boss or G.M. Brian Cashman, who wanted to keepTorre and likely prefers Joe Girardi, Don Mattingly or perhaps Bobby Valentineas Torre's successor. With the Yankees out of the picture, Piniella's optionsincluded the aging Giants and the rebuilding Nationals, neither of whom canmatch the Cubs' planned payroll increases.

It's no mysterywhy Piniella was tops on Hendry's list. He is a motivational and strategicalwizard and has the fiery persona that grabs headlines in a two-team town.Hendry swung for the fences by choosing Piniella over former Marlins skipperGirardi, who played for the Cubs and in one season in Florida proved he couldoversee a resurrection. But according to a Cubs insider Hendry viewed Girardi,42, as a "manager in training" compared with Piniella, who has 1,519wins and a world championship on his résumé. And Hendry, like Piniella, is in ahurry. "If Lou Piniella didn't think we had a chance to win," Hendrysaid, "I don't think he'd be a Cub."

Piniella heardsimilar optimism from the Devil Rays: In a meeting over doughnuts in 2002, thenowner Vince Naimoli promised he was committed to winning. (The fare should havebeen a clue that Naimoli wouldn't open his wallet—the Rays' payroll sank by $14million in Piniella's first year.) However, friends say Piniella wouldn't havetaken this job without assurances that the Cubs will spend. Given that, andPiniella's close relations with Alex Rodriguez, whom he managed in Seattle,it's no surprise that rumors have flown that the Yankees third baseman willjoin his mentor in Chicago. Cashman insists he doesn't plan to trade Rodriguez,and it's unlikely that the pitching-poor Cubs could barter with the Yankees,anyway. More likely targets for the Cubs are free-agent outfielders AlfonsoSoriano and Carlos Lee or pitchers Barry Zito and Jason Schmidt.

Hendry also wantsto re-sign third baseman Aramis Ramirez, a potential free agent who hit 38 homeruns this season. Whoever ends up on the Cubs' inflated payroll, the franchiseis in for a jolt. In many ways the Cubs, whose beery patrons pack Wrigley Fieldregardless of the team's record, have embraced their image as cuddly losers.That won't fly under Piniella, who once was ejected from an exhibition game andbelieves in curses only when he's spitting them at umpires. "A certain partof him wants to be the guy who comes here and is the one to win," saysHendry. But he wants to do it now, and he won't spend much time trying.

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"He put out this threat thinking it was sopreposterous that no one would take it seriously. He was wrong."