Piniella's mixed messages bad for Cubs

Lou Piniella couldn't even get his own age right.

"Look, I'm 66 years old," he said Saturday, before correcting himself. (He's 65.) "I feel like 68."

Sixty-five, 68 -- does it matter anymore? Piniella is aging in Cubs years. His team, the consensus preseason favorite to win the NL Central, the NL pennant and perhaps even the franchise's first World Series since 1908, is a mind-boggling 35-36 after Saturday's loss to the White Sox. With apologies to Dennis Green's legendary rant, the Cubs are not who we thought they were.

Still, the Cubs are going to win the division, mostly because they have the best starting pitching and because Aramis Ramirez and his injured left shoulder should be back in the lineup before the All-Star break. But even if they do reach the playoffs, don't be in a hurry to thank Piniella.

So far, 2009 has been one of Piniella's most trying years as a manager. And part of it is his own fault.

Piniella has been tone-deaf when it comes to handling the ongoing situations involving Milton Bradley, Carlos Zambrano, Kosuke Fukudome and Alfonso Soriano. Mixed messages have turned into double standards.

Bradley, the Cubs' $30 million right fielder, threw a hissy fit in the dugout during Friday's game. He tossed his batting helmet. He went WWE on a Gatorade cooler. In short, he was his usual Milton self -- the temperature light on his temper a glowing red. This is news?

Zambrano goes nuts in the dugout, and he gets a private audience with Piniella and a verbal slap on the knuckles. The incident is downplayed. But Bradley does the same sort of thing, and he gets vaporized in private and in public by the manager.

Piniella followed Bradley from the dugout to the visitors clubhouse at U.S. Cellular Field and, according to the Chicago Sun-Times and Bradley himself, called the right fielder a "piece of s---." Later, in the postgame news conference, Piniella volunteered details of the incident.

I'm not saying Piniella was wrong in confronting Bradley. He's right: Someone very expensive in the Cubs' dugout could have gotten hurt. In fact, this being the Cubs, I'm surprised Bradley's helmet didn't go on the 15-day DL.

But why Bradley? Why does Zambrano essentially get a series of free bad-behavior passes while Bradley is told to ditch the uni and go home early? At what point is there one rule for Big Z's temper and an entirely different one for Little B's?

"This has been a while of this," Piniella said. "I've talked to the other people too, believe me. Look, the first thing is, you don't want people getting hurt. You really don't. I've talked to a couple other people here rather strongly about it, and it's totally been abated except for this thing here. [On Friday] I was right in doing what I did. I probably should have just stayed in the dugout. I heard him mumbling some things, and I followed him up. Look, things get … emotion[al]. What can I say? I'm sorry it happened, and I wish it hadn't happened. That's all I can say."

Bradley has a long and sometimes ugly history of dustups. But so does Zambrano. And it's not as though Bradley is going anywhere. His three-year, $30 million deal makes him all but untradeable. (Memo to Milton: Lose the No. 21 jersey. It's the "Curse of Sammy" 21.)

Ryan Dempster had a Gatorade machine moment in the Wrigley Field dugout earlier in the season. Ted Lilly jumped the dugout fence to confront an umpire. Carlos Marmol tossed his glove and sent containers and gum flying on the same day as Bradley's outburst. It happens. The difference is, when it happens to Bradley he's singled out, as if his tantrum was worse than the others'.

"Winning always creates harmony," Dempster said after Saturday's loss. "Winning brings out the best; losing brings out the worst."

We don't know what goes on in the clubhouse once the doors are closed, but it doesn't feel harmonious. But we do know that Bradley told the Chicago Tribune that he feels isolated on his own team. Some of it is his own doing (a .236 average, five home runs, 16 RBIs, mental mistakes in the field), but it doesn't help when Piniella gives Bradley GPS directions to the Cubs' woodshed.

"Look, he understands," Piniella said. "I don't want problems with players. I don't want problems with anybody. This job's tough enough without having to have confrontations. It was only for a few seconds. It wasn't long. The problem is that we have the sanctity of a clubhouse here. I'm disappointed that something like that gets out. Because there are a lot of heated things that are said in the clubhouse at times. They should just stay there."

But they didn't. They leaked out, and with it, so did some of Piniella's credibility.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but this isn't the first time Piniella has sent mixed messages. Ask Fukudome. If you injected Piniella with even the tiniest dose of truth serum, here's guessing you'd find out that Fukudome wouldn't be in Lou's Fave Five. Or Fave 500.

Meanwhile, Soriano is treated with gloves as soft as fresh hot dog buns. Doesn't matter that his batting average is just .228 or that his on-base percentage is a microscopic .292 (as a leadoff man!), or that he's a defensive liability. Soriano even had the stones to tell the Tribune that if Bradley "is not 100 percent to help the team, we don't need him." Soriano added that Bradley is "a great guy."

This from a player who has been so cold during the past 32 games (25 of 140, .179) that you wanted to bat him 10th in the lineup. As bad as Bradley has been -- and he's been brutal -- he's still hitting nine points higher than Soriano and has an OBP 63 points higher.

The Cubs beat the White Sox on Friday, though Piniella said the Bradley incident "took the joy out of winning a baseball game." So just think how he felt Saturday after the Sox scored a winning run with two outs in the bottom of the ninth to beat the Cubs, 8-7.

"We're going to get on a streak," Piniella said afterward. "It's just a question of when and how soon."

They're on a streak right now. It's called losing five of your last six.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com and ESPNChicago.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn3.com. Hear Gene's podcasts and ESPN Radio appearances by clicking here.