MILWAUKEE -- In a different season with a different record it wouldn't have meant a thing. But as the Chicago Cubs lurch toward their first 100-loss record in 40 years, there was no ignoring the irony of who sat where Thursday evening at Miller Park.
It was probably a coincidence -- it had to be, right? -- but there was embattled Cubs manager Dusty Baker seated at the very end of the dugout, one foot on the first wooden step, his baby-blue lineup card and handwritten cheat sheets within easy reach. And just behind and to the right of him, not much farther than the length of a fungo bat, was Cubs general manager Jim Hendry, literally looking over his shoulder. Hendry's front-row seat at field's edge was so close to the visitors' dugout that he could have tapped Baker on the head.
Or handed him a pink slip.
Will he or won't he? That's the question being asked by those in the Cubs' clubhouse, by the seamhead media, by Cubs followers, by the goofballs who have Baker over Philadelphia Phillies manager Charlie Manuel in the Who Gets Fired First Pool. Will Hendry pull the plug on the guy he personally chose and recruited to rescue the Cubs from their latest 100-year rebuilding plan? Will he dump the second highest-paid manager in the big leagues less than four seasons removed from the magic, weirdness and heartbreak of 2003?
He shouldn't. Not because Baker hasn't made mistakes -- he has, plenty of them -- but because the Cubs' latest descent into baseball hell is a lesson in teamwork. Rarely has everyone in a franchise contributed so evenly to a 31-54 record, the third worst in the majors.
Thursday night it was a 2-0 defeat to the Milwaukee Brewers, the Cubs' 11th loss in their last 14 games. Greg Maddux, the future first-ballot Hall of Famer, pitched well enough to win. He gave up those two runs in the fifth of his six innings of work. But Maddux can only do so much. He can't hit, but then again, neither could the Cubs. They also couldn't field (two errors) or run (after jogging down the first-base line on a drive off the right-field wall to start the seventh, Aramis Ramirez was thrown out at third by, oh, five feet when he tried stretching the sure double into a suicide triple attempt).
What a mess. The Cubs are 23 games under .500 and entered Thursday evening's game last in the National League in runs scored, RBI, walks and on-base percentage. No NL team had been shut out more often, and Chicago was next to last in total bases, home runs and sacrifice flies. The pitching isn't much better. The Cubs had the second-worst ERA in the league and had given up the most home run and walks.
In other words, they're almost the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Three and a half seasons ago the Cubs were five outs away from their first World Series appearance since 1945. Now they're three losses away from having the worst record in the majors.
Baker said earlier this week that he expected to survive this latest scrutiny. "Why not?" he told reporters. "I ain't walking death row."
Or maybe Baker simply doesn't know he's a dead man walking. Hendry isn't saying much, other than Baker, his staff and his players are all being evaluated, and that decisions, hard decisions, will be made, presumably not long after the All-Star break.
The usual casualty in these situations is the manager, and you certainly can make a case for Baker's dismissal. Since winning the division in '03, Baker's Cubs have missed the playoffs in 2004, 2005 and, barring Bud Selig's moving St. Louis, Cincinnati, Milwaukee and Houston to the NL East, they'll miss it again in 2006.
Yes, this is happening on Baker's watch. And Hendry's too. And club president Andy MacPhail's. Baker leaves and they stay?
Something has to be done, but firing Baker isn't that something. If Hendry wants to try a novel approach, why not make the players accountable for this 11-car pileup? After all, Baker isn't the guy who trotted down the line and got thrown out at third with no outs.
Watch the Cubs' dugout during a game. The only person in that dugout living and dying with every pitch isn't a player, it's Baker. Lame duck? Baker manages every game with passion and compassion. His least favorite letter is L.
Of course, there's no use pretending the Cubs consistently play fundamental baseball. They don't. There's no use pretending that Baker doesn't protect his players, sometimes to a fault. His credo: "Not to embarrass players in front of other players. ... I had a manager do that quite often and he got very negative results out of that."
But when you're 31-54, it's time to quit with the friend/manager combination. Pats on the back are fine, but so are kicks in the rear.
Hendry is a smart guy. Smart enough to understand that Baker never had a chance this season, not when Mark Prior and Kerry Wood made their annual trips to the disabled list. Or when Derrek Lee broke his wrist. Or when Michael Barrett decided to go Oscar De La Hoya on A.J. Pierzynski and pick up a 10-game suspension. Baker was short starting pitchers and a left fielder. When Lee missed more than eight weeks on the DL, it wasn't Baker's fault the remaining eight starters forgot how to hit.
"We really haven't had the pleasure of having the team that we put together," said Baker, citing injuries over the past two seasons. "You understand? That's big."
He isn't the first manager to deal with injuries, but the Cubs' margin of error was foul-line thin at the start of 2006. The one pitcher they couldn't afford to lose -- Prior -- they lost. The one position player they absolutely needed -- Lee -- got hurt. And good luck winning when 31 of your games feature rookie starting pitchers (those pitchers are 6-16 in those games).
"This year," said a Cubs official, "God couldn't manage this team."
Deep down, Cubs followers realize this isn't all Baker's doing. This is a shared failure, which means there should be shared blame. It also means Baker deserves to at least manage the remaining 77 games on the schedule.
As Baker looks over his shoulder he sees Hendry. But he also sees Prior, despite an 0-4 record, getting stronger. He sees Juan Pierre bump his average up to .270. He sees Lee back in the lineup. He sees the Gatorade cooler half full.
But Baker knows better than to ask for patience. "They've been hearing that too long in Chicago," he said. "They've been hearing that for 100 years now. Yeah, you can say it, but nobody wants to hear it."
I'll say it: Baker is worth the wait. Hendry might not want to hear it, but in Dusty he should still trusty.
Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.