Still plenty of fight left in Cubs GM

MESA, Ariz. -- Ernie Banks, Ron Santo and Billy Williams are terrific, but when Cubs general manager Jim Hendry lists his holy trinity of sports icons, it begins and ends with Johnny Unitas, Willie Mays and Muhammad Ali.

The Golden Arm. Say Hey. The Greatest. They were the sun, the moon and the stars when Hendry was a sport-crazed kid growing up in Dunedin, Fla., in the 1960s.

On the wall of his Wrigley Field office, Hendry has a photograph of Ali that he snapped in 1978, shortly after the Champ beat Leon Spinks in New Orleans. Ali even signed a copy of that day's Times-Picayune newspaper for him to keep as a souvenir.

"I was an Ali nut my whole life,'' Hendry says. "I got into a lot of fights [defending] him at a young age.''

Like his hero, Hendry isn't afraid to lead with his chin.

It happened recently in Mesa after former Cubs outfielder Milton Bradley made waves on ESPN, blaming the atmosphere in Chicago and unreasonably high expectations for his lack of production in 2009. While manager Lou Piniella remained statesmanlike and above the fray, Hendry emerged from the home dugout at Hohokam Stadium and conducted a clinic in hand-to-hand combat.

He was blunt, but refrained from personal attacks. Even though he looked hot enough to self-starch his shirt, he delivered a lesson on accountability without elevating the tensions. It was one surgical performance.

Lots of Cubs fans nodded in agreement when Hendry told Bradley to "look in the mirror.'' Others were quick to point out that he's the guy who brought Bradley to Chicago in the first place. That's life in the big city.

The Cubs carry a streak of 101 championship-free seasons into their April 5 opener in Atlanta, and the general manager knows the score. After two straight NL Central titles punctuated by quick playoff exits, the Cubs posted a disappointing 83-78 record and finished 7½ games behind St. Louis in the National League Central last season.

Catcher Geovany Soto gained weight and forgot how to hit, and Aaron Miles was a disaster in the infield. Alfonso Soriano got hurt, again. Carlos Zambrano won nine games, and Bradley drove in 40 runs in 393 at-bats.

And now a new ownership regime takes over at Wrigley Field. The Ricketts family is in charge, and if Hendry is so inclined, he can surf the Internet and find lots of bloggers and columnists opining that he's "on the hot seat.'' He's heard the phrase so often, it's a wonder he doesn't have third-degree posterior burns.

The reality is, Hendry is under contract through 2012, and he's partly a victim of expectations that he and predecessor Andy MacPhail helped create. Although the 2009 season was a letdown, the Cubs still posted a winning record for the third straight year. That hadn't happened at Wrigley since the Leo Durocher-led team reeled off six consecutive winning seasons from 1967 through 1972.

Not surprisingly, Hendry thinks last year was an aberration and the 2010 Cubs have a chance to beat expectations.

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  • "I have a real good feeling about the team,'' he says. "I see a strong sense of big commitment -- unified commitment. These guys have been through the last couple of years of high expectations, and 'We're going to win the World Series.' Now they have a little edge to them, because we're not being picked to do very well.''

    As Hendry enters his eighth season as the Cubs' GM, he has the seventh-longest continuous tenure in the game behind Brian Sabean, Billy Beane, Brian Cashman, Dan O'Dowd, Kenny Williams and Mark Shapiro. Peruse his track record, and you'll find the obligatory mixed bag of hits and misses.

    Hendry stole Aramis Ramirez from the Pirates and Derrek Lee from the Marlins in salary-dump trades. The Ted Lilly and Mark DeRosa free-agent deals, panned at the time, worked out nicely. Ryan Dempster resurrected his career in Chicago, and Hendry has made his share of solid under-the-radar pickups in the Jim Edmonds-Reed Johnson realm.

    Hendry's bigger deals … not so much. The $136 million investment in Soriano, a Tribune Company valentine to Cubs fans, is starting to look like an organizational albatross. Kosuke Fukudome, who was widely hailed as the real thing coming out of Japan, is a .258 hitter in two seasons with the Cubs.

    And of course, there's the three-year, $30 million investment in Bradley, a well-intended overreaction to back-to-back Division Series sweeps.

    After the Cubs were shut down by Brandon Webb, Derek Lowe, Chad Billingsley et al in consecutive postseasons, Hendry was intent on adding a lefty run producer. He chose Bradley over Adam Dunn, Raul Ibanez and Bobby Abreu, in part because he thought Bradley would provide better defense.

    The Cubs tried to add some lefty horsepower, and they nearly blew up the car in the process.

    "We did our work,'' Hendry said. "We were worried about the health and the off-the-field [stuff]. But in all the discussions and months of work we did on Milton, nobody ever factored in that he wouldn't hit. And that's what happened.

    "In hindsight, it was my mistake. But we're chasing the ring. If we win 97 games and get swept for the second year in a row and we're lacking some presence from the left side, I think I'm remiss if I don't try to go out and get the best guy we can.''

    Hendry remains the slightly rumpled former Christopher Columbus High School and Creighton University baseball coach at heart, but he's not allergic to statistical analysis. Several years ago, the Cubs shifted the capable Chuck Wasserstrom from the media relations department to baseball operations, and he churns out a steady stream of numbers to help Hendry, assistant GM Randy Bush and the front office in player evaluation.

    That said, Hendry is still most comfortable picking up the phone and calling somebody who knows somebody who played Little League ball with Mike Fontenot. He might be the best-connected executive in baseball.

    "Jim's not a tech guy,'' said MacPhail, who left his position as Cubs president to run Baltimore's baseball operation in 2006. "He's more of a human networker.''

    One of Hendry's most endearing qualities -- in the eyes of the media, at least -- is his willingness to admit mistakes. The trait helps shield him from some criticism in Chicago, because he beats his critics to the punch. If ballplayers took the same approach, the phrase "the sun was in my eyes" would be obsolete.

    During a recent interview at his office in Mesa, Hendry was candid on a number of pressing issues.

    • On his job status under new ownership: "These jobs aren't forever. I realize the tremendous opportunity I've been given. If my tenure is up down the road and I'm no longer the general manager, I'll be disappointed if we didn't get to the World Series. Absolutely.

    "These are wonderful people, the Ricketts family, and I think they're going to be great for the city. They really have the sense of trying to do it the old family way. I think they could be the O'Malleys before it's all said and done. They're going to own this team for decades after I'm gone.''

    • On the expectations of Cubs fans: "I don't blame people who have spent their entire life loving the Cubs -- who used to accept the fact that second place was a good year -- to expect more now. I think that's understandable. They're terrific fans, and 99 out of 100 are caring and passionate in the right way. And they deserve to win.''

    • On criticism in the Internet age: "Nobody is harder on me than I am. I don't get hung up on a Web site or somebody yelling at me driving by at the 7-Eleven. There are a lot of people who are better than me at what they do in life who catch a lot more flak than I do.''

    Hendry is aware that the bullpen could be the Cubs' Achilles heel in 2010, particularly after a shoulder injury to set-up man Angel Guzman. After shying away from Kiko Calero because of suspect medical reports and losing out to the Yankees in a bid for Chan Ho Park, he continues to troll the waiver wire and consider trade options. It's in his DNA.

    "Jim is never going to be satisfied with his team,'' MacPhail said. "He made a lot of aggressive changes that people are critical of now, but it's also insight into his character. He feels the sense of urgency in Chicago, and he's going to do everything he can to try and make his team better. He's relentless in that regard.''

    Everyone remembers how Hendry signed off on Lilly's four-year, $40 million contract while hooked up to an EKG machine after feeling chest pains at the 2006 winter meetings. The people around him worry that he's a little too hard-driving at times.

    "I'm most happy when he's hitting golf balls,'' said Gary Hughes, a special assistant to Hendry. "That's his relaxation.''

    If anybody knows how motivated Hendry is to succeed, it's Hughes -- the man who gave him his first job with a big league club. In the early 1990s, the Marlins hired Hendry away from the Creighton baseball team to be an area scout. Hendry checked out amateur talent and handled the universally loathed chore of splicing videotape.

    Come draft day, Hughes allowed Hendry to sit in the "war room" under the condition that he keep his mouth shut and observe. When several rounds passed and Hughes summoned him to the front of the room, Hendry's heart began pounding like a jackhammer. Did the Marlins need some vital information on a potential draft pick?

    "I told him, 'Jim, I hate to do this, but everybody is busy. Would you mind driving down to Publix and picking up some fat-free Fig Newtons?'" Hughes recalled.

    Ever the good soldier, Hendry drove to the store and returned with the cookies. Years later, when Hendry was named Cubs general manager, Hughes' secretary sent him a box of fat-free Fig Newtons to commemorate the occasion.

    "I didn't know he was upset until six years later,'' Hughes said, laughing. "He's got a heck of a memory.''

    That's another thing Hendry and Cubs fans have in common. While he sweats the details, they keep waiting for the payoff for all that suffering. Like it or not, they're in it together.

    Jerry Crasnick is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Click here to purchase a copy of his book, "License To Deal," published by Rodale. Crasnick can be reached via e-mail.