Mike Nadel's column from Cubs' 7-5 loss to Milwaukee on Tuesday night.

   Lou Piniella said the worst was over for the Chicago Cubs because “we’ve got good players here.’’ Ever the wannabe comedian, I cracked: “Yeah, and you finally have a good manager, too.’’ Lou didn’t get the joke.


   He thought I was paying him a compliment. In my wasted attempt at hilarity, I actually was referring to bench coach Alan Trammell, who is overseeing the dugout while Piniella serves a four-game suspension for kicking dirt on an umpire.

   “Well, you know, I try. I do the best I can,’’ Piniella said. “I’ve learned a lot here in two months. I’ve gotten to know my players. I’ve gotten to know a little bit of the landscape in Chicago, too.’’


   By “landscape,’’ he meant the expectations, frustrations and rapt attention of Cubbie fans, 99.9 percent of whom weren’t born when the team last won a championship 99 years ago. He meant the bright spotlight of the media. And he meant the constant reminders of curses, catastrophes and collapses.

    Before watching Tuesday night’s 7-5 loss to the Milwaukee Brewers from a private box at Miller Park, Piniella said of Chicago: “It’s a tougher place than I thought it would be.’’


     This surprised me because Lou Piniella is no backwater rube. He played in the Bronx Zoo. He also managed the Yankees and served as their G.M. He managed in Cincinnati, where baseball is king. He managed in Seattle, where he helped elevate the level of interest significantly.

     Sure, he spent 2003-05 in Tampa Bay, where baseball barely has a pulse, and then spent a year as a broadcaster. Could he have gotten so removed from reality that he thought life would be easy in Chicago, a major market with two big-league clubs (OK, make that 1½ big-league clubs in a good year), a large media contingent and an obsessive fan base?


     “I think it’s probably a little tougher (than New York),’’ Piniella said. “It’s not the curse but it’s uh . . . well . . .’’

     His boss struggling, Cubs media information manager Jason Carr offered: “Like a here-we-go-again thing?’’


     “Yeah, that,’’ Piniella said. “And the questions are more pointed in that direction. And everything is magnified now.

     “When you do a post-game (press conference) at Wrigley, it’s a media event. You almost feel you need a media coach.’’


     Unable to resist swinging at a thigh-high softball — similar to what Ted Lilly later served up to grateful Brewers batters — I asked: “How much will you pay me?’'

     Piniella laughed and said he’d get back to me.

     As he spoke from the visiting manager’s office, he reclined and put one of his feet on the desk. It was as relaxed as I’d seen him since spring training — back before his ballplayers started walloping each other, before he needed to awaken his team by getting thrown out of a game, before a bunch of veteran ballplayers inexplicably forgot how to execute even basic fundamentals, before his bullpen went bust, before Sweet Lou recorded the first of his 32 losses.  

   “There are a lot of frustrations in this business,’’ Piniella said. “Baseball is a tough game. It’s every day, and things don't go right all the time.’’

    Really? I hadn’t noticed, though I suppose Carlos Zambrano slapping Michael Barrett upside the head should have been a clue.

    Tuesday, Piniella mediated a truce between the bombastic batterymates, saying Barrett would catch Zambrano again this season (but not in today’s series finale).

   Calling it a case of a few guys wanting more playing time, the manager also scoffed at an ESPN report that he had “lost the clubhouse.’’ The story bears watching, but for now I don't see a team that has stopped playing hard for its leader.

     What I do see is a team that has not necessarily hit bottom yet. The Cubs are 7½ games behind Milwaukee. The burst of excitement from the wild weekend has passed, with Piniella’s aching back the only reminder of his theatrics. And starting pitchers Lilly, Rich Hill and Jason Marquis — who had combined to keep the Cubs from falling hopelessly out of contention — no longer are shutting down opponents.

     If I accept Piniella’s assertion that warmer weather helps the likes of Alfonso Soriano and Aramis Ramirez, isn’t it logical to conclude it hurts flyball pitchers such as Lilly, who has allowed 17 runs in his last three outings?

     Tuesday, he surrendered homers to legendary sluggers Corey Hart, Tony Graffanino and Ryan Braun.

    “I don’t think we’ll head further downhill,’’ Piniella said. “I think we’ll stabilize and move forward.’’

     Was he trying to convince the tough Chicago media? The demanding denizens of Cubbieland? Or himself?        Mike Nadel (mikenadel@sbcglobal.net) is the Chicago sports columnist for GateHouse News Service. Read his blog, The Baldest Truth, at www.thebaldesttruth.com.