I hesitate to start a post inspired by a tweet from Paul Sullivan, but here it goes anyway...
"Red Sox. White Sox. Saints. Who's next? Clippers or Cubs?"
While I certainly hope that the Cubs manage to somehow reach the top of the mountain before the Clippers, I've often thanked my lucky stars that "At least I'm not a Saints fan," because they seemed too hopeless an organization to ever win a championship any time soon. Shows what I know.
The Saints went into the game yesterday as universal underdogs. Despite many football experts admitting that the teams were pretty evenly matched (and some even admitted the Saints might be better overall on paper), the presence of Peyton Manning and the confidence from the knowledge that they had been there before would be the difference-maker in the Super Bowl.
Additionally, the psychological impact of players playing a game that they all felt was bigger than simply the final game of the season had to be a factor. The Saints had the weight of an entire city on their shoulders and it showed in the first quarter. Passes were dropped, Brees had happy feet, and the Colts' offensive line was blowing holes open in the Saints' defense that Joseph Addai used for gaining yards in almost 10-yard chunks.
It was looking like it would be another devastating loss for the Saints franchise. Even when they looked like they would claw their way back to a tie score, they got tripped up by bad turf on 3rd down from the one, and then stuffed on 4th down from the two. They managed to get a long field goal to finish the half, but the Colts would get the ball to start second half and, surely, Manning would march them down to an answering score and put the Saints right back into catch-up mode again.
Well, that isn't what happened, and don't call me Shirley.
If going for it on 4th down before the half was ballsy, the onside-kick call to start the second half was so daring that Evel Knievel would have been impressed with the size and weight of Payton's cojones.
To call that play at that time in the game was brilliance bordering on insanity, and it caused me to get out of my chair and applaud before I even knew if the plan even worked.
That onside kick changed the momentum of the game completely. Suddenly, despite the Saints still being behind, they were the aggressors and the Colts were on their heels. The Saints offense was also moving along as well since the Colts' defense now clearly had to be ready for anything at any time. Off the top of my head, Sean Payton made three unorthodox calls: going on fourth and goal in the 2nd quarter, running a reverse when they were in the gray area of field goal range, and the onside kick. One of them worked, but they all served notice that the Colts would have to be ready for anything from the Saints. I was half expecting to see the Statue of Liberty play.
If that onside-kick had failed, I highly doubt the Saints end up winning the game. They would have handed the Colts almost a sure field goal, and they could have very easily gone up by eleven before people had returned to their seats from their halftime bathroom break. Sean Payton knew the repurcussions if the kick had failed and he decided to go for the jugular of his opponent anyway.
So what in hell does this have to do with the Cubs?
As Sullivan's tweet reminded us (as if we needed reminding), the Cubs have yet to reach the top of the mountain despite setting out with a sherpa over a hundred years ago. Considering the Jews only wandered in the desert for forty years with Moses, the quest has attracted more than its share of media attention as the fan base angst has risen with every season.
We have seen what happens when they get close. Crazy shit happens. Balls carom off some poor fans' hands. Alleged routine double-play grounders are botched (I still maintain that Gonzalez would not have turned two on that ball no matter what). Balls go through first basemen's legs. Black cats run around the Cubs' dugout.
The psychological weight of the championship drought has to weigh on the players to a degree. Whether they worry about screwing up a chance to win, or they try too hard to be the heroes, the focus from the game is drawn away by the sheer magnitude of the quest before them.
This is why I want Lou Piniella to manage the Cubs until he doesn't want to anymore. Lou is the kind of leader that is willing to try crazy things just to throw off the other team. He has the balls to make a decision that could get him crucified in the media if it fails. We've already seen him do it with the Cubs.
Last year before the All-Star break, Lou was shuffling Sean Marshall out to left field so he could play match-ups with the Cardinals' batting order and still be able to bring Marshall back to pitch to the lefty hitter following the righty in the batters box. It was sheer brilliance. Even The Genius in the Cardinals dugout admitted he was impressed.
He had the stones to flip-flop Dempster and Zambrano in the rotation in the 2008 NLDS because he thought that gave the Cubs the best chance to win the series. He had faith in Fukudome. He had faith in his bullpen in Game 1 of the 2007 NLDS as Zambrano came out in the 6th inning of a tied game. He made the big calls and he got killed in the press for making decisions that didn't work. He also took the blame instead of passing it onto the real culprits in those decisions failing: the players who didn't execute the plan.
When a team with a history of losing reaches a point of breaking the cycle of failure, the team needs a disregard for convention. It helps to have a leader that is ballsy. It is good to have a leader that can care less what people write about him after the fact. It is absolutely essential that his players believe in his decisions. It might even be necessary to be a little crazy to get past normal convention and forcibly push a team past its own tradition of losing and into the history books.
If you can tell me a better manager than Lou Piniella for the Cubs to do just that, I'd like to know who it would be.