CHICAGO – Carlos Villanueva knew what he was signing up for when he chose to join the Cubs as a free agent last year.
First-year Cubs manager Rick Renteria also was well aware of the expectations and weight his job carries when he accepted the gig during the offseason.
“You don't question their ability to manage, but especially here in Chicago, it can break you,” Villanueva said. “I've only been here for one year, but I see how things are.”
Chicago broke Lou Pinella. It broke Mike Quade and Dale Sveum and many more before them. Renteria’s eternal optimism will be tested as the Cubs’ manager. "Positive" and "upbeat" often are used to describe Renteria.
However, during the rebuilding process he will have to show the front office he is a long-term solution. Friday’s home opener at Wrigley Field, a 7-2 loss to the Philadelphia Phillies, was Day No. 4 of Renteria’s regular-season audition.
Villanueva believes a manager can make a “humongous difference,” which the pitcher has experienced through the good and not-so-good managers during his career. The 30-year-old Villanueva is in his eighth season in the majors and already has played for five different managers.
“It definitely affects the way you play, at least it affects your attitude,” Villanueva said. “I've been places where guys come in, and they don't really say it, but they feel like, 'Man, I don't really want to play for this guy.' You don't want to give it all for this guy. You don't want that to happen.”
But, according to a recent study by statistician Nate Silver’s fivethirtyeight.com, almost every manager – 172 total – in the past 30 years has been statistically average with limited influence on team results. Of course, there are a few recent anomalies, such as former Atlanta Braves manager Bobby Cox and long-time manager Tony La Russa.
The research suggested a manager needs to manage more than 1,000 games to get a true gauge of their capabilities. Extend the data to the past 113 years, and only 119 of 490 managers (24.3 percent) have reached that mark.
As recent Cubs history has shown, managers haven’t been kept around long enough to make a definitive impact. Since 2010, the Cubs have had four different managers, including short stints by Quade (one season) and Sveum (two seasons). The last time the franchise had a manager at the helm for more than 1,000 games was Leo Durocher, who managed 1,065 games with the Cubs from 1966-72.
In the franchise’s 139-year history dating to when they were the Chicago White Stockings, only four managers have reached the 1,000-plus game threshold: Durocher, Charlie Grimm (two stints between 1932-60), Frank Chance (1905-12) and Cap Anson (1879-1897). Grimm, Chance and Anson were also player-managers who had a direct, on-field opportunity to affect a game.
“He’s easy to talk to,” reliever James Russell said of Renteria. “He says hello to everybody. He always has a smile on his face. The positive energy, you can kind of get a feed off of him. It’s good, especially with the young group we’ve got.”
With former Cub and Hall of Famer Ryne Sandberg back at Wrigley on Friday as manager of the Phillies for ballpark’s 100th home opener, visions of the fan favorite wearing the Cubbie blue in the home dugout still linger.
Russell played for Sandberg in Class-A Peoria in 2007 and Double-A Tennessee in 2009 and has a unique perspective of playing for both managers. Russell credited Renteria and Sandberg’s ability to connect with players.
“Obviously, there’s a difference on the back of their baseball cards, but they’re both different in their own ways,” Russell said. “I always thought (Sandberg) would be putting on the Cubbie uniform as a manager, but things didn’t really work out and that’s how it is.”
Yet history suggests Sandberg would not have made much of an impact on the Cubs’ wins and losses had he been hired at any point during the past four years. In Philadelphia, Sandberg is already receiving early-season criticism for decisions he has made.
“For me, I think the leadership starts with the manager,” Sandberg said. “I just really had the players know me and me know the players and get on the same page. That’s what took place in all of spring training. I think things have gone really well and we have a good group.”
For as much as some people believed Sandberg was the Cubs’ answer, history suggests he would be just another Cubs manager to get churned up and spit out. It’s Renteria’s job to prove he can be a long-term manager, and with experience and better players than the Cubs have trotted out the past few years during the rebuilding process, deliver an elusive World Series title.
“I think that I’m trying to make sure we understand that we have to stay focused and grind out every game, that every play, every piece of work does matter,” Renteria said. “Every at-bat matters. Every out matters. There’s a way to approach the game, win, lose or draw.”