Hendry looks back on 2003 Cubs and wants another shot to be GM

Hendry looks back on 2003 Cubs and wants another shot to be GM
October 11, 2013, 3:30 pm
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Jim Hendry saw the nightmare from his Wrigley Field box, near the glass door that opened into the October air and the sellout crowd waiting to explode.

Hendry can’t escape the highlights that run on ESPN, Moises Alou jumping at the wall and Steve Bartman reaching for the foul ball. But the former Cubs general manager has never gone back and watched Game 6. The 2003 NLCS and the Florida Marlins will always stick in the back of his mind.

“It’s one of those things where I’ll go months without thinking about it,” Hendry said. “And then all of a sudden in the middle of the night it’ll hit me. We all play the what-if game and move on.”

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Hendry looks back on the unforgettable team he built in “5 Outs…,” the documentary that airs Tuesday on Comcast SportsNet. He’s the only GM in franchise history to see his Cubs advance to the playoffs three times, the only one to get them to the postseason in back-to-back years with those division titles in 2007 and 2008.

It makes Ozzie Guillen wonder why “people in Chicago treat Jim Hendry like he was a piece of (bleep).”

That’s probably because Hendry — now working as a special assignment scout with the New York Yankees — took so many bullets before getting fired in 2011. But the financial unwinding as the team was sold from Tribune Co. to Sam Zell to the Ricketts family has reinforced what insiders say privately: No one could have won under those circumstances.

“If I had my druthers, I would like to do it one more time,” Hendry said. “I don’t get up and go to work worrying about it. I’m not the young guy on the way up anymore and maybe it’s a younger-guy’s thing now. I wouldn’t want to stand in the way of somebody that’s (like me) 20 years ago. (But) I’ve never gone to work now hoping somebody would lose their job so I might do it again.”

Hendry, 58, still lives in Chicago’s northwest suburbs. Family will be a major factor in any decision, with a daughter getting ready to go to college, a son who’s a high school sophomore and the father feeling like he has missed too much and already spends enough time on the road.

Hendry doesn’t worry about his legacy. It wasn’t his idea to give Alfonso Soriano eight years on that megadeal. It wasn’t his decisions that ramped up spending before freezing and cutting major-league payroll. Two years and 197 losses into Theo Epstein’s rebuild have revealed the dysfunction and mid-market reality at Clark and Addison.

“It obviously didn’t end the way any of us would have wanted,” Hendry said. “I don’t make excuses for that. This is the big leagues. You win games or you don’t.

“The last couple years, we didn’t win enough games. We can all come up with rationalizations for why it wasn’t as good as the first six or seven years of my era.

“I start with myself. I’m disappointed we didn’t finish it off, whether it was a fluky thing like ’03 or we got hurt in ’04 or we should have won when we had the best team in the National League in ’08 and got beat by the Dodgers.”

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Hendry’s staff did build the pipeline in Latin America that has produced Starlin Castro, Welington Castillo, Junior Lake and other prospects now on the radar. Jeff Samardzija is turning into the kind of bright-lights, big-city guy Hendry envisioned when he watched the All-American wide receiver at Notre Dame.

There were enough assets for Epstein’s baseball operations department to convert them into All-Star lefty Travis Wood, first baseman Anthony Rizzo and a handful of prospects from the Ryan Dempster and Matt Garza deals.

Hendry had already been fired in a secret meeting with chairman Tom Ricketts weeks earlier when he finalized the deal with first-round pick Javier Baez in August 2011 — a few days before the farewell news conference inside the Wrigley Field interview room/dungeon.

“I don’t worry about what somebody might write or say,” Hendry said. “I’d like to be judged on the first six or seven years more than the last couple. But at the end of the day, it’s more important to me (what my staff) or the players or my peers would think than maybe just having a bad year (or two) on the way out and catching a lot of flak for it. I don’t lose any sleep over that.

“The sleep I lose is that I got a great chance and a great opportunity for a long time in a great place to work — and we didn’t finish it off.”

Ten years later, Guillen hammered that point, as the third-base coach on that 2003 Marlins team and a former White Sox manager who knows how Cubs fans and the Chicago media think.

“People say: ‘Wow, he made this move. He made that move. That’s a bad move,’” Guillen said. “Well, every move then was a pretty good move. It didn’t work out. I think Jim Hendry did a great job to put a team together to at least put the Cubs competing for the World Series. That’s all you have to do.

“He did everything to win. He was one out, one pitch away.”

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Hendry worked for the Cubs for almost two decades and dreamed about riding down Michigan Avenue in the championship parade. He usually watched games while pacing around his box, talking to himself, grabbing popcorn without even realizing it and dropping F-bombs everywhere. He was always into it.

He wasn’t a silver-spoon kid growing up in Dunedin, Fla. He wasn’t some Ivy League hotshot after getting a Jesuit education at Spring Hill College in Alabama. He did it with street smarts and people skills.

There used to be a saying around the baseball offices at Creighton University about the head coach: Jim Hendry could sell ice to Eskimos and make them think they were getting a good deal.

“The great thing about Jim is he knows everybody,” Arizona Diamondbacks GM Kevin Towers said. “From scouts to coaches, his network is incredible. He can place a call. When Hendry calls, you’re going to pick up the phone. He’s going to: a.) Make you laugh; and b.) He has a way of probably getting info out of you with you not even knowing it. He’s got that art.

“It takes you awhile to say: ‘I know where this guy is going. He’s not just calling me. He’s sapping me for some dope.’”

After getting fired by the San Diego Padres, Towers spent the 2010 season in Hendry’s role as a special assignment scout for Yankees GM Brian Cashman. Towers used that platform to land the Diamondbacks job.

At last year’s GM meetings in Indians Wells, Calif., Towers pointed to the Detroit Tigers and San Francisco Giants in an old-school World Series with teams built by Dave Dombrowski and Brian Sabean.

“Who were the last guys left standing?” Towers said. “Dombo and Sabes. They’ve been around a long time. There’s something to be said for experience, being around the game, seeing how the game’s changing. The more you’re in the game, the more mistakes you make and hopefully you learn from those mistakes and the better you become. You can’t replace experience.”

Hendry will always be haunted by the Milton Bradley deal, how Carlos Zambrano couldn’t handle the big money and what might have been if Kerry Wood and Mark Prior stayed healthy.

But he does have allies wondering if he’ll ever get the band back together again. A Cubs employee once summed up that sense of loyalty by saying: “I’d go to hell and back for Jim Hendry.”

“There’s a lot of people (who) I would love to maybe work with again,” Hendry said. “But I don’t really spend a lot of time worrying about it. If it happens, fine, if it’s meant to be. If it’s not, OK, I love working for the Yankees. Brian Cashman is as good as it gets.”

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The day after Game 6, one team official described the atmosphere inside the Wrigley Field offices as like a “morgue.” How long did it take to recover after Game 7?

“I don’t know if I ever have,” Hendry said with a laugh. “No, it was devastating. I remember the next couple months you not only have to drag yourself to work, but when you walk in that door, you’ve got to show everybody else that it’s not bothering you.

“It was with me in kind of a hard way for a long, long time. I would say years, because I really felt like I channeled it the right way. We all did.”

Hendry pointed to that offseason, trading for Derrek Lee, bringing back Greg Maddux and picking up other smaller pieces for a team that would win 89 games but miss the playoffs in what was supposed to be a World-Series-or-bust year.

“It was very productive in some ways,” Hendry said. “But to and from work, or when you put your head on the pillow at night, you had regular flashbacks, sure, absolutely.”

That addiction to the game, the adrenaline rush that comes from making deals, that slow-motion nightmare 10 years ago is why Hendry still wants a piece of the action, another shot to be GM.