I must make an apology to all of the Cubs fans who may be reading this. In my recent attempt to honor the recently retired all-time managing great Lou Piniella, I set out to read and review a book about him. I chose George Castle's book Sweet Lou and the Cubs, which has the notable advantage of revolving around his final gig with the Cubbies. Cub fans, I'm sorry, as I have not yet found that book about Piniella with which I could properly honor his career.
Sweet Lou and the Cubs certainly looked promising enough. It is supposedly an account of a year of his time with baseball's allegedly lovable losers. That year would be 2008, when the Cubs compiled the best record in the National League, easily captured their division title, and swept into the playoffs favored to return to the World Series for the first time since 1945 – only to find themselves promptly swept back out of the playoffs in three straight at the hands of the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Sweet Lou and the Cubs ADVERTISES itself as an in-depth account of the Cubs' 2008 season. But it really comes off as more of an expanded version of a game day program. Not all of the book is about Lou Piniella. In fact, little of it is about Piniella. Castle's coverage of the actual season is practically nonexistent. Only three or four of the chapters have anything to do with the Cubs and the 2008 season at all. Castle writes in one chapter about how the liberation of the front office allowed the team to get the players necessary to build the team into a dynamo, and he includes a chapter about the way Lou Piniella looks at the media, which to Castle's credit is very interesting – Castle touches on the pressure of the Chicago media and how it may have compared to the media in Piniella's other managerial stops – little Cincinnati, nice Seattle, and little, non-baseball Tampa Bay.
This book should have been better. The first few chapters are a pleasantly readable and informative breeze. We get the life story of Piniella in a nutshell (I think it's cool that Spanish is his first language), and a bit of explanation about Piniella's arrival, and how the makeup of the Cubs front office changed.
It is at the sixth chapter where Castle begins to diverge from what he's supposed to be writing about. It's a chapter about star player Alfonso Soriano, his talents as a ballplayer, and the road that brought him to his current place with the Cubs. Since the first five chapters have been setting up what the book is supposed to do, the chapter on Soriano comes as a bit of a shock. It throws us off and makes us thinks it's just an occasional segue. This is, after all, fan favorite Alfonso Soriano we're talking about here, and the occasional side chapter about such fan favorites can reasonably be expected of any book of this type. After you've adjusted to that idea, the seventh chapter is about Ryan Theriot, another fan favorite. That's two segues about popular Cubs, and the eighth chapter brings us to Lou Piniella's relationship with the Chicago media. Pretty par for the course.
It wasn't until after the media chapter gave way into a ninth chapter about Derrek Lee, then the tenth chapter about Carlos Zambrano that I noticed Castle spending an inordinate amount of time writing about the players. This is all well and good, but I was looking for a book about Lou Piniella! Sometimes, we'll be lucky enough to get the occasional quote from Piniella, but that's really about it from the sixth chapter onward. We're really not getting a dramatic, suspenseful account of the 2008 NL Pennant race in Sweet Lou and the Cubs. We're not getting a penetrating look into the mind of one of baseball's great strategists.
The chapters that actually do revolve around the Cubs' season do so only in the most sparse fashion. Castle doesn't run the season wire to wire. Instead, he covers briefly covers a handful of big series the Cubs play through, but the number of series Castle covers could be counted on my own right hand, which is missing two fingers. Although some of the anecdotes told about happenings during these series – Zambrano's no-no and Erin Andrews's choice of wardrobe being among the more memorable ones – Castle doesn't go into a lot of detail about the games themselves. This keeps the pace brisk, but you do have to include SOME detail about the games themselves. I realize this is a fine line between too little and too much detail, but I appreciate effort, not a lot of which is apparent here.
As a series of player biographies, Sweet Lou and the Cubs is pretty strictly matter-of-factly. Castle is here to give you the truth about the lives of the players and nothing but. Castle does get around to a good number of the fan favorites – the aforementioned players, Kerry Wood, Ryan Dempster. But he also mises a number of popular Cubs players like Kosuke Fukudome, Ted Lilly, and Geovany Soto (who, to be fair, was a rookie that season). Why Castle chose to write a chapter about the fairly inconspicuous Reed Johnson instead of popular Aramis Ramirez is beyond my grasp. There are pretty interesting stories about the players Castle writes about, especially Carlos Zambrano, but these biographies are the type that are frequently saved for the compilation magazines that accompany the conclusion of a championship season.
If you're looking for a series of biographies about the people who did the visible work for the 2008 Chicago Cubs, Sweet Lou and the Cubs is certainly a go-to book, even if it is somewhat lifeless. It gives you bland, to-the-fact bios of the managers and players. But what was Lou Piniella's rationale behind some of his more questionable calls that didn't work? What does a manager think in the heat of a Pennant race? How big is a particular series against a big rival, like the Cubs and Cardinals? What makes Lou Piniella tick? If you read George Castle's Sweet Lou and the Cubs, don't expect to find out.