Jim Hendry is impossible not to like, and believe me I try.
As general manager of the Chicago Cubs, Hendry is Darth Vader to most St. Louis Cardinals fans, of which I am one.
But behind the mask there's a genuine guy who is determined to lead the Cubs to a prize they haven't accepted in more than 100 years — a World Series championship.
In nine seasons as GM, he hasn't done it yet. But as spring training approaches and hopes spring anew, Hendry anticipates the Cubs will be in the thick of things in the National League Central.
He's added right-handed starter Matt Garza, first baseman Carlos Pena and a familiar face to Cubs fans, reliever Kerry Wood, to a team that played well down the stretch in 2010 after a bad first five months.
And in his biggest move, Hendry kept Mike Quade, who was named interim manager when Lou Piniella abruptly retired in late August and guided the Cubs to a 24-13 record, signing Quade to a two-year deal while disappointing fans who wanted someone with a higher profile in the manager role.
"It was a difficult decision and I'm thankful the new owner (Thomas Ricketts) left the final call to me,'' Hendry said.
Hendry, who coached Creighton to its biggest baseball accomplishment 20 years ago, will be the featured speaker at Monday's night's First Pitch Banquet, the season kickoff event for Wichita State baseball.
In picking Quade, Hendry snubbed Cubs legend Ryne Sandberg, who was the manager at the Cubs' Triple-A affiliate in Des Moines. Sandberg spent four years as a manager in the minor leagues, hoping to someday take over in Chicago. Hendry appreciated the sacrifice, but in the end didn't think Sandberg was the right fit with the Cubs.
Sandberg left the organization and will manage this season at Allentown, Pa., with the Triple-A affiliate of the Philadelphia Phillies.
"Quade had been on our staff for four years and had really commanded a lot of respect without promoting himself,'' Hendry said. "He always has had the players' respect. When Lou left, I think everybody thought Alan Trammell, the bench coach, was going to take over as interim manager. I decided to give Mike a shot and then he kind of ran the table in the last 35 to 40 games. He handled things so well on and off the field.''
It was an unconventional move, but one I admire. It's refreshing to see a big league organization reward a lifer like Quade, who spent more than 20 years bouncing around in the minor leagues.
Hendry relates, because his rise in baseball wasn't mercurial, either.
The 55-year-old Hendry started as a high school coach in Florida and was hired as assistant at Creighton in 1983.
Baseball at Creighton in those days didn't amount to much, but Hendry didn't let the school's lack of tradition hold him back. He went to work recruiting and was promoted to coach 18 months after arriving.
In 1991, the Bluejays made it to the College World Series, played at home in Omaha. It was the shining moment of Hendry's coaching career and one he still cherishes.
"I look at that as a tremendous time in my life,'' he said. "I never look back and try to analyze how good of a coach I was or wasn't. But I don't know that I've had a better time in my life as I did coaching at Creighton. I had a bunch of kids who overachieved and got a small school to the College World Series.''
While at Creighton, Hendry struck up a friendship with Wichita State coach Gene Stephenson and Shocker pitching coach Brent Kemnitz, relationships that still thrive.
"I was a young assistant at Creighton in 1983 and I thought that of all the people we played, Wichita State did things the right way,'' Hendry said. "They got people ready for pro ball and they played the game the way it's supposed to be played. I thought Gene and Brent did it better than anybody.''
In those years, Wichita State's baseball rivalry was a friendly one because the coaches got along so well.
"Both of those guys were really good to me,'' Hendry said of the long-time Shocker coaches. "They gave me a lot of respect. Creighton wasn't a great program at the time, but I tried to be a great recruiter and I think I earned their respect, too.''