Renteria knows 'difficult times' firsthand

But what could prepare the new Cubs manager for baseball's biggest challenge?

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On Opening Day of the 1990 season as a member of the Triple-A Calgary Cannons, infielder Rick Renteria was taking ground balls at the end of batting practice in Phoenix when a line drive struck him in the left temple.

The force crushed Renteria's face. He coughed up blood. According to friends and news reports, they rushed Renteria to a local hospital where surgeons inserted two plates in his chin and three screws to reset his jaw. Three long years later, which included two seasons of baseball exile in the Mexican League, Renteria finally made it back to the majors with the Marlins.

Such proven perseverance alone qualifies Renteria for his new job. It helps Cubs managers to have a high tolerance for pain.

"I'm usually a pretty positive individual,'' Renteria, 51, said Thursday. "It'd be pretty rare to see me without a smile on my face — even in difficult times.''

Did changing managers really bring the Cubs any closer to ending their difficult times?

The Cubs introduced Renteria during a teleconference from his home near San Diego because hip surgery prevented him from flying. That's such a Cubs metaphor. They hire a guy to take them to the next level who isn't supposed to climb stairs yet. Everything about this organization has become what happens later. Patience is recommended for Cubs fans. Increasingly, so is therapy.

Cubs President Theo Epstein raved about Renteria's baseball intellect, his communication skills and his reputation. Without comparing transcripts, Epstein's words sounded similar to what Epstein said about Dale Sveum two years ago. Renteria becomes the third straight Cubs manager hired without previous major league experience, what was once a chance of a lifetime slowly turning into an MLB internship.

It took 38 days for the Cubs to hire the man they want everybody to believe was their first choice. In that time, the Cubs allowed their supposed top target to interview with the Tigers and Mariners rather than take Renteria off the market.

"A month's worth of due diligence,'' Epstein called it.

Yeah, if due diligence means watching the Yankees re-sign dream candidate Joe Girardi, the Tigers beat the Cubs to Brad Ausmus and the Red Sox carried out a juvenile grudge by blocking Epstein's desire to interview bench coach Torey Lovullo. But Renteria need not apologize for taking a job that completes his inspiring personal journey from the poverty of Compton, Calif., where he grew up selling shoes out of his father's truck, to the possibility of Wrigley Field.

In his first Chicago media experience, Renteria exuded optimism. His naturally upbeat attitude likely struck Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer as the ideal counter to Sveum's blase nature. The strongest impression Renteria left involved his approach to players, which reminded me of Bears coach Marc Trestman's philosophy.

"I want to engage the player as a human being first,'' Renteria said. "They happen to be human beings playing baseball.''

That ability to treat everybody with respect, from players to maintenance workers, stood out to Kane County general manager Curtis Haug when Renteria managed the Cougars to a 78-59 record in 1999. One day, Renteria invited a fan who had complained loudly about an infielder's error onto the field for batting practice to see how hard his players worked.

"He politely showed the guy, 'Hey, it's not as easy as it looks,' and that's just Rick's outgoing personality,'' Haug said.

Not surprisingly, Renteria cast himself as a father figure capable of tough love Starlin Castro and other young Cubs will need and compared the Cubs' youth movement to raising his four children, ages ranging from 18 to 35. But calling the team a family and the dugout its home created the perception that Renteria will protect his players, perhaps to a fault, from the big, bad outsiders whose criticism will remind him he's not in San Diego anymore.

Renteria also came across as somebody terribly naive to the quirky challenges of a place where no manager has won a World Series in 105 years. When Renteria endorsed the Cubs' talent as good enough to win "between the lines,'' you wondered if had studied the Tigers roster by mistake.

If the Cubs truly want Renteria to succeed, they will follow his hiring by spending more liberally on legitimate players who aren't just signed and flipped for prospects. They will respond to the worst three-year stretch in club history by saying enough is enough and trying to develop minor league players and acquire major league difference-makers simultaneously.

Not that Renteria would dare make such a demand, which surely helped his candidacy.

"I don't even think about things like that,'' Renteria said. "Who we have is who we have.''

Who the Cubs have as their new manager is a nice guy who arrives with no guarantee he won't finish last too.

dhaugh@tribune.com

Twitter @DavidHaugh

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