Last week, as the Cubs extended their first losing streak of the season to four games, a question hovered over the team: who would manager Lou Piniella lose patience with first, his players or the press? Last Friday, after a 6-5 loss to the Cincinnati Reds, the press won, though it was close.

The first question asked in Piniella’s postgame conference was about pitcher Carlos Zambrano, who’d melted down in the fifth.

“This is your ace,” the notoriously mercurial Piniella said. “You got a five-nothing lead with the eighth and ninth hitters coming up. You feel pretty good about that inning. And all of a sudden it turns into a six-run inning. What do I do? I just pitch him when it’s his turn. What else can I do?

“And then I bring in a reliever who’s throwing 30-, 40-foot curveballs to boot,” he continued, referring to Will Ohman, who replaced Zambrano only to throw eight balls in nine pitches, walking in the tying and go-ahead runs with the bases loaded. “Now I can see, I can start to see some of the ways this club has lost ball games. I can see it. We’ve got to put a stop to it, obviously.”

And can’t we all see some of those ways? From a ball bouncing off Aramis Ramirez’s head to a foul pop bouncing off Steve Bartman’s hands to a grounder skipping between Leon Durham’s legs to Don Young losing a fly ball in the sun? So much for Piniella instilling any oxymoronic “Cubbie swagger,” as he vowed to do in spring training. Even so, he more or less kept his composure until George Castle of the Times of northwest Indiana asked him exactly what wasn’t working. “What the hell do you think isn’t working?” Piniella shouted. “You see the damn game.”

Some honeymoon. Piniella is an astute baseball man, but he showed no regard for the usual conventions of handling the media–curious for someone who first managed with the Yankees 20 years ago. He made no opening statement after the Cubs lost the home opener to the Houston Astros earlier in the week, instead sitting down and brusquely opening up the session by saying, “What do we got?” And he displayed little patience for questions designed to get him to expand on a point for a sound bite. Asked if he was “concerned” about his bullpen’s early struggles after that same game, Piniella replied, “Concern–look, if you want to concern yourself with something in baseball, there’s something to concern yourself with every day.”

Yet the points of friction seem to be mainly about matters of style. Piniella isn’t as media friendly as Jim Riggleman, who would typically begin his pregame chat session by emerging from the Cubs’ dugout and saying, “Hello, scribes,” and he’s certainly no Phil Jackson, who’d spin each postgame conference with the skill of a White House press secretary. Piniella is closer to the Bulls’ Scott Skiles: curt and sometimes imperious, with a tendency to show exasperation and begin answers with that faintly condescending “Look,” as if he’s explaining the obvious.

Notwithstanding his blowup, by the end of last week Piniella and the media showed signs of adapting to each other’s methods. Before last Friday’s game, he came into the Wrigley Field media room saying, “Good morning, good morning,” and sat down as if he were a brilliant but absentminded professor, an air he also projects when he pauses midanswer to ponder a certain point or detail. By the end of Saturday’s game, in which Rich Hill pitched shutout ball to halt the Cubs’ skid, he was positively jovial, comparing the shifting winds and weather conditions at Wrigley Field to “playing the British Open” in golf. Reporters were learning that a genuine question with no obvious or immediate answer was apt to rouse Piniella and that a question everyone already knew the answer to was apt to get a laconic response.

Piniella’s White Sox counterpart, Ozzie Guillen, by contrast, has settled into a comfortable–well, eloquence wouldn’t quite be the right word, but let’s just say the Sox manager has been in rare form so far this season, even by his own freewheeling standards. When Minnesota Twins ace Johan Santana beat them once again at Sox Park on Easter Sunday, Guillen said the only way to stop him would be to invite his own mother up from Venezuela to cook Santana dinner. “We’ll poison him,” he quipped. In Oakland at the start of a road trip, he said the team’s poor luck out west made him think he’d have to “kill some chickens” to alter its fortunes. And when asked about allegations that Jose Contreras had paid a convicted felon $200,000 to get his family out of Cuba, Guillen defended that decision vociferously, then turned it into a joke, saying, “For $200,000, I’d swim to Cuba to get his family. I’d say, ‘Jump on my shoulders and I’ll swim back to Miami.’ Some guys do it for 200 bucks.”

Now that’s a manager who’s reached his comfort zone with the media, sensitivity training or no sensitivity training, and you better believe the media–and his players–appreciate it.

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Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Rich Pilling/MLB Photos Via.