CHICAGO — Mike Quade had just been fishing in Florida when he found out he caught the big one. That, of course, was the Cubs’ managing job.
“The timing of it, it’s comical,” he said.
The Cubs decided to keep Quade as their manager, choosing to go with the man who ran the team well for the last six weeks of last season rather than high-profile Hall of Famer and franchise icon Ryne Sandberg.
Quade (pronounced KWAH-dee), Chicago’s third base coach the past four years, was given a two-year contract Tuesday along with a club option for 2013. He served as interim manager after Lou Piniella abruptly stepped down in late August, leading the team to a 24-13 record, and he envisions the Cubs contending next year.
The Cubs finished the season at 75-87, in next-to-last place in the NL Central and a far cry from what a team with a payroll of about $145 million to start the season had expected.
“The way we played those last six weeks, why not?” Quade said. “I believe that from Day 1 — why not us? There are plenty of examples of teams that had rough years, finished strong — San Diego — and then built on it the next year.”
The job will be his first as a full-time major league manager.
The hire is the first under new owner Tom Ricketts, who watched the Cubs finish out of the playoffs yet again. Chicago’s infamous World Series championship drought now stands at 102 years.
“We believe that Mike can coach, manage and win for the Chicago Cubs,” Ricketts said.
Saying he needed to be with his ailing mother back in Florida, Piniella stepped down Aug. 22 after the Cubs went into a 5-20 skid that left them at 51-74. He was in the final year of his deal and had put together three straight winning seasons, but could not get the Cubs out of their funk.
General manager Jim Hendry said Sandberg, the Cubs’ Triple-A Iowa manager, and new Mariners skipper Eric Wedge were finalists and that former Arizona manager Bob Melvin interviewed. The Cubs were also reportedly interested in New York Yankees manager Joe Girardi.
“Joe has a great job, as high a profile as there is,” Hendry said. “At the end of the day, Mike Quade is our man. That’s what we wanted to do.”
Hendry called Sandberg “a great candidate.”
Sandberg told the Chicago Tribune he was “disappointed” and will continue to pursue other managing jobs. Asked if he would return to Iowa, he told the newspaper: “I don’t know. I’m hoping there’s something else out there. I’m hoping to manage or coach at the big league level.”
The 53-year-old Quade managed more than 2,300 minor league games in the Montreal, Philadelphia, Oakland and Cubs farm systems before arriving in Chicago.
The Chicago-area native was originally selected by the Pirates in the 22nd round of the 1979 draft out of the University of New Orleans and spent four seasons as an outfielder in Pittsburgh’s minor league system before entering the coaching ranks.
He held his first managerial position in 1985, with Class A Macon. He was promoted to Piniella’s staff after a running the Iowa Cubs from 2003-06, a stint that included two first-place finishes in his four seasons.
“’85, wow. Macon, Ga. — that’s a long way back,” Quade said. “I’d loved the game and wanted to manage at this level, yeah. But when you get done playing and you’re young and you’re fired up and you’re going, ‘OK, three years, four years. I’ll start moving up the ladder. I’ll be there.’ And then, five years go by. You’re still staying after it. You love what you do. You’re teaching, working and then 10 years go by. You change your goals. All of a sudden, you’re going, ‘Wow, this is a tough gig,’ but all the while getting to do what I love to do. … If it ever get to a point where I said, ‘Gosh, am I going to get it?’ I probably would have walked away.’”
He finally got his chance to manage a big league team when Piniella stepped down about a month after he announced his intention to retire at the end of the season. The Cubs went with Quade over Sandberg and bench coach Alan Trammell, and the audition was a success.
Players responded to Quade, and over the final 37 games, only the Philadelphia Phillies posted a better record.
The Cubs got a lift from promising rookies such as shortstop Starlin Castro, who hit .300, and outfielder Tyler Colvin. He hit 20 homers before he got struck in the chest by a broken bat in late September, ending his season.
Young pitchers Andrew Cashner and Casey Coleman showed promise, and veterans made their feelings for Quade clear, saying they thought he deserved the job.
“I had complete faith in the veterans, and they played like a son of a gun,” Quade said. “We weren’t going to win as many games in my time and we weren’t going to play as well unless the kids got better.”