(Joke-meister Piniella laughs it up on hearing Kerry Wood is on the DL)

“His tenure with the Cubs will likely produce the team™s first World Series championship since 1908 or end in a historic meltdown. Such are the stakes when baseball™s longest loser marries a man who so clearly hates to lose,” writes Lee Jenkins of the NY Times. Are the expectations absurd here or what? He did sign a three-year deal. There will be baseball in 2008. Nevermind the usual New York writer in a Strange Land miscues of Jenkins out in Mesa with the Cubs (Bleacher Bums fiery and driven to win? Not beer-besotted Harry Carayans?), apparently, the important thing to remember is that Lou Piniella either wins the World Series, or like the ticking clock in a bad Bruce Willis movie, he’ll explode if mathematically eliminated.

Not that Lou sees it that way:

In his first meeting with players Thursday, Piniella outlined his expectations for the pitching staff, emphasized the importance of a quick start, and then tried to portray himself as a laid-back jokester who just wants to have a good time.

Asked about his message to the team, Piniella said: œWe™re going to have some fun here ” be nice and relaxed and loose. I like that atmosphere. I like to kid around. I hope they don™t take me too seriously.

Piniella has not managed since Sept. 2005, when he was stewing in the Tampa Bay Devil Ray™s dugout and sniping at the club™s management. For the past year and a half, Piniella and the Cubs have both basically been out of baseball.

If there is anything worth remembering from the Cubs™ 2006 season, it was probably the right hook that catcher Michael Barrett threw at White Sox catcher A. J. Pierzynski after being run over at home plate. Not only did Barrett™s punch set off a crosstown rivalry, it showed the kind of fighting spirit that Piniella can appreciate.

œI hope to take his passion and add it to what I do, Barrett said. œI love having a manager who gets involved and is in touch with the intensity on the field ” who is not afraid to step out there and stand up for his players.

The Cubs typically make it difficult for any manager to stay positive for long. In keeping with tradition, the reliever Kerry Wood acknowledged Thursday that he had fallen out of a hot tub and bruised his right ribcage. With that disclosure, spring training officially began.

Wood said he would be out for only a few days, but the Cubs have reason to be skeptical. Wood has spent a large portion of his career on the disabled list, recovering from assorted injuries to his right arm. This is the first one sustained around a hot tub.

œIt™s about that time of year isn™t it? Wood said. œIt™s almost funny.