No Ordinary Joe, Cubs’ Maddon might be MLB’s best skipper
CHICAGO (AP) — Everyone expected some zaniness when Joe Maddon came to town.
He did not disappoint.
Just a day after turning Wrigley Field into a petting zoo for his players, complete with a pink flamingo, a sloth, a penguin and a snow leopard, the Cubs manager was spotted strolling the concourse before a big game in late September with yet another big cat — this one a cheetah named “Bibi” — at the end of a leash.
“Travis Wood has been giving me a lot of heat for not having any animals in the clubhouse,” Maddon recalled. “I said, ‘Just be patient.’”
He’d similarly promised Cubs fans “something special” when taking the helm of a rebuilding effort in Chicago at the tail end of 2014, inheriting a team that had averaged 93 losses the previous five seasons. They’d heard that more than once in the century-and-counting wait for a return to respectability, let alone the World Series. Maddon does not plan to disappoint them, either.
But it wasn’t just the speed of the turnaround that made the 61-year-old baseball lifer a rock star on the city’s North Side. It’s how much fun everybody from the clubhouse attendants to chairman Tom Ricketts’ office has had from the first unpredictable step to the last. Because that’s how Joe rolls.
The Cubs had defeated the Brewers at their place in Sunday’s regular-season finale to cap off a 97-win season when word reached Maddon that the Pirates had won, too, holding onto the right to host Wednesday’s National League wild-card game at home.
“We’re going to the ‘Burgh,’” he said.
Then Maddon glanced at the his phone, checked the weather forecast in Pittsburgh for the week ahead and cheerfully announced he was bringing along his bike. The man knows how to have fun. And if this baseball business ever turns sour, well, you get the sense he’d get hired as a cruise director in a minute. Not that there’s much chance of that at the moment.
“I never thought that it would not work out,” Maddon said in a wide-ranging interview last week. “I never wrote nice resumes, never made phone calls. I never asked people to make phone calls for me. I taught myself to be patient instead.
“I always believed if I did my job properly,” he added a moment later, “the right person would notice and it would work out.”
That journey sounds a lot easier in the retelling than when Maddon embarked on it, nearly four decades and thousands of miles ago, as a slap-hitting catcher buried deep in the Angels organization. He realized he’d never bust his way out of Class A ball, so after four years, he stepped outside lines to stay in the game. Six mostly unsuccessful seasons as a minor league manager came next, then two dozen more as a roving scout, hitting instructor and coach.
What he learned along the way was to back his players at all costs. The first time he did it, arguing with the general manager over the condition of the field in Idaho Falls, Idaho, Maddon expected to get fired. He won, instead, and never looked back.
“That’s the thing with Joe. He listens,” veteran pitcher Jon Lester said. “If things don’t work out, he takes you on the side and gives you a well thought-out reason why. It sounds simple, but especially with the younger guys, it’s a great way to learn. You make your case, like say, you don’t want to come out of a game, and you always get a fair hearing.”
Asked how many times, he won those arguments, Lester laughed.
“Once, maybe,” he said. “Joe’s a pretty thoughtful guy. He’s ready for just about anything.”
Somehow, though, the call Maddon had been anticipating all those years caught him by surprise. Angels manager Marcel Lachemann was on the other end of the line; he needed a bullpen coach in a hurry. In an interview with “ESPN The Magazine” late last year, Maddon recalled hanging up, then immediately ringing up the small apartment above the plumber’s shop back in Hazleton, Pennsylvania, where he grew up.
“Mom,” he told Beanie Maddon, both of them fighting back tears, “I made it to the majors.”
Slow as the start to his career had been, the next few steps seemed like a whirlwind. In 1996, Lachemann quit and his successor, John McNamara, fell ill. Maddon was named interim manager of the Angels in August and made his debut at Yankee Stadium in a 7-1 win. He was headed for the interview room when then-GM Billy Bavasi stopped Maddon and “pours me a shot of Jack Daniels and says, ‘Drink this.’
“Talking to the press,” he recounted in the same interview, “has become a little easier for me.”
Good thing, too, since Maddon had a lot of explaining to do when he took over as manager of Tampa Bay’s sad-sack franchise in 2006. The Rays lost 197 games in the tough AL East his first two seasons, even as Maddon kept telling his players they’d get their revenge on the big spenders in New York and Boston. They did, too, zooming all the way to the World Series in 2008 before bowing to the Phillies in five games.
Maddon soldiered on in Tampa for six more seasons, putting down deep roots in the community. Yet he couldn’t resist the challenge when baseball’s ultimate underdog franchise came calling.
“I felt like I had one other journey to make,” Maddon said. But he had a call to make to Beanie first.
“Yeah,” he confirmed, “another cryfest.”
Chicago was only too happy, though, to get his signature on a contract. Club President Theo Epstein, who preached patience during his yearslong effort to rebuild the Cubs the way he’d rebuilt the Red Sox, says the moment they locked up Maddon is when those plans took on real urgency. Then he backed it up by signing Lester for big money, bringing back Jason Hammel, trading for veteran leadoff hitter, Dexter Fowler, and bringing up a host of talented kids he’d drafted and been stockpiling in the minors: Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber, Addison Russell, Jorge Soler and Javier Baez.
What’s remembered now as the “summer of love in Wrigley” didn’t really take hold until after the All-Star break, after which the Cubs broke out and strung together the best record in baseball. Looking back at the season from some distance, Maddon said an early four-game sweep of the Mets made him think the expectations arising out of spring training might not be overblown. But everything from there on out, he quickly adds, has become kind of a blur.
For the record, there were the MLB-best 13 walk-off wins, a Cy Young resume from pitcher Jake Arrieta and a Rookie of the Year campaign from Bryant, four 4-game series sweeps (vs. the Mets, Brewers, Giants and Braves), something the Cubs haven’t managed since their last World Series appearance in 1945. Somewhere in between, he brought in “Simon The Magician” to perform tricks during a trip to New York and convinced his players to don pajamas for the flight home from Los Angeles after Arrieta no-hit the Dodgers.
When Maddon was asked for the highlights, he starts talking about how a “lot of it has to do with how well we do at the last part of the game,” but cuts it off with a wave of his arm.
“I’ve really been stuck in the moment. I don’t even know the lineup for tomorrow. I’ve got excellent research, tons of it, believe me, but I won’t make it out until I go down to the lobby of my building tomorrow, grab a Starbucks and take a seat,” he said.
“I’ve really attempted to train myself to be in the present tense,” Maddon added a moment later, “and I’ve done a decent job keeping myself there so far.”