"Oh, fuck yeah!"
Not to sully the wholesome reputation of the Cubs' kiddie corps, but this has become the refrain of the team as it files down the runway behind the dugout following a particularly stirring victory at Wrigley Field, with players slapping high fives, tapping bats against brick walls, and pounding fists and gloves against grounds-crew equipment lockers all the way to the locker room. The players, at these moments, have the charge of a triumphant Little League team, while appropriating the foul language of adults to make it all seem less childish, more authentically manly. There's something telling in that, because baseball remains a boy's game played, professionally, by men, who must master its various demanding crafts even as they attempt to retain the freshness and spontaneity that inspired their play as youths.
It's a Zen trick, that ability to balance fun and business, looseness and precision, spontaneity and discipline. And the person charged with maintaining that equilibrium on the resurgent Cubs is first-year manager Joe Maddon, who has won over the city and its sportswriters with his old-school baseball intuition, offbeat intellect, and New Agey managerial style almost as well as he's charmed the players. Meanwhile the Cubs have risen to a winning record and now challenge for a playoff spot for the first time since president Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer took control of the team at the end of 2011, deliberately crashed the franchise, and rebuilt from the ashes, drafting prime young talent with the top picks allotted to losers, then waiting for those players to develop and arrive at the big leagues.
That process is almost complete and has produced the desired results. The entire starting infield is 25 or younger and All-Star caliber. First baseman Anthony Rizzo, 25, acquired by trade in 2012, is having a breakout campaign and appeared in this year's All-Star game; second baseman Addison Russell, 21, also acquired by trade, already fields at a Gold Glove level. Third baseman Kris Bryant, 23, the team's top draft pick two years ago and this year the Cubs' second representative on the All-Star team, burned his way through the bushes by leading the minors with 43 homers last year and, like Russell, arrived this season; shortstop Starlin Castro, 25, the lone holdover from the last regime, is already a three-time All-Star. Cuban signee Jorge Soler, 23, has established himself in right field, and other top draft picks Javier Baez and Kyle Schwarber are in the pipeline and trying to elbow their ways into the lineup (Schwarber in the majors, at least for the time being, Baez knocking at the door). For a manager like Maddon, who treasures players that can be used as interchangeable parts he can shift around and make the most of, it's a wealth of young riches.
Yet rebuilding is a slow, painstaking, risk-laden process even with the best and soundest of sports franchises, and that's frustrating to fans, even the die-hards at the Friendly Confines. Throw in that the Cubs, of course, haven't won a Major League championship since 1908, and haven't even appeared in a World Series since the end of the Second World War 70 years ago, and it becomes even more fraught. Epstein and Hoyer, however, have executed the task before, ending the Boston Red Sox' "Curse of the Bambino" in 2004 with a team of undoubtedly skilled players who were also, not coincidentally, self-declared "idiots" who proved immune to pressure, even that imposed by a universally acknowledged curse. Epstein and Hoyer took a pass, back then, on the as-yet-inexperienced Maddon, interviewing him for the job but instead selecting former White Sox farm-club skipper Terry Francona to guide the BoSox to their first championship in 86 years, as well as another in 2007—and who can argue with those results? Yet Maddon has since done the same exact thing the Cubs are now trying to do, melding in young, talented players amassed over years of mediocrity and high draft picks to take the expansion Tampa Bay Devil Rays to the World Series in 2008, a year in which his team beat the White Sox in the playoffs and outlasted the Cubs, who had put together the best regular-season record in baseball only to choke, as ever over the last century plus, by failing to win even a single playoff game. Can he do it again here, this time finishing the task with a championship?
It's not just the players, but the suddenly revitalized and rededicated Cubs fans who respond to that with something on the order—each to his or her own vocabulary—of "Oh, fuck yeah."
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With his spiky gray hair and horn-rimmed glasses, the 61-year-old Maddon has the look of a frazzled genius, equal parts Christopher Lloyd's Doc in Back to the Future and Casey Stengel, the "Ol' Perfesser" who guided the New York Yankees to several championships. He would most likely be an iconoclast in whatever field he chose to pursue, but he's especially so in the realm of MLB managers, typically guided by "the book" of baseball strategy and by hard-guy conventions that have ruled the game seemingly since its inception. For there are two types of baseball managers: the hard-ass and the so-called players' manager, and teams and general managers typically alternate between one and the other to give players a new prevailing attitude, either taking an overly regimented bunch that has forgotten how to enjoy the game and granting them a little freedom, or conversely taking a chaotic bunch and imposing a little much-needed discipline to remind them it is, after all, about execution and winning.
In that dichotomy, Maddon would have to be considered a players' manager, but taken on his own he's something else entirely.
Baseball stats guru Bill James came up with a "Manager in a Box" device to categorize baseball skippers—sort of a Proust questionnaire for sabermetricians—and in it he always asks which managers a manager played for and what he learned from them. Maddon, like precious few other big-league managers (although the Baltimore Orioles' curmudgeonly Earl Weaver comes quickly to mind), never made it to the majors as a player, but he is closely identified with the Los Angeles Angels' innovative Mike Scioscia, whom he coached under for six seasons, including their 2002 championship campaign. Maddon, however, had notions of his own, and to complete his resumé as an iconoclast he recently said he learned his processes not by mimicking the successful traits of others, but by learning from their mistakes.
"I think you learn a lot from watching somebody do it in a way that you would not do it. And I did," he said before one July game. "When things weren't going well, people would pile on or become punitive because guys are really trying and working hard, and it's not happening. You get angry with them. I never understood that. So I guess I learned more from watching people do this the way I would never want to do it myself. And from that, you try to work in the opposite direction, and that's what I've done."
Unlike most baseball men, Maddon pays acute attention to language, even as he speaks with a rapid-fire, off-the-cuff delivery. "I like how Miguel Montero speaks," he said during spring training of the Cubs catcher. "He uses adverbs. Not many guys use adverbs." This is a guy who wondered during one postgame media conference where was the "phalanx" of photographers, and on another occasion paused with Cubs media director Peter Chase on their way to the postgame interview session to consult Siri on the correct pronunciation of "eschewed"—he knew it would come up after he went against the baseball book and refrained from the sacrifice bunt after getting the leadoff man and even the next batter on in the 10th inning of a scoreless game (a game they won, 1-0, on a sacrifice fly later that inning).
Maddon explained moving Castro down in the batting order during a slump by saying, "I just think he's overboogeying it a little bit," that is, thinking too much, a common baseball affliction in that great divide between spontaneity and consideration. Going off on a tangent during a pregame media session about which figures from history he'd invite to his ideal dinner, he immediately identified writers James Michener, Pat Conroy, and Mark Twain, while also throwing in another baseball iconoclast, Branch Rickey, the Cardinals and Dodgers exec who developed the farm system and broke baseball's color barrier by signing Jackie Robinson.
He'll end an interview session with a simple "Cool," or a slightly more accommodating "Solid?" No wonder he's had the media eating out of his hand since being introduced as Cubs manager last October.
Maddon has little concern for baseball's traditional machismo. He lauded pitcher Jake Arrieta for his diligent fitness regimen, which includes Pilates, by saying, "If you want a good video, this guy should do the next Jane Fonda workout video on the male side of things with his leggings on." He praised leadoff man Dexter Fowler for having "an organized strike zone," not just "a good eye," in effect crediting the help of bench coach Dave Martinez, an ex-Cub he brought along with him from Tampa Bay. At one point, he explained it as only Joe Maddon, baseball sensei, could: "When the student is ready, the teacher will appear."
Another of Maddon's mantras is: "The mind, once stretched, has a difficult time going back to its original form." He's repeated that enough that, more recently, he's taken to saying just "The mind, once stretched . . . ," allowing sportswriters to fill in the rest.
That management by mantra recalls Phil Jackson, the "Zen master" former Bulls coach, as does Maddon's admitted fondness for the Grateful Dead, which he saw during their Fare Thee Well series of final shows at Soldier Field. Once asked which other bands he'd see, ideally, if given the chance, he said the Allman Brothers, then added, "Beyond that, a good Sinat—oh, no—Pavarotti, that's the one I wanted to see. To see Pavarotti, in any event, that would have been fabulous." Notice how he almost settled for the conventional response (Frank Sinatra), then immediately switched to something uniquely his own, at least among baseball people.
For good measure, Maddon owns a camper he named Cousin Eddie, where he played host to Epstein and Hoyer last fall out on the road, immediately after the baseball season ended and he'd opted out of an additional year of his contract in Tampa Bay, making him suddenly available to take the Cubs job.
Still, what typifies Maddon most of all is a rah-rah positivity, driven by an appreciation for how difficult this child's game is to play at the highest level. Everything else in his approach flows outward from that basic attitude toward the sport. Consider this comment after that aforementioned 1-0 victory over the Dodgers, in which the Cubs got but five hits, two of them to start that game-winning rally: "I thought we hit the ball great tonight," Maddon said. "I thought we had great at-bats all night long and hit the ball well. So I'm saying I thought the game was complete. We pitched well. We swung the bats well. We worked at-bats, and we played defense. It was a nice night."
On another occasion, Maddon said, "The everyday player, there's not enough appreciation for what these guys do, I don't think . . . how difficult it is to perform at this level every day." He added, "The fact that I was not very good at playing every day, I have a greater appreciation for it."
For Maddon, it's not about the results in wins and losses, but about the process of playing the game right, from which wins will inevitably follow. That's reflected in his spring training slogan that the players "respect the 90," that is, run full out the 90 feet from home plate to first base on a groundout—and go full bore on all they do on the field.
Yet, really, how different is that approach? The Cubs have brought in any number of hard-ass and soft-soap managers to break through the culture of losing over the last 107 years, and they all thought they had the trick. Lou Piniella, Dusty Baker, Don Baylor, just to name the hard-boiled recent applicants, all thought they had a special approach that would work wonders, but all left town beaten men. I first labeled this phenomenon "Bayloritis" in a column years ago, yet it probably goes back to the late-60s and early-70s tenure of Leo Durocher and beyond. All succumbed to the Cubs' losing ways, whether one believes in the so-called Billy Goat curse or not.
Maddon hasn't yet had to deal with talk of the curse. That comes only with pennant fever and the approach of the playoffs, whereas for now both players and fans are delighted enough just to have the team winning. Yet Maddon has shown that he has a few new tricks up his sleeve, never more so than when, after a brief rough stretch, he invited a magician to perform in the team's clubhouse before a game in New York against the Mets at the end of June. Later that same series, Rizzo pulled off his own sleight of hand—or, rather, of foot—when, dead to rights sliding into third base on a steal attempt, he drew his legs in as the third baseman whiffed on a swipe tag, then extended his legs, hit the bag, and popped up before the fielder could actually lay a glove on him. Called safe, Rizzo turned to the Cubs dugout and said, quite clearly to all lip readers, "It's magic! It's magic!" The Cubs went on to win the game and alter their fortunes, playing an extended series of taut games so that they entered the All-Star break in mid-July in position to make the playoffs for the first time since Piniella's last fiasco, in 2008.
Maddon himself soon pondered the rationale behind that managerial stunt, saying he did it "because things aren't going so good. Just to change the subject a little bit, move it along in another direction, have them think in a different way. That's all that is."
Many people, however, are skeptical of magic of any sort, and the Sun-Times's Gordon Wittenmeyer speculated in a column immediately after the break that Maddon's magic act could get "tiresome," that his iconoclastic motivation techniques could grow old fast, especially with a group as jaded as multimillionaire baseball players.
Yet that really overlooks, again, the delicate balancing act required to motivate well-paid athletes on a daily basis, and in this regard Maddon's approach shares much with that of Jackson's MO with Michael Jordan and the Bulls. Jackson, too, found unconventional ways to keep his players engaged, as with the books he'd give out for early-season road trips, and he also indulged in a little spiritual magic, such as burning sage in the locker room to clear it of evil spirits in a modified Lakota rite.
"I find it amusing when people ask me where I get my ideas for motivating players," Jackson wrote in his book Sacred Hoops. "The answer is: in the moment."
Compare that to Maddon's comment after that Dodgers game: "We were engaged in every pitch. I thought we were in the present tense all night long, and I loved it."
Also keep in mind that, while Maddon and the Rays never returned to the World Series after 2008, they put together five 90-win seasons over his nine years there. It wasn't as if his unconventional ways had some limited shelf life. Just this season, ESPN did a survey of players asking which manager they'd like to play for; Maddon led all with 35 percent of the vote.
Maddon, like Jackson, deals in notions of "energy," but not in the energy flow of a game and its momentum, as Jackson frequently commented on, but on the expenditure of energy in a baseball player and its ebb and flow from day to day. In marked contrast with Durocher and his old-school ways, Maddon uses not one set lineup, but almost a different lineup every day, with players shuttling in and out and even switching positions, again as they might in high school. (Bryant, the third baseman, even played center field in a game early after arriving this season.)
"You can't run guys into the ground, and I don't care what the birth certificate says," Maddon said. "It's a lot about the mental grind."
Likewise, and typical of his tenure in Tampa Bay as well, he has resisted settling on a single pitcher as the team's bullpen closer, saying, "If you have the one guy, obviously you're always going to go to the one guy. I think, by the way we're doing it, we're able to highlight and utilize the talents of our relief pitchers.
"The expectation level has been raised a little bit. We're here to win. It's not just to compete," he added. "So there's a different vibe. I like spreading out the emotions. It's about spreading out the emotion, not just the workload itself."
Returning for a moment to writers, F. Scott Fitzgerald once said, "The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function." Maddon displays that as well in a key baseball area: superstition. He has courted the fates by shooting a liquor-store commercial in which he shakes up and sprays champagne, and by hoisting up and brandishing the Stanley Cup for the fans in the grandstand when the Blackhawks visited Wrigley Field shortly after winning the NHL championship. Yet at the same time Maddon made the decision to "hole up in a particular hotel" in Florida for the three days of the All-Star break—the same place, not coincidentally, he spent the break in 2008, the year he guided the Rays to the World Series. He called it "using the same methods." If there's hope for his ability to deal with a curse, there it was.
There may be madness to some of his methods, but Maddon has shown they can work, especially with young players in an environment not known for creating and sustaining success. Will they work this year for the resurgent Cubs? As Maddon said after the final game before the break: "I definitely believe it's within our abilities." So the Cubs may well want to consider changing their postgame victory song from "Go Cubs Go" to "Do You Believe in Magic?"
The Cubs and their fans don't have to be devotees of the Lovin' Spoonful to know how to answer that question. v