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Counting down 2014’s biggest Chicago sports stories: No. 4

The Sun-Times is counting down the 10 biggest Chicago sports stories of the 2014 calendar year one day at a time.

No. 4: Cubs hire Joe Maddon

Hiring a game-changing manager with World Series experience is enough to warrant a place on our list of the biggest Chicago sports stories this year.

But Maddon was the surprise piece of the Cubs’ rebuilding puzzle, deserving of a top-five place in our countdown.

The former Tampa Bay manager opted out of his contract on Oct. 24, a sudden and shocking piece of news. The quirky Rays’ skipper led the fledgling organization out of the gutter and to four playoff berths during his nine seasons.

Maddon’s contract was not scheduled to expire until after the 2015 season, and both sides had publicly expressed a desire to stay the course before Andrew Friedman’s departure from the organization triggered the opt-out clause.

The Cubs found themselves in a similar situation after publicly backing manager Rick Renteria after his first year on the job.

But when Maddon became available, president Theo Epstein had to make a call.

Within a week the Cubs had fired Renteria and hired Maddon.

The all-too-convenient nature of Maddon’s move prompted tampering charges from the Rays. Major League Baseball has been investigating the charge since November, and all parties on the Cubs side deny any wrongdoing.

In any case, Maddon is the perfect fit on the North Side. He brings a wealth of knowledge and experience – including the World Series variety – to a Cubs organization ready to turn the corner.

Maddon seems to have the personality for the job, too, welcoming the opportunity to win a World Series for an organization now in a 106-year drought.

“I’m gonna be talking playoffs next year,” Maddon said. “I’ll tell you that right now. I can’t go to spring training and say anything else. You have to set your goals high, because if you don’t set them high enough you might hit your mark, and that’s not a good thing. We’re gonna talk World Series this year, and I’m gonna believe it. It’s in our future.”

Asked why he wanted to accept a job that is “cursed,” Maddon didn’t hesitate.

“The challenge is so outstanding,” Maddon said, “how could you not want to be in this seat?”

What will top Maddon’s hiring on the countdown? We continue with No. 3 on Monday.

The list so far:

1. Revealed Dec. 31

2. Revealed Dec. 30

3. Revealed Dec. 29

4. Cubs hire Joe Maddon

5. Jay Cutler gets benched

6. Derrick Rose’s comeback, sluggish start and return to form

7. Jon Lester signs with Cubs

8. Jose Abreu takes Major League Baseball by storm, wins AL Rookie of the Year

9. Blackhawks’ playoff run reaches Western Conference Finals; Kane, Toews sign 8-year extensions

10. National Labor Relations Board says Northwestern football players are employees, orders union election