MESA, ARIZ. — If it weren’t for the funky black glasses, Joe Maddon wouldn’t look much different from the many white-haired retirees wandering around Sloan Park, looking for baseball fun in the sun.
Well, his sharp, team-issued red-and-blue hoodie sets him apart, too. But this is not a man well known to Cub Nation, though his reputation as a stone-cold winner precedes him.
Quite simply, if you manage a low-level team such as the Rays to two division titles and two second-place finishes in the rugged American League East (hello, Yankees and Red Sox) in nine seasons, including five campaigns of 90 or more victories, a World Series appearance and two AL Manager of the Year awards, then you know something about baseball and success.
“It’s phenomenal, top of the line,’’ said center fielder Albert Almora, 20, the Cubs’ first-round pick from 2012: “He has a lot of hunger, hunger to be the best.’’
How does Almora know?
He has talked to Maddon this winter, and he has talked to players who played under Maddon with the Rays.
“Even in the offseason when I hadn’t talked to him, all the guys that I was working out with who had been in the big leagues were like, ‘Hey, you guys got a great manager!’ ’’ Almora said. “I was super-excited to hear that.’’
Maddon, those veterans told Almora, will make the game a lot of fun.
“They just told me to play hard,’’ Almora said.
That likely won’t be enough for the kid, at least not this year, with veteran acquisition Dexter Fowler set in center. But Maddon’s influence surely will trickle down through the Cubs’ minor-league system. The kids on the farm will know who’s on top and what he’s all about.
The thing that defines Maddon is that he seems to be exceedingly reasonable. Though he’s an old-school vet, he’s not rigid or dull, seeming to understand intuitively that things change in life, that humor and decency can help young men deal with the long physical and mental grind of a baseball season.
In fact, he’s all behind the Cubs’ new Mental Skills Program, which employs four men whose task is to help players deal with the sinister brain traps that lie secretly waiting to detonate and derail careers.
Plus, he’s behind sabermetrics and all the other tech advances that baseball geeks revel in.
“If Branch Rickey in the ’40s had all this information, this stuff would have been done 50, 60, 70 years ago, if it was available,’’ Maddon said the other day. ‘‘It wasn’t available. It’s new stuff. It’s color TV. It’s air conditioning. It’s power brakes. When it wasn’t invented, you could never miss it. But it’s been invented, so now you utilize it.’’
He summed up: “To run away from technology and change and advancement — why?’’
Well, it scares a lot of folks who are set in their ways, for one thing. But Maddon isn’t concerned. What he does want to do now is find out who and what his team consists of.
The revelation will be here soon, as actual games begin Thursday, with teams playing each other throughout the Valley of the Sun.
“More than anything, just play,’’ Maddon said of what he needs to see. “Honestly, I need to see what they look like competing. What they do on the bases, baserunning-wise. For pitchers, just throw strikes.
“Be healthy, go out and play, let me see what’s going on — but I don’t really have that high of expectations these first couple of days. I really don’t.’’
It will be like a big cocktail party early on, so to speak, with Maddon flitting about like a host, listening for witticisms, filling champagne glasses, checking for frauds.
“I think you get a feel for what they’re all about and what their objectives are, and the sincerity,’’ he said.
He added that he’d be ‘‘looking for a couple of Eddie Haskells that might filter through. But, primarily, my first impression is these are legit guys, very sincere, very motivated.’’
Let’s take a Maddon pause here. Bringing up Eddie Haskell is like bringing up a character from Shakespeare, if Shakespeare had been on 1950s TV. Good ol’ Eddie was featured on the dreadful but seminal comedy “Leave It to Beaver.’’ Haskell was the phony sycophant to top them all, a little conniving, blond-haired, suburban weasel who praised adults whenever needed (‘‘What delicious cookies, Mrs. Cleaver!’’).
Old-school Maddon is hip to Eddies.
“You still see that now and then,’’ he explained. ‘‘But that’s the exception, not the rule.’’
It’s going to be about authenticity with Maddon. Which doesn’t mean softness.
He has explained his philosophy thusly: “If I tell you the truth, you might be upset with me for a week, but then you’re going to be OK. But if I lie to you, you’re going to hate me forever.”
The truth begins now.