Joe Maddon’s approach works, especially with really good players

SHARE Joe Maddon’s approach works, especially with really good players

A tie-dyed Joe Maddon and his bitchin’ Dodge van during spring training. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)

What do the outgoing Joe Maddon, the sedate Lovie Smith and the cerebral Marc Trestman have in common?

Many of you would answer, “Besides the ability to inhale and exhale, nothing.’’ Cubs fans wouldn’t answer at all. They’d be too busy preparing the wood and the stake for the burning of the person who would dare put those three men in the same sentence.

But Maddon, Smith and Trestman are, in some ways, cut from the same cloth. Before you light that match, name the man behind this quote:

“The overriding philosophy is to get to know each other, to develop levels of trust between each other – coaches and players, players and coaches – and define our behavior through respect and humility. That we’re going to respect everybody around us. We’re going to treat them in high regard, and we’re going to understand what humility means, which is that we’re a part of something bigger than ourselves.’’

That’s Maddon’s thoughtful approach to team building, right? Nope. Trestman actually uttered those words during the Bears’ 2014 training camp. Now, I’m not trying to suggest that Trestman and Maddon were separated at birth. I am suggesting that there’s a thin line between what’s considered motivational genius and what’s considered corniness. And that thin line has everything to do with winning.

Each of the three men comes from the “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil’’ school of coaching/managing. The Cubs’ Maddon has captivated the city with his motivational stunts – bringing in a magician and zoo animals to entertain his players last season and, Monday, showing up at spring training wearing a bandanna and a tie-dye shirt with a peace sign to remind his players to be loosey-goosey, if not to light up once in a while.

Last season, he called out Junior Lake for flipping his bat after a home run against the Marlins, leading to both benches clearing. Other than that, I can’t recall Maddon saying anything critical about his team or his players in his short time with the Cubs. Of course, when you win 97 regular-season games and get to the National League Championship Series in your first season with the club, it’s probably difficult to find anything bad to say about anybody.

But still, nothing? Not one Cub failed to hustle to first base? Nobody played dumb enough baseball to insult the manager’s sensibilities? Maddon either has the patience of a hostage negotiator or really does believe everything’s peachy. Sounds a little like Lovie “Rex is Our Quarterback” Smith. Did I just write that? Bless me, Father, for I have sinned.

The absence of a discouraging word was the hallmark of Smith’s long tenure with the Bears, as well as Trestman’s short stay. When Smith was in Chicago, he wouldn’t have criticized a leaking hazardous waste site if it had a Bears logo on it. The team’s core players loved him for his belief in them and his refusal to criticize them.

The happy-talk approach was fine when he was getting the team to the Super Bowl in the 2006 season. It was not so fine when he couldn’t get the team to the playoffs in five of the next six seasons.

Trestman’s feel-good press conferences and his constant talk of Bears players “ascending’’ – his word for “getting better’’ – didn’t hold up, mostly because his teams weren’t very good.

After a 55-14 loss to the Packers in 2014, Trestman said, “This team and this locker room is in a good place at this time.’’ No one believed it, especially not his players.

Maddon is known for his in-game analytical skills. Smith and Trestman were not. But even Maddon’s advantage there might be exaggerated. I once asked former White Sox star Paul Konerko, one of the smartest players in baseball, how much influence a manager had in a game.

“I think in a lot of ways, strategy is probably overrated with the guys who get credit for it,’’ he said. “A lot of times in baseball, there are some moves here and there that get made and you’re like, ‘OK, wow, that was pretty good.’ But the game kind of plays itself. If you know a righty’s coming up second in the eighth, well, a righty’s up in the pen. There are a lot of things that people get credit for being a genius about, but honestly it kind of plays itself out.’’

A manager’s job has evolved from being the maximum leader whose word is gospel to being a psychologist. Making players believe in themselves is important. But believe this: Having really, really talented players is more important.

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