We love Joe Maddon.
He’s funny, smart, personable, reminiscent of the grizzled, chatty guy at the end of the bar who actually is entertaining and wise — not the fool who won’t shut up.
Remember Joe’s crazy use of two pitchers at the same time, alternating them from the mound to left field, in a 15-inning win over the Cincinnati Reds not two weeks ago?
Genius! Hilarious! Effective!
It almost made me rush out to Binny’s to buy a case of the champagne Joe and announcer Pat Hughes hawk so well on TV.
And yet, somehow, fortunes have changed for the high-flying Cubs. It hasn’t been instantaneous. It’s been more like a dribble that keeps building until it becomes a small puddle, and then you start wondering if the deluge is near.
You can’t go from being Einstein to Elmer Fudd in two weeks, but you can make us wonder if a Daffy Duck transition isn’t lurking for Maddon.
The Cubs started out so hot this season, they nearly burned logic to the ground. When they were 25-6, it was hard to find any flaws in their starting pitching, hitting, defending, relieving, gamesmanship — anything at all. And certainly nothing was wrong with their crafty manager, whose every decision worked out.
At 8-1 on April 14, the Cubs had put swift distance between themselves and the rest of the National League Central. By April 30, they were already six games ahead of the nemesis
St. Louis Cardinals.
World Series, wheee!
But here at the halfway point, just before the All-Star Game, doubt has tiptoed into the Cubs juggernaut like a field mouse quietly staring from a knothole. Yes, the Cubs still have a 6½-game lead over the Pittsburgh Pirates and a seven-game lead over the Cardinals, but do they have the gas and the savvy to close out the second half and carry on to the finish line?
To have four infielders voted to start in the All-Star Game — plus center fielder Dexter Fowler — is an honor and epic. But to have that kind of talent, including All-Star pitchers Jake Arrieta and Jon Lester, and not win the World Series? Oh, boy, failure.
Which makes everything Maddon does come under scrutiny.
The funny suits and mimes and petting zoos are great, but they only ratchet up the expectations. If a team can have that kind of fun while making tons of money, then winning must be a breeze, eh? And winning is the point.
Indeed, there is no other point to any Cubs team from here to eternity.
Maybe the best Cubs team is a year or two away — isn’t that the mirage always in the future, just out of reach, that recedes like a rolling façade? But the time is actually now. Not 2017 or 2018. Now.
And Maddon, who has never won a World Series, never managed anything as complex and fraught as Cubdom, must lead the way.
So you wonder.
Before it was announced Saturday that Fowler would miss the All-Star Game, Maddon was considering allowing him to play even though he had been on the disabled list with a hamstring injury.
This was, potentially, a gigantic manager’s decision. Maybe Fowler, rehabbing in minor-league South Bend for two games this weekend, would have been just dandy in the All-Star Game. But what if he reinjured himself? Fowler is batting .290 with 35 walks, 19 doubles, seven home runs and 40 runs scored. Though he has missed 20 games, he’s averaging more than a hit per game played, and his defense in center makes him the stopper up the middle.
Asked the other day if Fowler, 30, could play in the All-Star Game, Maddon replied, “Yeah, why not?”
Love the cool. Love the easygoing part.
But we worry. The Cubs are two games under .500 since that incredible 19-games-over-.500 start.
Of course, they couldn’t keep that spring pace up. But now mediocrity looms.
Ace Arrieta is tired or something. The offense is sketchy. The Cubs were swept by the hated New York Mets last weekend. They were swept by the Cardinals in late June. They’ve lost nine of their last 10.
We love Maddon, but now he has to deal with injuries and stress. This sure isn’t the Rays and laid-back Tampa Bay.
The Cubs have the highest ticket prices in all the major leagues. By far. Why? Because of expectations, because of pent-up craving.
Time to right the ship, Joe.
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