Brian Duensing sounded almost disappointed.
The Cubs reliever, who had spent his career in the American League until this year, thought he knew what to expect from manager Joe Maddon after seeing the pajamas, menageries and magic acts for years as a Rays opponent.
“I was expecting, like, I don’t know, a snake at least,” Duensing said, “or something.”
Nothing. Not so much as a garter snake or a card trick.
In perhaps the most un-Maddon season of the manager’s career, there wasn’t a onesie to be found during a post-history-making, hangover-conscious 2017 Cubs season.
“I think it’s because he doesn’t think we need it,” said first baseman Anthony Rizzo, whose team opens a third consecutive postseason for the first time in more than a century Friday in Washington.
More than once during a fatigued and underachieving first half, the Cubs looked like they were on the verge of a flamingo call or a visit from Simon the magician, the go-to illusionist who showed up in New York in June 2015 and distracted a rookie-laden lineup from its five-game losing streak long enough to launch a series sweep of the Mets and a 7-2 spurt.
“It was great timing,” Rizzo said. “Joe has great feel. If he feels it’s necessary, at some point he’ll do it.”
The closest Maddon came to pulling out the bag of tricks during a rough-and-stumble first half was an “Anchorman”-themed road trip to Los Angeles and San Diego. The leisure suits were ditched by the players on the trip home after losing all six games.
“I’ve always tried to react to what’s going on,” Maddon said. “I try to read them. This year, I didn’t feel compelled to do anything more than we’ve done. Some of it was just plain old-fashioned fatigue, I thought. I didn’t want to interfere with their recovery process.
“I just really try to keep my thumb on what’s going on and make my best guess.”
And just like that, a suddenly been-there, done-that Cubs team, no longer wide-eyed or as easily influenced by big-league adversity, was out of the petting-zoo business for at least a season. No matter how rough things got in the first half.
“They were going rough on the outside. On the inside, we were all good,” Rizzo said. “He stayed consistent. Just because we weren’t going as everyone wanted us to be going, he didn’t start panicking.”
Three years in Chicago with an evolving core — and a still-evolving manager — taught Maddon that much.
“It’s just a matter of listening and just trying to react to what their needs are,” he said.
As a first-time manager for a young, underfunded Rays team a decade ago, Maddon quickly built a reputation for quirky talk, quirkier game management and the quirkiest motivational methods in baseball.
A cockatoo on his shoulder one day, a 19-foot python in the clubhouse the next and dress-up road trips that included pajama parties tended to draw eye-rolls from veteran opponents, but they often drew the best from his typically youthful rosters.
When the Cubs went to Tampa during their final road trip of this season, Maddon was given the star treatment in his first series at Tropicana Field since departing for the Cubs as a free agent after the 2014 season. It included a video tribute with more animals and antics crammed into several minutes than Barnum & Bailey could fit under a big top.
“They showed all my pertinent highlights,” Maddon said. “There’s none actually as a player. It’s primarily as a zookeeper.”
He sounded almost wistful. But the upside to being able to skip the animals — besides the cleanup concerns — might be what was on display during a 49-25 second half that led the National League.
“There wasn’t really a moment in the season where we didn’t pick each other up or were hanging our heads or guys weren’t wanting to work,” veteran Ben Zobrist said. “There was nothing like that where there was an added motivation needed.”
That doesn’t mean Maddon has retired his crazy motivational techniques or his imagination.
“Part of it is I hate to repeat myself. You’re always looking for new things,” he said, adding that first-base coach Brandon Hyde brought him a new idea already for next year.
“I don’t want to talk about it now,” Maddon said. “But it’s kind of a cool idea.”
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