Maddon’s interview with Cubs really was a day at the beach

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Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer and president Theo Epstein introduce Joe Maddon as the Cubs’ manager Nov. 3, 2014. Maddon had opted out of his deal with the Rays. | Getty Images

This excerpt from ‘‘The Plan: Epstein, Maddon, and the Audacious Blueprint for a Cubs Dynasty’’ by David Kaplan is printed with the permission of Triumph Books. For more information and to order a copy, visit triumphbooks.com/ThePlan.

CHAPTER 9: THE ODD ARRIVAL OF JOE MADDON

The Cubs would only get one chance to make a first impression on players making their major-league debuts, and they had to make the transition from the minor-league system to the pressures of playing at Wrigley Field as smooth as possible. Players like Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, Kyle Schwarber, Jorge Soler and Javier Baez were the backbone of the Cubs’ youth movement. Add in veterans like Starlin Castro, Jake Arrieta and others, and it was essential that whoever was going to manage the Chicago Cubs in 2015 knew how to handle a clubhouse and could command the respect of a collection of extremely diverse personalities and backgrounds.

But no one saw what was about to happen in Tampa, Florida. Not even then-Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon, until Rays president Matthew Silverman called him in early October to inform him that he had a clause in his contract that granted him a 14-day window to talk to other teams if his previous boss, Andrew Friedman, ever left the organization.

Silverman had just been promoted after Friedman resigned to accept a position with the Los Angeles Dodgers as the head of their baseball-operations department. The last thing he wanted to do was to replace his field manager, but he had an obligation to inform Maddon of the clause in the manager’s contract.

Maddon knew nothing about the clause and called his agent, Alan Nero (who ironically is based in Chicago), and the two men had a lengthy discussion about Maddon’s options. Maddon was on a road trip in his 42-foot RV that he nicknamed “Cousin Eddie,” driving from Tampa to his hometown of Hazleton, Pennsylvania, with a friend, and told his agent to continue contract discussions with the Rays.

However, his head started spinning with the possibility of being a free agent for the first time in his life. “I thought, ‘You have two weeks to become a free agent for the first time in your life. You’re an idiot to not try, to not see what happens. And my intent was to do that while still negotiating with the Rays. That was my goal. We got to the point where it became obvious that I thought they did not want to negotiate much more,” he told Scott Miller of Bleacher Report in December 2014.

“So we opted out, and I thought I’d find out what the rest of the world thought.” He didn’t have to wait long to find out, as Nero’s phone rang and rang and kept ringing. The agent had gone about the process of informing the other 29 teams in baseball of Maddon’s availability, and 10 teams expressed interest in hiring Maddon.

Then this headline hit the media on October 24, 2014: “Maddon Opts Out of Contract, Leaves Rays”

Almost immediately, the Cubs were among the front-runners to land the Hazleton native. Maddon, the 2008 and 2011 AL Manager of the Year, was heralded by many as one of the finest managers in the game, and he was well-known for his unconventional thinking. Some examples of his less-than-conventional thinking include walking then-Rangers slugger Josh Hamilton with the bases loaded while leading 7-3. The Rays went on to win 7-4.

Another memorable Maddon moment came with his Tampa Bay Rays team struggling. So what did the manager do? He employed what he called the “Tommy Tutone” lineup, after that group’s popular song. His batting order went 8-6-7-5-3-0-9 (the 0 was his DH).

Maddon looked for any way he could think of to get his team to relax and to handle the rigors of a 162-game major-league season. Sure, Major League Baseball was hard work and serious business, but Joe Maddon was going to take every opportunity he could to inject some fun into his team and their clubhouse.

Organized, themed team trips became a staple of every season. Players had the “jersey” trip, where each player wore a jersey of their favorite team from another sport. Or the onesies trip, where every member of the Rays travel party flew back to Tampa at the end of a road trip in whatever one-piece sleep attire they chose.

Maddon invited celebrities and bizarre characters alike to visit the Rays’ clubhouse. A Seminole “medicine man” made an appearance. A magician took the players’ minds off of a losing streak. Live penguins, pythons and a collection of zoo animals were all welcome in the Tampa clubhouse. Some in baseball rolled their eyes at the New Age manager, but the results were obvious. The Rays were playing inspired baseball.

Dress codes were out, and fun was in — as long as the players played hard and respected the game. If a player wasn’t sure if they should wear a particular piece of clothing, all they had to do was follow Maddon’s mantra: “If you think you look hot, wear it.” Maddon’s teams in Tampa played hard, won a lot of baseball games, and they had fun doing it.

That philosophy made Joe Maddon the perfect fit for the Chicago Cubs. He was exactly what Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer were looking for. Like manna from heaven, he had suddenly become available. Now all they had to do was close the deal.

Of course, the most important thing on Joe Maddon’s résumé was the winning. In 2008, Maddon took a Tampa Bay franchise, which had previously never won more than 70 games in a season, to the World Series following a 97-win campaign. That was followed by several additional winning campaigns, including four more with 90-plus wins.

Indeed, Epstein and Hoyer were interested. Now they needed to act. Maddon was preparing to venture off from Tampa in “Cousin Eddie” when he received a call from his agent that the Cubs were interested. Maddon started to figure the best way to meet with Epstein and Hoyer, but with no reasonable locations to cross paths, Maddon decided the best thing to do was to remain in Florida and have the Cubs representatives come there. Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer showed up with a $20 bottle of wine they got from the Publix across the street from the RV park.

“I gave them a tour of the RV, and we all had a beer,” said Maddon. “Those big, thick Miller Lite wide-mouth bottles. We had some chips and salsa. We stood in the middle of the RV and BS’ed. Maybe for half an hour. Then we went outside and, seriously, there’s this little micro beach right behind the RV. We had the only beach available in this RV park. It was available to that spot.”

“It was weird,” Hoyer said, chuckling “We flew to Pensacola, drove half an hour, got to this RV park on a tiny beach. The interview was on four beach chairs over three or four hours. It got kind of cold as the sun was going down.” Theo Epstein still laughs when he remembers that initial meeting after Maddon opted out of his Tampa Bay contract. “I tried to dress appropriately for an RV park and also was trying to stay incognito as I walked through O’Hare Airport [to fly out of Chicago]. I had on old, faded jeans, sneakers, untucked Nike polo shirt and a Bears trucker cap. Jed, I think, had loafers, dressier jeans and a tucked-in polo.

“I remember making that trip and what I thought it might mean for the future of the Chicago Cubs. The entire meeting had a relaxed, natural vibe, like old friends catching up and hanging out,” Epstein said. “No pretenses whatsoever.”

“It was very casual, as it should have been,” Maddon said. “We’re sitting on the beach talking philosophy. The water is right behind them. The sun’s setting over my shoulder. You could see that they were tired from traveling. But they were great.”

After their lengthy meeting in Florida with Maddon, Epstein and Hoyer made the decision to change managers once again.

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