ARLINGTON, Texas — Joe Maddon is rarely at a loss for words and thus almost always ready with an answer. And that’s what’s going to make the 2019 season so strange. The Cubs’ manager is going to be one of two things by mid-October — employed or unemployed —but there’s no way he can tell you which right now. Nor will he be able to tell you in September.
This is a man whose teams have won 387 regular-season games combined over the past four seasons, so this might seem beyond strange. But Cubs president Theo Epstein, displeased with the team’s wild-card playoff loss last year, wants better results out of his manager. He has made it clear that there will be no contract talks with his sure-to-be Hall of Fame skipper during the season. That’s baseball code for “win or else.’’
So brace yourself for a weird undercurrent starting Thursday, when the Cubs open the season on the road against the Rangers. That undercurrent will be there if the club gets off to a rough start. It will be there if the Cubs are battling for first place in what figures to be a very tough National League Central. And it will be there if they’re running away with the division. The only result that matters is how the Cubs do in the playoffs, so what we’re about to witness (or endure, take your pick) is a regular season of waiting and wondering.
Is this going to be the longest swan song in recorded history, a 162-game farewell for Maddon? When he signals to the bullpen five times a game, will each of them serve as a wave goodbye?
Or will this season end up being Joe’s greatest achievement yet?
There’s still a feeling of unreality attached to all of it. Have we really reached this tipping point with Maddon? Are we really here? It’s still hard to believe that a man who won a World Series for the Cubs, something no manager since Frank Chance had done, is in danger of being cast aside the way Lee Elia, Don Baylor and Dale Sveum were.
But that’s exactly where we are, if Epstein’s “season of reckoning” message is real. I haven’t known Theo to be flippant on subjects of import, so it’s best to assume that the talk is as real as the fresh grass and the red, white and blue bunting of Opening Day. Maddon will be on the spot from Day 1.
He’s a victim of his and his team’s success, which is a bizarre statement, given how bad the organization had been for so long. But once you’ve tasted something good, you want that good something again. That’s called human nature, and it explains all sorts of things in life, both positive and negative. The Cubs want more World Series titles, plural, and if Maddon can’t do it with the championship window still open, maybe somebody else can.
He hasn’t worn out his welcome in Chicago. Yes, his profile has become oversized, especially in an era in which front offices are starting to make decisions on strategy and lineups. I don’t believe Cubs fans go to games to watch him manage. I don’t believe they buy tickets to watch him march from the dugout to the mound six times a game. Yet he gets more attention than any player.
But is Maddon the problem? The answer is no, but the question is a naïve one. He wasn’t the reason Yu Darvish was a huge disappointment last season, any more than he was the reason Kris Bryant’s production dropped off. But you can bet that if Darvish and Bryant struggle again with injuries and the team underachieves, Maddon will be looking for another job. That’s how it works sometimes in big-time sports.
Epstein is in this for championships. So is Maddon. The guess here is that it will take a minimum of a World Series appearance this season for the manager to keep his job. Epstein wouldn’t have characterized it as being a pivotal year for all involved if he wasn’t expecting greatness.
It will be interesting to see how Maddon deals with life if his team struggles and if questions about his status become a regular occurrence at news conferences. Will Joe Cool be able to stay true to his groovy vibes?
But then there’s the brighter side: What if he wins a World Series this season? It might end up being his biggest accomplishment. Heresy, you say? The 2016 World Series was historic, you scream? Tilt your head and look at it another way. The 2016 team was loaded. This team is talented but has major questions. Maddon was fighting history in 2016. This time, he’s fighting for his job. And if he wins? A huge comeback story.
The pressure is going to be there this season. Every single day. And there won’t be any way to alleviate it until the postseason. So, yeah, get ready for a lot of strange.