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After bad ending last year, Joe Maddon says he has Cubs players’ full attention

Cubs manager Joe Maddon shouts from the dugout during a game against the Rangers on Saturday in Arlington, Texas. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

There’s a sports maxim I just came up with that says whenever two teammates utter the same thing, they’re almost surely repeating what their coach said.

‘‘It’s a journey we’re all going to go on together,’’ Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo said of a new season.

‘‘We’re all really excited to take on the journey that’s ahead of us,’’ left fielder Kyle Schwarber said.

It’s possible the two players, standing in different areas of a visiting clubhouse last week in Arlington, Texas, came up with the ‘‘journey’’ theme independently of one another before the season opener. But I sensed manager Joe Maddon’s motivational hand at the tiller, guiding his willing players to a mental place he deems necessary in 2019.

The Cubs were sorely disappointed with the way last season ended — first a tiebreaker loss to the Brewers that cost them the National League Central title, then a loss to the Rockies in a wild-card playoff game.

But amid the debris field of that ending, Maddon saw opportunity. He deals in volume when it comes to words, and he acknowledges players don’t always absorb all of what he says, especially when things are going well. And for most of the last four seasons, things have gone well.

Then came October. Now he thinks his audience is all ears.

‘‘Anytime you have a negative moment, it’s probably your best teaching moment,’’ he said. ‘‘I do believe everybody’s heard or listened a little more intently this year than they did in the past. When you get smacked a little bit, it does wake you up. I want to believe so.

‘‘ . . . Normally, you say a lot of the same things on an annual basis. But then, all of a sudden, something you’ve been saying the last couple of years absolutely resonates. You can just tell by the way they react.’’

Then Maddon said, ‘‘When the student is ready, the teacher appears somehow.’’ When he added that, the thought bubble above my head said: ‘‘Make sure to ask around to see if Joe is mining Eastern religions for material now.’’

I always have been intrigued by the mental component of different sports. Football players work themselves into a froth to play the game at a high, vicious level. Baseball players can’t do that. They want to be able to see straight when they dig in at the plate.


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It doesn’t matter how silly a motivational tool is. Most of the time, the only thing that matters is whether it motivates. I might roll my eyes at T-shirts with inspirational slogans. You might wrap yourself in them like the flag, then go out and hit .400.

The Cubs also are preaching togetherness in a sport that is a series of individual matchups dressed up as a team endeavor.

‘‘Everybody is locked in right now, and it’s a different mentality, for sure, as a group — motivated, determined, use any words you want there,’’ right-hander Kyle Hendricks said. ‘‘For the most part, we just feel really connected and close right now as a group. We know our one goal that we have at the end of the season. That’s the only thing we’re focused on.’’

The Cubs’ brass thought that the team lost an edge last season, that it allowed complacency to seep in. It’s why the word ‘‘urgency’’ has been bounced around this spring like a ball in a game of pepper.

‘‘The sense of urgency is something that they really developed as a reaction to falling short of our standards,’’ president Theo Epstein said of the players. ‘‘They took it to heart this offseason. They all looked in the mirror and tried to find ways they could be at least one game better than last year.’’

Epstein is good at walking the line between the intellectual allure of the game and the primitive act of a player dragging a bat to the plate and mashing a ball. It’s the difference between reading a how-to book and actually doing.

‘‘Now that the season’s starting, we have to prove it,’’ he said. ‘‘Talk is talk. We’re showing up every day with a strong desire to win and assert ourselves on the field. Take the game to our opponents. We’ll all know when we see it.’’

They saw it in the opener Thursday, scoring 12 runs against the Rangers. They didn’t see it Saturday, when right-hander Yu Darvish seemed to think the strike zone had leprosy, or Sunday, when they scored 10 runs and lost anyway. As we now know, the season is a journey.

The journey thus far under Epstein has been very good, thanks to the 2016 World Series title, but the question is whether it will be looked upon as great years from now. A reporter asked him whether he was concerned the Cubs’ legacy from this era might be one of missed opportunities.

‘‘Every year you have an opportunity, you want to take full advantage of it,’’ he said. ‘‘We have a special group of players. This is a special era of Cubs baseball. Each year, we want to make sure we leave nothing undone in our pursuit to make the most of it and win. This group has won, and I believe they’ll continue to win. But we want no regrets.’’

No regrets. Hmmm. Sounds very much like a motivational slogan.