PHOENIX — Call him a lame-duck manager. Call him the oldest manager in the majors. Call him old-school, new-school, a hippie, a millennial enabler or a T-shirt slogan in double-knits.
But Joe Maddon isn’t stopping to listen to the definitions, much less to let one stick.
And don’t bother trying to get him to spend any time on his up-in-the-air employment status as he manages through the final year of his original five-year contract with the Cubs.
“I could not be enjoying this petri dish more,” Maddon said Sunday, a few hours after he earned his 400th victory with the Cubs on Saturday night. “It’s just really been a blast.”
When Maddon used the term “petri dish,” he referred to the minor changes he has made to his managing style this year — working closer with the hitters alongside his coaches and stepping up the communication with his millennial staff.
Maddon, the oldest manager in the big leagues at 65, always has had a reputation for strong communication skills — especially with younger players — and embracing new technology and information.
“These days,” he said, “I’m learning the generational component of this thing that I think is really important. I wasn’t unaware, but I think that I’m attempting to become even more aware, and I’m inserting myself into it even more.”
One of the bigger changes this season is putting out defensive lineups a full series in advance.
Between that and ramped up daily communication with the team, it resulted Sunday in a moment Maddon hadn’t experienced in his four previous years at the helm.
After a two-homer, five-RBI game Saturday night, infielder David Bote was not scheduled to play Sunday, based on the advance work on the lineups.
But veteran Ben Zobrist, who was originally in the lineup, approached Maddon to suggest the high-performing Bote be used instead of him for the series finale against the Diamondbacks.
Maddon said he talked it out Zobrist and a couple of other affected players who agreed with the idea.
Bote doubled in his first at-bat and made several sharp plays in the field during the 15-inning game Sunday.
“It was just a selfless move,” Maddon said. “God, that’s exactly what we’re looking for [within this system].”
Zobrist came off the bench in extra innings and reached base three times, including a two-run double in the 15th inning, in the Cubs’ 6-5 victory against the Diamondbacks.
“The process worked well,” Maddon said. “When I talked to the players [before the season] I said, ‘You guys wanted three days; I’m giving you three. And sometimes this may pop up once in a while.’ I like the fact that they feel comfortable enough in here to come and discuss this with me. And this was pretty much what we wanted to have happen to begin with. And it happened.”
This is part of what Maddon means when he talks about enjoying the season this year. It doesn’t hurt that the club has fought back from a 1-6 start to play much better the past month.
“I’m loving it,” he said. “It’s kind of a developmental process. You’re back in the lab. You’re trying new things. You’re creating. And it’s really fun.”
Whatever that means for his future beyond this contract year, it hasn’t hurt the effort to reach 400 wins with the Cubs. He’s the fastest manager in the majors to reach 400 wins with a team since Joe Torre did it with the Yankees from 1996-99.
“Maybe it’s the right time to morph into something different right now,” said Maddon, who reiterated Sunday he wants to return next season and continues to operate as though that will happen.
“I’ve always believed that you should be open to change or willing to change and listen and try to grow,” he said of this year’s “petri dish” of a season. “I think it’s growth. And I’m fascinated.”