ST. LOUIS — Cubs pitcher Jon Lester said Joe Maddon’s hiring in 2014 made it easier “to believe” and sign as a free agent with a team that had just finished in last place.
Shortstop Javy Baez said he wouldn’t be “El Mago” without Maddon allowing him to be himself. Anthony Rizzo said he loves Maddon “like a dad” and that he “understands the human element of this game better than anyone I’ve ever been around.”
Even across the field, Cardinals second baseman Kolten Wong told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that Maddon “changed the whole culture of the Chicago Cubs.”
As the finality of Maddon’s long-coming firing sank in with the official announcement Sunday, players did everything but call the move a mistake.
“I’m not going to make a judgment call on that,” said Ben Zobrist, who goes back to his rookie year in Tampa Bay with Maddon. “They decided that this was the best thing for the time, and I think as players, we all understand there’s ebb and flow to this thing. There’s a cycle at times, and sometimes when you’re at the end of the cycle, you have to have a change.
“So that decision was made, and it’s probably the best in the long run, but right now it’s hard to feel that way.”
Maddon became an easy target for Twitter and some national media who purported to know the culture of the clubhouse and Maddon’s influence without spending more than a few minutes at a time around the team.
“What he did for the team was huge,” Baez said. “I’ve got nothing negative to say about him. A lot of people will see it differently, but when he came here, when he brought the World Series, everybody liked him, everybody loved him. Why not love him now?”
Lester, who used to roll his eyes at Maddon bringing in zoo animals in Tampa, called Maddon a Chicago legend and said he “cherished” his time with a manager whose influence might affect the Cubs’ next playoff core if a few key players survive the roster changes this winter.
“I was sad about it,” said Baez, a two-time All-Star and MVP runner-up who was on the trade block off and on for more than a year before Maddon showed up. “I think if it wouldn’t have been [for] him, I wouldn’t have been myself out there, and I would have so many rules to follow from other managers. I’m thankful for what he did for me and what I learned from him.
“That [influence] was the reason why I was being me out there, having fun and doing all these things that nobody was able to do. And now you see a lot of people being themselves, and you can see the difference that it’s made in the game.”
Zobrist, who got to pitch in a big-league game for the first time in his final game with Maddon, called Maddon the biggest “advocate for me personally as a player.”
“Joe’s a special person,” Zobrist said, citing authenticity, even temperament, consistency and curiosity to continue growing even into his 60s. “Those kind of people, let alone managers, don’t come around often.”