MESA, Ariz. — The Joe Maddon lovefest began Monday the moment fans at Sloan Park recognized the figure in the red jersey and cap walk into the stadium from left field. A five-man ESPN crew was milking every second of a slow-walk, casual “conversation.”
During the next 45 minutes of hugs from former players and coaches and extended media interviews on the field, the love for the former Cubs manager grew more vocal as the stands began to fill on Maddon’s first Cubs homecoming since his firing last fall after a five-year run.
“Thank you, Joe!” yelled one fan. “We love you, Joe!” yelled another as Maddon reminisced about five consecutive winning seasons, four that included the playoffs and one that involved the end of the longest championship drought in American team sports history.
He did not reach the Angels’ dugout until less than 10 minutes remained before game time.
“Obviously, well-deserved,” Cubs left fielder Kyle Schwarber said. “The guy’s a Hall of Famer.”
Maddon’s personal touch left a lasting impact on Cubs players — who in many cases were first- and second-year players when he arrived in 2015 — and in some cases on their families, too.
Anthony Rizzo’s parents spent a Saturday in Tempe to reconnect with Maddon even though Rizzo and the Cubs were playing their own game against somebody else in another part of the Phoenix area.
“They loved it,” Rizzo said. “They were all emotional and hugging and loving each other.”
Maddon: “That’s the kind of stuff, if that happens, you know you might have done something right.”
As time passes, it will be those moments, the postseason successes and definitely the personal connections, that soften the edges of some of the job friction that led to Maddon’s parting with the Cubs.
But it still has been only five months since the Maddon-Cubs divorce was finalized, and however amicable the parties try to keep things, it might be awhile before history fully settles on what went wrong and why it had to end.
Cubs president Theo Epstein said Maddon was the right man at the right time in 2015 and that a great five-year relationship ran its course; that David Ross is the right man at this time. Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer alluded to player complacency the last two years and breakdowns in focus attributable to managerial style.
Maddon told a publication as spring training opened that the front office exerted more control toward the end of his tenure in Chicago, suggesting “philosophical differences.”
On Monday, Maddon said he was just being honest but that it doesn’t mean there are any hard feelings.
“That’s just methodology,” he said. “What I mean by that is there was more information, there was more ‘want’ from upstairs to downstairs. I’m not saying that that’s wrong. It’s not my baby — it is in the dugout. But overall I’ve always learned to play well in the sandbox with the people I’m working with.
“But you ask me the question. That’s the answer. It’s true. But I’m not saying it’s wrong.”
On this day, even the irreconcilable differences came with smiles, hugs and a feel-good vibe.
“As somebody who’s been married, and not married, stuff happens along the way where you maybe have internal discussions, and then eventually decide it might be best to do something else,” Maddon said. “But you can still be friends with your former partner.”
Regardless of the final differences with the front office, the bonds between Maddon and Cubs fans, players and new manager Ross were undeniable Monday.
“He was absolutely the perfect guy for that job at that time,” said 2016 MVP Kris Bryant, marveling at how Maddon made “a bunch of 23- and 24-year-olds” believe a 108-year drought wasn’t anything to sweat. “I think anybody in that situation given their age, there’d be pressure and folding and an absolute collapse.
“If he wasn’t here, I don’t think we would have been able to [win it].”
Said Rizzo: “We’re connected with Joe forever, with what he did, what he’s accomplished and we accomplished. The connections will last forever.”