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‘Crazy’? ‘Genius’? Either way, Joe Maddon is NL Manager of the Year

When he’s not riding his bicycle around town, Joe Maddon likes to hang with zookeepers and magicians, sip red wine, savor bites of dark chocolate and program mixes of getaway-day music to coincide with the next town (“Philadelphia Freedom”) or the desired mood (theme from “Rocky”).

He seems perpetually upbeat, tolerates media questions ranging from off the wall to dumb, embraces second-guessing, and mixes lineup and pitching-staff concoctions like a witch’s brew – “the madness that’s Joe Maddon,” says Cubs pitcher Jason Hammel.

Mostly, he manages winning baseball teams.

And for doing it again – at an unexpected, extreme rate — in his first year in Chicago, he became the Cubs’ fourth National League Manager of the Year, winning by a sizeable margin over runner-up Mike Matheny of the Cardinals.

“It’s a really humbling moment, it really is,” Maddon said Tuesday night after becoming the seventh to win the Baseball Writers Association of America award three times (also 2008 and 2011 with the Rays).

He joins Jim Frey (1984), Don Zimmer (1989) and Lou Piniella (2008) among Cubs managers to win the award.

Maddon, 61, proclaimed when taking over a last-place Cubs team that he intended to win a championship – then guided a rookie-filled lineup and Jake Arrieta-led rotation to 97 wins and a trip to the National League Championship Series.

The Cubs beat the Pirates in the NL wild-card game, then beat the rival Cardinals in the NL Division Series before being swept by the Mets in the NLCS – along the way winning more games (101) than any Cubs team since the 1945 World Series team.

“Joe’s made a remarkable impact just by being himself,” said team president Theo Epstein, who signed Maddon to a five-year, $25 million deal after he and GM Jed Hoyer interviewed Maddon in lawn chairs on a beach near Pensacola, Fla., behind Maddon’s RV.

“And I think a major-league team over time starts to take on the personality of its manager, take on the sensibilities of its manager, take on the values of its manager, whether it knows it or not. That’s why things were so nutty around here, in a great way.”

Maddon stresses individualism and embracing inevitable mistakes. He also encourages raucous postgame celebrations after every victory from April through October.

“He definitely brought the best out of me,” said third baseman Kris Bryant, who on Monday won the NL Rookie of the Year Award. “And I think a lot of our success is just having him leading the way and keeping us calm and confident, and at the same time having a lot of fun.”

That, of course, included the magician and zoo animals in the clubhouse that he became famous for employing during nine seasons with the Rays.

But Maddon also integrated four key rookies into everyday play, stretched players’ defensive versatility, rearranged roles and set a tone early that made clear the sunny demeanor had nothing to do with a day at the beach.

“It’s the accountability component. It has to be present,” said Maddon, who often surprised his starting pitcher – and at times his pitching coach – with quick hooks, with leads, earlier than the requisite five innings to qualify for a win.

“You can’t worry about hurting people’s feelings. It’s about the entire group,” he said. “It’s never about you only. And I know it’s never about me only as a manager.”

Said Hammel, the first-half workhorse who suffered the most early hooks in the second half: “There’s no room for ego.”

The move that’s most often cited as the defining moment of the season for the manager was the early August benching of three-time All-Star shortstop Starlin Castro in favor of rookie Addison Russell. But by then the tone had already been set, the focus from above made clear, the authority established.

It came during the pivotal four-game sweep of the Giants that moved the Cubs into a playoff position they held the rest of the season – and a day after the first, head-scratching Hammel hook.

Castro eventually earned the starting second base job and led the majors in batting in September. The Cubs had the best record in baseball those final seven weeks of the season.

“He handled that superbly,” Maddon said of Castro. “I was really proud how he handled all of it as a professional.”

Cliff Floyd, the former All-Star outfielder from Chicago who played for Maddon during the Rays’ 2008 World Series season, gave as much of the credit to Maddon for instilling a vision that went with the explanation to Castro.

“The way he handles things, like the Starlin Castro situation,” Floyd said. “Either you’re going to take it and bottle up and use it as motivation or you’re going to get your feelings hurt. When you want to be part of something special, Joe makes you feel like if you miss the boat you miss something special.”

And then he turned out to be right.

“He seems unafraid for any challenge and any situation,” said Ben Zobrist, the coveted free agent switch-hitter who thrived as an All-Star playing multiple positions under Maddon in Tampa Bay. “He certainly doesn’t shy away.”

That goes for unconventional calls at times during the game, too.

“There were plenty of times I was out there on the field thinking, `What’s he thinking? He must be crazy,’ “ Zobrist said. “And then it would work out. So he was either crazy or a genius or both.”