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Cubs 2019 preview: Players’ appreciation for Joe Maddon runs deep

The voicemail popped up on his phone without a ring. That’s usually how it works when Jon Lester is on his farm an hour outside of Atlanta. The reception is terrible.

So Lester jumped in his pickup truck and drove up the hill to the high spot on the 1,500-acre spread to return the call.

It was the last thing he wanted to do on that cool November day in 2014 after taking his wife and boys to the farm for a few days of fishing and decompressing. They specifically hoped to escape the stress of a mind-numbing free-agency process that was taking him all over the country for facilities tours, steak dinners and sales pitches.

And if the guy on the other end of that voicemail wasn’t the last person he wanted to talk to, it might have been close. Especially after everything the big left-hander watched from across the field all those years he pitched for the Red Sox against the Rays.

Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon talks with media members before a spring training baseball game against the Oakland Athletics Wednesday, March 13, 2019, in Mesa, Ariz. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

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“Like a circus,” Lester said, “with the zoos and the magicians and the dress-ups.”

Not that Lester really knew much about Joe Maddon, who had just been hired to manage the Cubs, the team pursuing Lester harder than anyone else.

Lester just didn’t have much use for him.

“I’m thinking it’s like an act,” he said. “I’m thinking he’s putting this on for the attention.”

And then Lester returned the call.

“I just remember walking away from that conversation going, like, ‘Wow, that’s not really what I expected to hear from him.’ ”

Maddon laid out his expectations should Lester sign with the Cubs and told Lester what he could expect from him, that he would stay out of his way and wouldn’t ask him to do anything he wasn’t comfortable doing. They talked about where the team was headed and how they could help it get there.

“You can tell when someone’s genuine. You can tell when somebody’s loading you full of a bunch of b.s.,” Lester said. “Within 30 seconds, I knew this is how he is, this is the person that he is, this is stuff he believes in. And he’s very passionate about it.”

Of all the successes Maddon has experienced in four years as the Cubs’ manager, that conversation might be his biggest.

Lester’s signing a few weeks later gave immediate credibility to the Cubs’ rebuilding plan and marked the start of a competitive phase — perhaps even the start of a new era for the franchise.

And while Lester weighed a lot of factors when choosing the Cubs, that conversation carried sizable influence.

“A hundred percent,” he said. “It definitely added a positive to me coming here.”

***

Cap Anson has more wins than any other manager in Cubs history with 1,282.

Frank Chance has the highest winning percentage (.664), the most World Series appearances (four) and the most championships (1907, 1908).

Charlie Grimm has three pennants.

Leo Durocher had five consecutive winning seasons (six if you count the season he was fired halfway through in 1972) — the only stretch from 1947 until Dusty Baker in 2003-04 that the Cubs had even back-to-back winners.

And even Lou Piniella, from June 3 of his first season until the end of his second season, had the best record in the majors.

But only Joe Maddon managed the Cubs to four consecutive postseasons, won six postseason rounds against six different teams, won 19 postseason games, averaged 97 regular-season victories and won the most elusive, coveted team championship in the history of American sports.

***

“With all due respect to all the other managers, I think he’s the greatest manager in Chicago Cubs franchise history, by far,” first baseman Anthony Rizzo said of Maddon. “He was part of turning a historically losing mentality into a winning mentality, with the fan base and the culture.”

As Maddon enters the final season of his five-year contract with the Cubs, any promise of an extension rests with his players. And they’re aware of that as they speak of what the manager has meant to their careers and the franchise.

They are almost entirely the same players who were stunned by the Brewers and Rockies on back-to-back days to be eliminated — including 14 who just two years earlier won the Cubs’ first World Series in 108 years.

Maddon’s $6 million salary this season is an outlier at a time managers’ salaries are trending downward and candidates with no experience are being hired to lead playoff contenders.

Cubs management says it will wait until the end of the season to evaluate whether to offer Maddon an extension — just one part of what makes this season “a year of reckoning” in team president Theo Epstein’s eyes.

But many of the players who will have a big say in determining Maddon’s status seem unified in at least this much: They want him back.

“It would be nice to play with him as long as I can play,” third baseman Kris Bryant said.

Said Rizzo: “I’m expecting to retire with Joe. I hope it’s another five to seven — 10 — years. It’s on us. It’s on us players to go out there and play.”

***

Four exhibition games into Lou Piniella’s first spring training as manager in 2007, the Cubs were winless, and Piniella fumed. “Who likes to lose?” he said, torching the notion that spring results don’t matter.

Piniella gathered the team in the outfield before the fifth game and lit into players for their sloppiness, and the team proceeded to play just as sloppy as it had in the first four — but won 6-5.

The manager’s mood changed dramatically, relaxed and laughing easily after the game as he described the meeting and lauded the “better” play he saw.

“We’ve got some work to do. This is not some push-button operation,” he said with a laugh. “I’m starting to figure that out.”

***

With his T-shirts, affection for his tech gadgets and tendency to “vibrate on a different frequency,” Maddon will never be confused for Piniella.

“It’s like the opposite of him,” said Cubs utilityman Ben Zobrist, who also played for Maddon all nine years he was the Rays’ manager, when told of the Piniella story.

Coincidence or not, in his only two big-league managing jobs, Maddon pulled off what looked to be impossible with both the Rays and the Cubs, in each case after Piniella tried and fell short.

“He makes us feel comfortable. He lets us play. He lets us be who we’re going to be,” Cubs catcher Willson Contreras said. “He’s just so relaxed that I think that helps the team be relaxed.”

It’s part of the method behind what often looks like madness from the outside.

Zobrist calls Maddon “very chill” and remembers being caught off guard early in his career when he heard Maddon rave to the media about a middle reliever or a young No. 7 hitter or the rookie outfielder night after night following loss after bad loss to teams such as the Yankees, Red Sox and Orioles.

“He would pick out the one thing about that particular game that was really positive and create a rhetoric around that,” Zobrist said. “You thought at first that this guy’s just trying to cover up mistakes. But that really wasn’t the case. That was just where his head was.”

By their third season together, Zobrist, Maddon and the perennial last-place Rays were in the World Series.

***

Frank Chance was a player-manager, but he was no player’s manager.

The famed “Peerless Leader” wanted his players to avoid most socializing and all alcohol, fined players for shaking opponents’ hands and told a player to delay his wedding until the offseason for fear it would impair his performance.

Chance even suspended future Hall of Famer Joe Tinker — his eternal partner in baseball poetry — for the season. For cussing. He rescinded the suspension two days later.

***

Maddon has one rule: Run hard to first. And even that one has allowances built in for sore legs or fatigue.

Get to the park early? Take extra batting practice? Dress codes on travel days?

More like: Have another T-shirt, and “try not to suck.”

Cubs reliever Pedro Strop had four managers with three teams before playing for Maddon and quickly discovered an unfamiliar sense of freedom.

“You get an extra hour of sleep. You get more breathers during the season,” Strop said. “It’s like, ‘OK, you don’t need to do so much [before games]. Let’s play baseball games, and let’s win games.’

“Guys were able to stay fresh longer into the season. That means a lot.”

Maddon’s players learn quickly that he expects focus and effort on the field. They also learn, occasionally to their surprise, how much he respects differences, family and life balance off the field.

“There was a family emergency last year, and without me even finishing the sentence, he said, ‘Dude, go home. It’s way more important,’ ” said center fielder Albert Almora Jr., whose pregnant wife was having complications.

She’s fine now, and they had a healthy son in October.

“I’ll never forget that,” Almora said.

***

Leo Durocher might have been the biggest celebrity manager the Cubs ever had when he was hired to finally bring to a close the embarrassing “College of Coaches” chapter of Cubs managing history.

Durocher married a Hollywood actress, worked as a sports broadcaster and had appeared in episodes of hit TV shows “Mister Ed” and “The Munsters” by the time the Cubs hired him.

He also rode his players hard, once almost provoking a fistfight with Ron Santo in the dugout and famously overworking his gassed regulars down the stretch in 1969 as they blew a big lead to the Mets in September.

But his most infamous moment came in the summer of that season when he faked a stomach ache, left Wrigley Field and took a plane to northern Wisconsin to attend parents night at his stepson’s summer camp, where he was spotted by a fan.

Owner P.K. Wrigley tried to fire him, but Durocher’s pitching coach and loyal friend, Herman Franks, wouldn’t take the job.

***

If the stoic veteran Lester was skeptical of Maddon from afar, Rizzo was fascinated.

Zoo animals, magicians and a week every summer when the manager bans batting practice and orders players to stay home longer before going to the ballpark?

“I used to always talk to [teammate] David DeJesus about, ‘Man, Joe Maddon seems like he’s the best,’ ” Rizzo said of those days as a young player with the tanking Cubs in 2012 and ’13. “And then DeJesus played for him, and I was like, ‘Is it as cool as advertised?’

“ ‘Yeah, it is.’ ”

It’s no wonder Rizzo was first in line to get together with Maddon in Tampa, Florida, soon after the manager was hired. They met at Maddon’s restaurant for dinner, drinking a couple of bottles of fine red wine while talking, presumably, about hitting, managing style, lineups and their big plans for the Cubs.

“No,” Rizzo said. “That’s the best part. We didn’t even really talk about baseball. We just talked about life. That’s what he’s so good at.”

Maddon might be known for flamingos in the clubhouse and mimes at spring training, with a slogan for every season and a onesie for every West Coast trip.

But even Lester acknowledges the value of the method.

“It obviously worked for him over there [with the Rays],” Lester said. “It’s not like he just made it up on a whim. He has a process about it. He has a thought about it. And he sticks by it.”

Maddon waited for the right moment to spring one of his trademark distractions during his first season, responding to a five-game losing streak at the end of June by hiring a magician to perform in the clubhouse before the next game in New York.

“Throughout the season, if you can get a release from baseball — a release for like an hour, where you don’t think about baseball for one second — that’s powerful,” Rizzo said.

The Cubs swept the Mets and went on a 58-30 tear to finish the season, eventually reaching the National League Championship Series.

“He kind of breaks that stereotype that you’ve got to keep your head down and work super hard, that you can’t have any fun,” Bryant said. “Obviously, we’re all going to work hard because we all want to play in the big leagues and be here. So that’s a given. He just adds a little more spice and fun to it that gets us to relax.

“I feel that brings even more out of us.”

***

The Cubs were actually the first major-league team to hire a sports psychologist when owner P.K. Wrigley brought in Coleman Griffith from the University of Illinois in 1938. Griffith was not well received.

“Headshrinkers,” scoffed manager Charlie Grimm, who instructed his players to refuse to cooperate, according to a story in the American Psychological Association magazine and cited in Cubs mental-skills coordinator Bob Tewksbury’s recently released book.

Griffith had no better luck with Grimm’s midseason replacement, Gabby Hartnett, and the “headshrinker” was done with the team by 1940.

***

“He makes people comfortable,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “In a super high-anxiety world with a lot of pressure to perform in a major market, he allows guys to come in and be themselves and get comfortable quickly and play without hesitation.

“That’s such a rare thing.”

In 2015, the Cubs won 97 regular-season games and two playoff rounds with a rookie third baseman, rookie shortstop, rookie right fielder and a midseason call-up playing left field. They won a World Series in 2016 with a rookie catcher, a 23-year-old second baseman who became a postseason star and a rookie reliever who started the 10th inning of Game 7.

“Those guys came up and were comfortable and performed right away, and that’s not an accident,” Hoyer said. “That doesn’t happen in a lot of places.”

Maddon was scrutinized and criticized internally, and by fans and media, for pitching decisions that backfired during that championship run and made Game 7 a 10-inning free-for-all after the Cubs blew leads of 5-1 and 6-3.

“It’s definitely overblown,” Rizzo said. “We won.”

Either way, what often gets lost in that conversation is that the Cubs likely don’t reach the World Series at all that year — or maybe even the playoffs the year before — without Maddon getting a clubhouse full of different personalities and ages to believe in his way.

“I think it all started with the expectation and the tone and how he was able to translate that,” Cubs starter Kyle Hendricks said. “It was a different environment as soon as he came around, and we knew we expected to win. And that’s the only option we had.”

The Cubs officially started a mental-skills department the year before Maddon was hired. But Maddon already was fluent in the language, having embraced the value of sports psychology since the 1980s.

Maddon brought close friend and confidante Ken Ravizza, a pioneer in the field, to the organization when he was hired, and Ravizza’s influence on Maddon’s communication, outlook and bedside manner with young players was easy to see.

“I don’t think it’s any accident that his relationship with Ken was one of the early relationships like that [between a manager and sports psychologist],” Hoyer said.

Ravizza’s death last summer after suffering a heart attack hit many in the clubhouse hard, and some have suggested his influence was missed, especially during a rough finish to the season.

Long before Maddon got to Chicago, he was a mental-skills manager before there were mental-skills departments.

“He lets us be free,” Almora said. “He lets us come in here and work hard and let the players kind of manage the players. I love that.”

Contreras still seems amazed when remembering his first big-league spring training as a rough-edged prospect in 2016.

“He treated me like I was in the big leagues already,” said Contreras, who was cut from camp but called up midseason. “By the end of the year, he trusted me. He had the confidence to catch me in the World Series. It’s not easy to do that as a manager, to trust a rookie catcher. But he did, and I caught Game 7.”

Don’t mistake Maddon’s easy nature for being a pushover.

“Behind the scenes he’s a very intense, competitive dude, trust me,” Hendricks said. “He wants to win every game as bad as anybody else out there. As laid back as he seems, it’s a very focused mind.”

It seems ironic that the unexpected level of success the Cubs achieved so quickly under Maddon in 2015 and ’16 helped create the disappointment when they fell short of championships during playoff years in 2017 and ’18 — and consequently seemed to put his future with the club in doubt.

Maddon said he doesn’t think about it and plans to be back.

Either way, his legacy is assured by a four-year run like no other Cubs manager can claim.

Anything more might be up to his players.

“He gets it. He’s a manager, he’s a friend, he’s a father figure you can talk to,” Rizzo said. “There have been moments throughout our relationship where it’s, like, ‘I’m just grateful that I play for a manager like him.’ ”