By Gordon Wittenmyer
MESA, Ariz. – Jason Heyward, John Lackey, Trevor Cahill, Ben Zobrist, Dexter Fowler.
All took less money and/or years to sign with, or re-sign with, the Cubs this winter. And the Cubs admit they couldn’t have accomplished their offseason objectives without those compromises, along with some creative contract structuring.
“It’s actually incredible to think about that concept,” manager Joe Maddon said.
Actually, Maddon’s been thinking about the concept for 30 years. He wrote the book on it – a paper, really – in the late 1980s while working as a minor-league field coordinator in the Angels’ system.
“It was a concept, where if you could create the right culture, you would get guys wanting to stay longer because of that, irrespective of money,” he said. “The money would matter, but not to the level that wanting to be in that particular spot would matter.
“So whenever I see guys signing for less and wanting to stay here, I think about that.”
In the Cubs’ case, a team that went to the National League Championship Series, built around a young core of hitters and a Cy Young Award-winning pitcher, created as much incentive as any “culture.”
Still, the concept of linking a top-to-bottom organizational cohesiveness to talent acquisition and the raw economics of payroll management was at least uncommon, if not cutting edge at the time.
“I’d love to find [that paper],” Maddon said. “I might have given it to Bavasi or one of those guys.”
“I know he gave it to me, but I know I don’t have it,” said Bill Bavasi, the former general manager who was Maddon’s farm director back then. “It’s probably somewhere.”
Bavasi doesn’t remember the details in the paper. But he does remember Maddon using the huge, heavy word processer he carried around at the time to do planning, bang out proposals and often stay up until 3 or 4 in the morning typing ideas that occurred to him that day.
“I really thought I became a better coach by doing that,” Maddon said. “Those are the things that really helped me understand my craft.”
Three decades later, “team culture” – one of the most overused, meaningless terms in sports – has overtaken “goat” and “century” as the most commonly uttered words in Cubs camp.
“Joe leads that,” Cubs ace Jake Arrieta said.
In fact, the manager embodies what the term means for this team. It shows up in the irreverent, sometimes silly, clubhouse magicians, zoo animal visits, pajama-themed road trips and 1970s day at spring training (complete with tricked-out van and disco music).
It’s also there in the “Respect 90” and “Embrace the Target” campaign slogans his first two years with the Cubs, and the mega speakers blasting classic rock during spring batting practice.
If that helps create the culture everyone’s talking about around here, it’s not by accident. If anything, it was decades in the making before he got his first shot at managing a big-league team 10 years ago with the Rays.
You could probably even read about some of it if anyone could find that old paper.
“It’s talking about scouting and development, talking about how ownership relates to minor-league players,” Maddon said, “how general managers and team presidents relate with minor-league players. How that all came together where you build this culture where people want to be someplace.
“And it’s happening here.”
Maddon wasn’t the only Angels instructor who worked hard, planned and even gave proposals to Bavasi.
“But I might put my thoughts on a piece of paper and hand it to you, and then Einstein will give you his,” Bavasi said. “It’s a big difference.
“Joe’s where he is for a reason. And, yeah, he worked hard. But there are people that work as hard as he does. He’s just smart. His heart’s always in the right place. He’s true to himself.
“There’s something said for being good.”