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From home to first, Joe Maddon off to a roaring start with Cubs

MESA, Ariz. – Joe Maddon can turn the most basic professional requirement into a rousing cause. One minute you’re listening to him talk about running to first base, the next you’re applying “Braveheart’’ war paint to your face.

Now, you might have been under the impression that running hard to first base was as elementary as, oh, I don’t know, running hard to first base. How literal of you.

The new Cubs manager has thought a lot about the subject, has pondered it like a philosopher might ponder death, and he sees all sorts of deeper meaning in the 90-foot journey from home plate to first base.

He met with the media Thursday, the reporting day for pitchers and catchers, and was asked about his Respect 90 philosophy, something he had spoken about in job interviews. And away he went, touching on heart, the youth of America, Ernie Banks, a spring training game as Rays manager and probably a few subliminal messages I missed.

“I always talked about if you could get a baseball player to run hard to first base and if he respects that 90 feet, that will permeate the rest of his game in a positive way,’’ he said.

“I think it’s that simple – i.e., why (Pittsburgh centerfielder) Andrew McCutchen became my favorite player a couple of years ago. We were playing in Port Charlotte (Fla.) at 10 o’clock at night. In the ninth inning with two outs, he hits a routine groundball to shortstop and beats it out. Now what does that say to the rest of the Pirate organization? That was a beautiful moment. I went up to Clint (Hurdle, Pittsburgh’s manager)) right after the game. I was effusive. I could not believe I just saw that.

“It doesn’t take talent to run hard or play hard. It just takes want-to in a sense. We’re going to pull that out of our guys. I really have a hard time understanding why you have to pull it out. Part of that Respect 90 is just respect in general, just respecting the game.’’

You wonder in what ways the infield-fly rule speaks to Maddon’s soul. Anyway, he’s right about one good thing leading to another in a chain reaction of good. You can say his bar doesn’t look particularly high, that running hard to first base should be like showing up for work on time. But here’s the thing: Plenty of people have a hard time showing up for work on time.

How will Maddon deal with Cubs players who amble or stroll to first base? He won’t. He wants the players to police themselves.

“You’ve got your lead bulls on the same page, and when they are, if somebody strays a little bit, the appropriate guys in the clubhouse take care of that,’’ he said. “I should be the last guy always to intervene if this is running properly.’’

It’s clear that Maddon has spent a lot of time not just thinking about many topics but thinking about how to say them. He said he’s “anti-rules.’’ Why?

“Integrity has no need of rules,’’ he said.

If someday a book on leadership comes out bearing his name, it won’t be a surprise.

Maddon is known for the motivational lengths he’ll go to – bringing a penguin into the clubhouse to remind players to chill out, hiring DJs and bands to liven things up, having players dress to a specific theme for road trips, etc. But if he can make fabulously wealthy ballplayers want to run hard without anything more than a speech, more power to him. It isn’t always easy.

“What baseball players, what athletes have to understand … this is a pretty cool thing to be involved in,’’ he said. “And that would be major-league baseball or major-league football or major-league basketball. You work your entire life from the time you’re six or seven years of age to get to this particular moment in your life, and then you’re going to treat it that way? You’re not going to respect that or respect Mr. Banks, who just passed away, or the guys who had come here before you? When you don’t do that, you show total lack of respect regarding what had happened before you.’’

You get the feeling that Cubs players will run through walls for him. But not before stepping on first base.

“It’s going to start right there for us,’’ Maddon said. “We do that, we’re going to be on our way. And I’m going to really convince our guys of that one simple thought.’’