Is Joe Maddon’s motivational work done, or is it just beginning?
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Joe Maddon’s favorite saying is that the pressure shouldn’t exceed the pleasure, and, wait, he’s talking about sports, right? Anyway, his point is that if you allow yourself to sag under the weight of an at-bat or a season or a 10-ton history, you’re going to be miserable and very likely unproductive.
Maddon embraces pressure and targets so merrily that it’s as if he was born with ice in his veins. But that’s impossible because everything about him is warm. He likes almost everybody, he likes new things and he likes himself (some of his critics would say too much). Plenty of people don’t like themselves (critics included).
This is the man who will be standing in the Cubs’ dugout Friday night when the team embarks on its quest for its first World Series title since forever. Carbon dating puts the exact year at 1908. If you’re a Cubs fan, this is the manager you want standing in that dugout. He would seem to be the calm in just about any storm.
But what will his influence be in the postseason? It’s worth asking whether Maddon’s approach works in a condensed format. Are the lessons of a 162-game season enough to carry over into the playoffs without the need for more of his motivational slogans and T-shirts?
“At this point, that stuff is kind of baked into our personality,’’ general manager Jed Hoyer said. “I don’t think what he says or what he does is going to directly influence it, but what he’s said and done since spring training of last season to this year to the way he’s handled these guys, I think that’s kind of baked into how we are as a team.
“He creates a great vibe. I think everyone sees that every day. Our guys are focused but relaxed. That’s kind of the perfect mode to be in.’’
On Wednesday, Maddon spent about a half hour talking to his players near the pitcher’s mound at Wrigley Field. The gist of his message might not be great T-shirt fodder, but it was important nonetheless: Do things the same way you did them in the regular season. He doesn’t need more from his players. He needs more of the same that brought the club 103 victories.
If you needed a reminder of the influence a manager can have, Buck Showalter’s almost incomprehensible decision not to pitch Baltimore’s Zach Britton, the best reliever in baseball, in the 11th inning during Tuesday’s American League wild-card elimination game is all you need. Maddon wasn’t available for interviews Wednesday, so we don’t know his thoughts on the matter. But it’s difficult to see him sitting on Cubs closer Aroldis Chapman in a similar situation. That doesn’t make him a strategic genius. That makes him sane.
Most of the time, a manager’s approach isn’t so quantifiable. No one can say for sure how much influence Maddon’s motivational methods have had. That’s another way of saying that plenty of teams have won 100 games without bear cubs being brought in for the players’ amusement during spring training.
The Cubs haven’t really dealt with much pressure this season. Another of Maddon’s sayings this season, “Embrace the Target,’’ turned out to be little more than a phrase. The Cubs embraced the target so well that nobody could get at it. They were so good so fast and for so long they never gave their opponents the chance to pull an arrow out of their quiver and aim at the target.
For the most part, it was all fun and games in the regular season. It was one of the reasons Maddon recently talked with his players about overcoming difficult times in the postseason. There could be periods of darkness, and he doesn’t want his players to be shocked by them.
“We’re not going to out there hoping to make a mistake, obviously,’’ shortstop Addison Russell said. “But if it happens, we just have to regroup.’’
Now the Cubs start over, and now they’re really hunted. They are the favorites. They have enjoyed that role all season. Reveled in it, really. But no one really confronted them. Here comes the pressure. All that history. All those expectations. Some of the Cubs sound pleased.
“You actually live for these type of moments,’’ catcher Miguel Montero said. “As a player growing up, you want to be in this situation. I always say I want to be up in the ninth inning with the winning run on third. You live for that. I think that’s what we’re living for right now.’’
Maddon’s T-shirts are fine. They don’t win games.
“It’s always good,’’ Montero said. “It’s always a reminder, but I think we’re pretty much ready right now. This year we know where we want to go.’’