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Joe Maddon and the 2018 Cubs: Manager’s people skills will be tested from Day 1

Close your eyes, if it helps, and try to imagine the sight of 63-year-old Joseph John Maddon Jr. driving the highways of Arizona next month, holding steady at 85 miles per hour but every now and then pumping his slick new ride — you only live once, baby — up to 90.

Rock-and-roll on the stereo. A breeze steaming in through rolled-down windows and mussing the Cubs manager’s gently dyed hair. Maddon is Mr. Cool. Mr. Excitement. Just wait until his players get a load of him behind the wheel of his — are you ready for this? — 1985 Oldsmobile Custom Cruiser station wagon.

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Dear God, it’s true. Clark Griswold will be managing the Cubs in 2018, but not before he stretches out the new — make that impossibly old — Family Truckster on the highways of America. Maddon’s $8,000 vehicle is retro down to the wood paneling. If that won’t rally the troops after a grind of a 2017 season in which they reached the NLCS for the third straight time but seemingly nearly died trying, what will?

Cubs manager Joe Maddon on a festive "Thanksmas" night. (Photo by Madeline Kenney/Chicago Sun-Times)

And yet rally them, Maddon must, because the Cubs were a soggy blanket last year compared with the eternal flame that was — is — the World Series-winning squad of 2016.

“I don’t know that we had enough fun,” Maddon said Wednesday at a “Thanksmas” dinner he hosted for homeless Chicagoans at the Catholic Charities building downtown. “I’m not talking about crazy, zany kind of stuff. I’m just talking about: Don’t apply so much undue pressure to yourself trying to replicate what you did the year before. Go out there and let it happen.”

Maddon is talking about “energy and enthusiasm,” too, words he paired often enough Wednesday that it’s obvious they’ll be at the core of the message he preaches from Day 1 of spring training on through to what everyone hopes will be a fourth straight October run. “Energy and enthusiasm” doesn’t have much of a ring to it, but Maddon, ever the shticky sloganeer, will come up with a better way to put it. (For my money, the bar was set with “try not to suck.”)

“I’m not ready to reveal it,” he said. “But it’s going to be kind of fun, I think.”

And there we are on the F-word again: fun. Did the Cubs ever seem to be having it last season? They slogged through the first half, with players admitting they were tired despite their manager’s assurances to media and fans — unconvincing, if we’re being honest — that everything was peachy. And there was a disconnect, at least compared with the seasons before, between Maddon and some players. More than once, for example, they vetoed his calls for dress-up themes on road trips.

Maddon is back in everything’s-gonna-be-all-right mode, and maybe he’s correct. Wouldn’t it be nice to behold that enthralling, intoxicating Cubs mojo again?

“I don’t want to get jaded by anything,” Maddon said, “whether it’s a Thanksmas, three trips to the playoffs or a 1956 Bel Air. Don’t ever get jaded, which I think is a tendency we run into. So I really want to tap into our human spirit and really understand that this is about energy and enthusiasm. If we bring that to bear on a daily basis, we’re going back [to the playoffs].”

But hold tight as we make a sudden 90-degree turn: The moment I walked into the room where “Thanksmas” dinner would be served, I overheard one volunteer say to another about the assembled media, “They don’t care about us. They’re just here to see Maddon.”

She wasn’t entirely wrong, and it sure made me feel bad. Soon enough, though, Maddon was in front of the room addressing those who’d come together for sustenance, conversation and community.

“We want you to know that we see you,” he said. “We care.”

Not an ounce of shtick to be found there. That’s who Maddon is, or else he wouldn’t still be doing these dinners in all the places he has lived before, too. This time he wore jeans, a Puerto Rico T-shirt, a Cubs Santa hat and an apron as he served spoonfuls of spaghetti and meatballs, Italian sausage, pierogis, salad and — yes — that personal touch, those innate people skills, that for long have seemed to be his greatest gifts as a manager.

Maddon will need those gifts in the months to come with his baseball team. Can he reach his players as effectively as he did before? All he can do is put the pedal to the metal and try.

Follow me on Twitter @slgreenberg.

Email: sgreenberg@suntimes.com