Joe Maddon has turned lovable losers into lovable winners
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How about our Joe Maddon?
The guy comes to Chicago 12 months ago, offers everybody at his first news conference a shot and a beer, heads off to spring training in February to meet his new players and wins National League Manager of the Year in November.
A lot happened from April to October — including a magician doing his tricks, adult pajamas, a flamingo, a cheetah, what have you. But the Cubs’ hiring of the man who had already won the American League Manager of the Year twice with the small-market Rays now looks like genius.
“It’s a little bit staggering to be part of this,’’ Maddon, 61, said Tuesday after learning of the award during a live patch-in on MLB Network. “Our fan base is truly unique.’’
That fan base, of course, is the massive, thirsting horde known as Cubs Nation, with headquarters at Clark and Addison and myriad outposts around the globe.
Maddon, who led a team of kids and overachievers (though he believes they simply “reached their potential”) to a shocking 97-65 record — an improvement of 24 games over last season — captured fans almost as much for his gregarious, thoughtful nature as for the astounding number of W’s he put on the Wrigley Field flagpole.
He didn’t shy from questions about the Cubs’ now 107-year World Series title drought or the club’s historic problem with billy goats. He welcomed it all. You had a strange question for him? “I love strange!’’ he’d reply, his eyes bright and eager.
That warmth and sincerity, combined with decades of baseball knowledge and the recognition of ways he had failed in the past, made Maddon a leader about whom the average Joe could say, “I’d love to have that Joe as my boss.’’
The Manager of the Year award is for the regular season only — votes are taken before the playoffs — so Mets manager Terry Collins (three first-place votes to Maddon’s 18) may have lost some cred due to the timing. Collins’ Mets, after all, beat the Cubs in the NL Championship Series and made it to the World Series.
But there are many intangibles involved in managing, and there are no stats to accurately determine a skipper’s value to his club. Indeed, a good case can also be made for Cardinals manager Mike Matheny, who got nine first-place votes. His team finished with a league-best 100 wins, despite a fleet of injuries.
Yet, everybody thinks Maddon is a great manager, and the proof’s in the past. With Tampa Bay, he developed young stars such as Evan Longoria and James Shields and led the cash-strapped Rays to five 90-plus-win seasons in nine years, including four playoff appearances and one American League pennant.
Accepting the Cubs job could have been a disaster for him. Not much is expected of a manager in South Florida, but with the Cubs, there are desperate desires that have basically sunk every manager going back to 1908.
“I think it’s important to step outside your comfort zone,’’ Maddon said, explaining why he came to Chicago. Typical of him, he was speaking from his Tampa restaurant. He added, “I really think straight-up pizza tonight.’’
The goofy stuff he sometimes does to keep his team light and loose is not unusual. There have been screwy managers forever. But Maddon’s deep understanding that baseball is not like other, less-monotonous sports with fewer games and sudden adrenaline bursts has forged his philosophy.
Baseball players, he professes, have to believe in the “process’’ and not change anything they do once they are engaged — mentally or physically — game after game. He doesn’t even mind errors: “I welcome them, as long as they’re physical and not mental.”
He believes in honesty. “It’s all about building relationships and establishing trust,’’ he said. He knows that sounds clichéd, but he literally didn’t know any Cubs players at the beginning, and he made it his duty to meet and understand them all.
He was able this season to make kids such as Kyle Schwarber, Addison Russell and Rookie of the Year Kris Bryant bloom and flourish. He got quirky shortstop Starlin Castro to move to second base and blossom.
He said he didn’t care if he hurt anybody’s feelings with his decisions, but he amended that.
“You never want to be cruel. You never want to destroy somebody’s confidence. Ever.’’
And he never did.
“It’s fun to come to work every day and be around him,’’ said president Theo Epstein, who hired the guy. “He made my quality of life better.’’
Call Maddon’s presence therapeutic, then.
And call it rewarded.
Follow me on Twitter @ricktelander.