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Joe Maddon the right man at the right time for Cubs

MESA, Ariz. – Penguins in the clubhouse? Woodstock- and Johnny Cash-themed dress codes for travel days? Conducting a media interview with a cockatoo on his shoulder?

Come on.

“When you’re on the other side, you don’t understand, so it may annoy you a little bit,” Cubs veteran David Ross, the former Boston Red Sox catcher, said of Joe Maddon’s headline-grabbing motivational stunts with the Tampa Bay Rays. “You’re like, ‘This is dumb.’

“Definitely one of the teams I didn’t like with the Red Sox were the Rays and Joe and how they did their own thing.”

If there’s been a knock against the Cubs’ first-year manager – a two-time manager of the year and four-time playoff qualifier with the under-funded Rays – that’s the one.

His methods look great for young players but can turn off the no-time-for-nonsense veterans.

“But being here,” Ross said, “when you understand where he’s coming from, it all makes sense.”

Like when the coaching staff brought a DJ onto the field during pre-work stretch time, blasting dance music Monday – the day the Cubs cut Kris Bryant in what’s become the most controversial move in baseball this spring. When they finished stretching, they gathered near the speakers and Maddon, strength coach Tim Buss and several players took turns dancing.

“If you’re on another team, looking on the outside in, you’re, like, `Oh, that’s all for show,’ but I promise you that’s the most fun stretch I’ve ever had in my major-league career,” Ross said. “It brought so much energy to a day with all the other distractions. Maybe it wasn’t planned that way, but I had the best stretch I’ve had.”

How will Maddon’s off-beat, perpetually optimistic, hipster outlook play in cynical, big-market Chicago? Can the managerial-savior methods that worked in a place like sleepy central Florida translate to the oppressive, century-stoked heat of the Cubs manager’s seat?

“I’d bet on him to accomplish special things with anything he’s doing in life,” said Maddon’s former boss in Tampa Bay, Andrew Friedman – who’s trying to make his own transition from the Rays this year to running the marquee Los Angeles Dodgers’ baseball operations.

The Cubs believe they got the right manager at exactly the right time for the rebuilding process that enters its fourth season under team president Theo Epstein Sunday night – used to justify the shoddy way they treated Rick Renteria, leaving him to twist and then get fired with two years left on his deal.

If they’re right, they couldn’t have known how good the timing would be, considering that for the first time in decades, the condition of a ballpark is in no shape to drive attendance. That’s going to be up to Maddon’s refurbished team.

If not Maddon’s ways and means.

“There’s not an area where I wouldn’t give him incredibly high marks,” Friedman said. “He’s incredibly open-minded. He’s incredibly positive, and not just outwardly. Even in meetings, I’d have to try to scale him back some, which is a good thing.

“But he’s a great communicator and does a really good job putting guys in position to have success.”

But it’s more than communication. It’s his ahead-of-the-curve embrace of analytics as tools to use for an edge – or to discard when he decides to make a move on instincts or observation.

He uses defensive shifts more than any other manager. Hates the DH rule. Plans to bat the pitcher eighth this season, probably in more than half the Cubs’ games. Might bat slugging rookie Jorge Soler second (at least when the pitcher’s eighth). Shuns platoon pitcher-hitter matchups unless the numbers back them up. Scoffs at the idea that the first or third out of an inning at third base is a cardinal sin. And might occasionally walk a guy with the bases loaded.

Cubs right-hander Jason Hammel, who pitched for Maddon in Tampa Bay, grins when he calls Maddon a “mad scientist.”

He lauds the manager’s ability to ease a player’s anxieties with his upbeat and relaxed demeanor – don’t forget Maddon’s motto: “Never let the pressure exceed the pleasure.”

“But at 7 o’clock you’re expected to do your job,” Hammel said. “There’s a seriousness involved, too.”

Forgive All-Star shortstop Starlin Castro if he’s a little weary – if not wary – of yet a fifth manager in less than five years in the big leagues.

But within a week of being around Maddon this spring, Castro said, “I think it’s going to be a really good experience for us to play with a manager that knows how to win games.”

“I think people started figuring out it’s not a shtick,” said longtime executive Bill Bavasi, who was Maddon’s boss in the Angels farm system and then later his GM when Maddon was the Angels’ bench coach. “What you see is what you get. And if you spent 20 minutes with him you probably know him.”

Know him?

This is a guy who routinely calls people “dude.” He calls the Cubs metrics analysts “the geek department” (and has leaned on them heavily this spring to devise a plan to attack Wrigley Field and the National League).

He uses terms like Colin Powell’s “force multiplier” to describe players who make others around them better and “ubiquitous” to describe super utility players.

He’s into antique cars and the latest tech gadgets, cross-country drives in 43-foot- RVs with his wife Jaye, beers on the beach in a lawn chair and excursions to Rome and fine wines.

Maddon is 61 but as modern, curious, hip, energetic and inquisitive as most people less than half his age.

“He has more Twitter followers than probably anyone on our team,” said 25-year-old first baseman Anthony Rizzo, who has 65,000 followers compared to more than 224,000 for Maddon.

And he’s old school – even if it doesn’t quite sound like it. Run hard to first? Every Cubs manager of the last decade – that’s six for those scoring at home – talked about the same thing when he took the job.

Nobody else called it “Respect 90” and literally had the spring grounds crew spell it out along the first base line of the main practice field.

“He’s real genuine in the way he speaks,” Ross said, echoing the “great communicator” line. “He lets you know where you stand, he’s easy to talk to. He can talk about any subject. But he’s really old school to the core when it comes to baseball on-the-field stuff. And you don’t get to see that side as an opposing player.”