Back in 1980, I was working for a small radio station and went to the news conference introducing the Cubs' new manager for that season -- Preston Gomez. I asked him, "What makes you different from all the men who have preceded you in trying to get the Cubs to the World Series and failed?"
Gomez seemed completely dumbfounded by that question and mumbled something about the running game. He was way over his head managing in Chicago and was dismissed from the position after only 90 games.
Since Gomez's firing, 18 other men (not including one-game interim guys) have managed the Cubs and failed to guide them to a World Series. Some got closer than others, as you know.
After listening to Joe Maddon Monday afternoon, I'm convinced he is the guy who is going to manage the Cubs to their first World Series since 1945, and, hopefully, win it. In a virtuoso performance in front of media at the Cubby Bear, Maddon laid out not only his philosophy of baseball, but his philosophy of life. At one point, he said, "I have a life outside of baseball; I don't want to sit in a concrete bunker, drinking coffee and watching TV." He said he wants his players to do less work as the season goes on, always remember to play the game the same way whether it's April 15, August 15 or October 15, and to "not ever allow the pressure to exceed the pleasure." That last quote was as Maddon reminded everyone that baseball is a game, entertainment, even though he's a man who carries an "analytics card in his back pocket."
He clearly understands the challenge of the "106 years," and if you had CSN Chicago's David Kaplan in the pool of "Who's going to mention the World Series drought first?", you win. Maddon said, "Who would not want to be in this seat?" After that, though, he pretty much dismissed the question, saying he doesn't focus on things like that.
And that's exactly right, in my view. Maddon's focus is to get the players to be the best they can be, concentrating on, as he rightly said, both physical mechanics and what he described as "mental mechanics." This is undoubtedly the reason he does, as has been widely written, have "themed" road trips or bring zoo animals to his clubhouse to remind his players there's more to life than baseball. He said managing is about "people," building relationships and trust, and getting his players to not be afraid to make mistakes.
Maddon praised what he termed "magical" Wrigley Field, several times calling it a "cathedral" and talking about how he "slowed down" at one point during the Rays' series at Wrigley last August. During a pitching change, he said that after taking the ball from the pitcher and took a moment to take in the scene, from the "perfect" blue skies to what the light standards looked like to all the fans who were filling Wrigley that weekend. What other manager would do that? He says he loves Chicago, a "wonderful city," wants to live downtown and be part of the fabric of the city, just as I wrote earlier today. Who knows? Maybe he's exactly the kind of guy who would buy Ted Lilly's old house and have a three-block walk to work. He can afford it, after getting a five-year, $25 million contract, the equal to what his mentor, Mike Scioscia of the Angels, is getting on an AAV basis. It's money well-spent, in my view.
Maddon said he talked philosophy and the need to be "aligned" with Theo and Jed and the Ricketts family, and it sure sounds like everyone is on the same page. While he deflected a question about the coaching staff, saying they would "meet" about it, the fact that Chris Bosio was the only member of the staff to attend the presser says to me that Bosio, at least, will stay. Maddon said he can work with just about anyone, and I suspect in the end, wholesale changes to the coaching staff won't happen in 2015.
Both Epstein and Maddon mentioned the previous interview they had, in Boston in the 2003-04 offseason, and their familiarity since they'd been competing in the same division for several years. They said they felt immediately comfortable with each other, and you could even see that in the way they spoke during the news conference. Maddon concluded by thanking everyone in Tampa Bay, from owner Stu Sternberg to former GM Andrew Friedman and current GM Matt Silverman. The fact that he showed up wearing an open-necked shirt, no sport jacket, says to me that Maddon is a man very comfortable in his own skin, knows who he is and isn't, doesn't need to dress to impress. He'll do things his way, to be sure, but "his way" isn't the "my way or the highway" of many old-school managers, and "his way" appears to be able to adapt all kinds of messages, whether they be baseball-related, or a non-baseball psychological effort to get players to loosen up and just play the game.
He'll wear uniform No. 70, as he has throughout his career. When he does April 6 at Wrigley Field, he'll be the first Cub, player, coach or manager, ever to wear that number in a regular-season game.
That concludes my summary of the basic facts of the introduction of Joe Maddon as Cubs manager. How do I feel about all this?
It's clear that Theo Epstein decided that now was the time to pounce on a manager who he felt could lead the Cubs to the next level, once he suddenly became available. It's further clear that Joe Maddon felt this was the right situation for him professionally. As a fan, I couldn't possibly be more energized. There are, of course, limits to what a manager can do. In the end, the players play, and the players win or lose. But Joe Maddon is more than just a man who makes out lineup cards, decides when to bunt or hit-and-run, and make pitching changes. It's eminently clear to me, even from just hearing him speak for an hour, that he's a leader of men, a strong leader who knows precisely what he's doing and why he's doing it.
To circle back to the lede to this article, the Cubs haven't had anyone like that in the field manager's chair for some time, if ever. Preston Gomez wasn't that guy; neither were the 18 other men who succeeded him before Maddon. Dusty Baker seemed to "get it" for a time, but then lost his team due to bad strategic decisions and old-school thinking. Lou Piniella seemed to have all the answers, but failed to realize how to get a team ready for the playoffs and appeared to lose interest in managing altogether.
Joe Maddon, I think, is smart enough not to succumb to the failures of the past -- he won't allow that. He'll do things his way, sure -- but part of "his way" is adapting himself to changing conditions, the situation he's in, and understanding what got the team he's managing to the point they are. He's never lived in Chicago nor managed in the National League nor been in Wrigley Field for more than three games, yet I think he has a deeper understanding of the Chicago Cubs, where they've been, what they need to succeed and how to get there than anyone who's taken this job in many decades, if ever.
At the end of the news conference, Maddon got back on the microphone and said to everyone at the Cubby Bear, "The first round's on me." What other Cubs manager would have done that?
I couldn't be more thrilled. You'll see the optimistic old me here again. Theo has said a number of times that they intend to contend in 2015; Maddon added that he expects to make the playoffs "next year" and won't go into any season thinking any other way. That's great. I can't wait for the upcoming offseason moves -- Theo hinted "players want to play for Joe" -- and I'm excited for spring training 2015.
Let's play ball. I wish spring training were starting tomorrow! Let's win. It's way past time.