First, let me tell you what this article is not.
It is not the place to discuss Joe Maddon’s strategic choices, whether you liked them or didn’t.
It is not the place to discuss Maddon’s successor. I’ll have something on that later today.
I’m writing this in celebration of Joe Maddon and the five years we were lucky to have him leading our favorite baseball team.
We knew things were going to be different in Chicago when Joe ended the news conference introducing him as Cubs manager in November 2014 this way:
That made him one of us, even before he’d even set foot on Wrigley Field as Cubs manager. What other Cubs manager would have done that? Rick Renteria? Dale Sveum? Lou Piniella? Dusty Baker? Jim Riggleman? Don Zimmer? Leo Durocher? None of them. That’s Joe Maddon’s personality, and he had us at hello.
Then he wrenched Cubs culture out of its century-long slumber. Yes, really, Cubs culture hadn’t really changed since they won World Series before any of us walked this Earth, not even under Durocher, who presided over six straight winning seasons. Through ownership and management changes, they lost and lost and lost until the only way we could continue rooting for them was becoming fans of the “lovable losers.”
Joe changed that. His words are on the clubhouse wall at Wrigley Field!
All his words don’t quite show there, but as you know, the whole saying is: “Don’t let the pressure exceed the pleasure.” How simple, but profound. Baseball is a kid’s game played by men for millions of dollars, and many previous Cubs teams and players seemed to have forgotten that and failed at the worst possible times.
Advice to whoever succeeds Joe: Don’t ever forget those words, and they should remain on that clubhouse wall forever, because Joe Maddon changed everything and smashed failure to smithereens. The first year of his tenure brought zoo animals and magicians and road trips where players dressed up in various costumes, and his players bought into every single bit of it:
And it was magic. Two days after future Cub Cole Hamels threw a no-hitter that broke the Cubs’ record 7,920-game no-hit streak, the team began winning in numbers that had them finishing the season on an incredible 46-19 run. They won 97 times that regular season, matching the best for the franchise since World War II, and a lot of that was due to Jake Arrieta’s fabulous second half in which he threw a no-hitter and slammed the door on the Pirates in the wild-card game.
The subsequent loss to the Mets in the NLCS only whetted our appetite for more in 2016, and what did we get from Joe?
Joe knew everyone would be gunning for the Cubs as World Series favorites in 2016, and “Embrace The Target” was the perfect mantra. Again, his players bought into every single bit of it, as did fans. They sold a lot of T-shirts, with portions of the proceeds going to Joe’s Respect 90 foundation. I bought one. I will continue to wear it with pride.
“Respect 90.” That was another of Joe’s mantras. Referring to the 90-foot distance between bases, it meant simply: Hustle at all times. Work hard. Do your best always.
Between not letting the pressure exceed the pleasure and embracing the target, Joe’s leadership helped the players shake off the 108 years of failure that had been too much for teams in 1969, 1984, 2003, 2008 and several other years before. It wasn’t easy — it took a two-run rally in the 10th inning of Game 7 of the World Series in what is arguably the greatest game in baseball history — and Joe’s style and leadership were among the biggest factors in getting this:
The last three years haven’t gone the way we would have wanted them, and again, it is not my purpose here to rehash the disappointment or what Joe did or didn’t do. Throughout it all, he retained a positive attitude and positive atmosphere in the Cubs clubhouse. As you know, I would have liked him to get a couple more shots at a repeat championship, perhaps a two-year deal to expire at the same time Theo Epstein’s does.
But Theo and Joe apparently agreed that it was time for a mutual parting of the ways, and I can understand that, too. Things didn’t work out, especially in 2019, and perhaps it is time for a new voice in the Cubs clubhouse to shake up an atmosphere that appeared to get a bit stale. More on that later today, as I mentioned, this isn’t the time or place to discuss that topic. No Cubs manager has ever been given the privilege of retiring — not even Frank Chance, who won four National League pennants and two World Series titles in five years. This is how little Cubs owner Charles Murphy thought of Chance just two years after his last pennant (and after a 91-win season!):
Incredibly, he was released by the Cubs as both a player and a manager while hospitalized for brain surgery in 1912 after a heated hospital room argument with Cubs owner Murphy over Murphy’s releasing good players to save the team money.
Fired while in the hospital for brain surgery? Harsh! Joe Maddon’s departure is all puppies, rainbows and cupcakes by comparison.
And so the time has come to celebrate the best Cubs manager in my lifetime — and that designation’s not likely to change even if the team wins more World Series in upcoming seasons. Joe departs with 471 Cubs wins, fifth in club history behind Cap Anson, Charlie Grimm, Chance and Leo Durocher, and third in winning percentage (.581) behind Anson and Al Spalding, two 19th Century leaders who managed the team under far different conditions than Maddon encountered from 2015-19.
We will miss him, we will miss his sayings and T-shirts and “Respect Bald” and news conferences, and he ended his last meeting with reporters as Cubs manager this way:
Maddon did his final Cubs media presser with a Corona in hand. pic.twitter.com/kuZpJJMXOd— Jordan Bastian (@MLBastian) September 29, 2019
(Also, congratulations to Daily Herald writer Bruce Miles, seen on the left in that photo, on his semi-retirement from beat writing.)
Thank you, Theo, for grabbing Joe Maddon to manage this team at just the right moment in the history of the franchise. Thank you, Joe, for everything, from the bottom of this Cub fan’s full heart. Despite the endings last year and this, the last five seasons have been the best I’ve seen in more than half a century watching Cubs baseball. Even if the Cubs do win more championships, nothing will ever match the Joe Maddon Era and the 2016 title that broke the drought.
Joe, you’ll forever be a Chicago Cub, welcome at all reunions of the 2016 champions, and likely wearing a Cubs cap when he’s inducted into the Hall of Fame when he retires, and when that happens, the Cubs ought to retire his number 70. If he’s hired by a team that faces the Cubs at Wrigley Field in 2020, I would expect the Cubs to run a video tribute to him and for him to receive a rousing ovation.
If I ever run into Joe myself, I’d be happy to buy him a beer, just to say “Thank you.” We should all raise a glass to Joe Maddon and everything he did for the Chicago Cubs as soon as we have the chance. We won’t see anyone like him pass this way again.