By Rick Telander
October 6, 2015
Joe Maddon predicted the Cubs would make the playoffs this year, not rudely, but as an honest analysis of the future. | Gene J. Puskar/AP
Maybe all you need to know is this: Joe Maddon won 754 games in nine years with the Tampa Bay Rays.
Go do that, somebody else.
The Rays, formerly the Devil Rays (maybe they should have been named the Bottom Feeders), play in the ugliest stadium in baseball in front of no one except tourists and dozing shuffleboard kings.
Small town, small payroll, small goals.
And yet, playing a bunch of youngsters, Maddon led the Rays to a division title in 2008 over the heavily favored Yankees and Red Sox. He even got them to the World Series.
So this Cubs gig is a no-brainer for him. What’s 107 years of starvation when you’ve got a real ballclub, rabid fans, lots of money and a huge city behind you?
A cheery fellow, Maddon came to town and famously offered shots and beers to the assembled media at his introductory news conference at the Cubby Bear in November.
Nobody took him up on it. I wasn’t there, sadly, because I sure as heck would have said, “I’ll have one, if you are.” And I’ll bet he would have had one.
There is something just different about Maddon.
It’s not phony kindness. It’s not Ozzie Guillen-style gabbiness. It’s not renegade nuttiness. Nor is it old-grandpa paternalism.
It’s something unique to the man — a combination of resourcefulness, empathy, good humor, patience, knowledge and desire that comes together to form a leader who makes his players relax, laugh at absurdities and want very much to win.
With the Rays, Maddon got everything from all the 20-somethings on the team — players such as Evan Longoria and David Price and Carl Crawford and Melvin Upton. The 2008 Rays won 97 games and were 3-0 against the mighty Cubs, who also won 97 games, finished first in their division and were swept in the division series.
Lots of people — including Theo Epstein, then with the Red Sox — were noticing.
Maddon in the locker room — anywhere near a ballpark, for that matter — is so normal, so joyful and just plain happy to be alive and near green grass and the intricate mysteries of baseball that it infects anyone near him.
Preface a question, as I once did, with, “This may be kind of a strange thing to ask …” and Maddon will beam and say, “I love strange!” That kind of eagerness works well in baseball, where tedium and crustiness soon overwhelm people.
Watch players collect the balls after batting practice, and you can see in their postures who is bored out of his skull and who is thrilled to collect all those little white cowhides.
Maddon loves it all.
He predicted the Cubs would make the playoffs this year, not rudely, but as an honest analysis of the future. And here they are. And it makes Maddon so happy.
“How could you possibly be disappointed with anything our players have done this year,” he said. “It’s pretty phenomenal.”
Maddon played the young guys — Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, Kyle Schwarber, Javy Baez — without fear or regret, and he never forgot the still-young veterans such as Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo. He got the best year ever out of center fielder Dexter Fowler, and let’s not even discuss what crazy success came to pitcher Jake Arrieta.
Players have to love it when their manager knuckles down for games and then has fun when the last out has passed. Nobody fired off more champagne geysers than Maddon after the Cubs clinched a playoff spot. There was nothing you could ask him that he wouldn’t answer.
Was he always this much fun?
“Always,’’ said his grown daughter, Sarah. “Even more than this.’’
Castro is an example of a player who could have sunk into depression and uncertainty under another manager. It’s way too easy to criticize the infielder whose lapses afield sometimes seem to indicate he doesn’t care.
But Maddon didn’t buy that. And he didn’t criticize Castro the way, say, former Cubs manager Dale Sveum once doubted Rizzo. Not only is Castro playing a new position because of Maddon — second base — but he’s hitting as well as he ever has. Maddon didn’t let his ego get in the way of physical genius.
One is reminded here of producer George Martin administering to and gently guiding the raw musical geniuses called the Beatles. How lucky those four lads were to have him.
Maybe this is all first-year luck for Maddon. But it seems unlikely.
Sometimes nice guys finish first.
Follow me on Twiter @ricktelander.