In just his third season as manager, Joe Maddon took the Tampa Bay Rays, previously the sad-sacks and punch lines of Major League Baseball, to the World Series. Maddon’s new employer, the Chicago Cubs, will expect and accept no less. If fact. they’ll want a little more. Maddon’s Rays lost the 2008 World Series to the Philadelphia Phillies in five games.
Baseball’s newest $5 million a year manager has not been put on a schedule to win yet. But you may be sure that if it does not include lots of wins, Maddon’s Chicago honeymoon will be a short one. The Rays, then called the Devil Rays, wanted a winner when they hired Maddon before the 2006 season. But the team had only been in existence for eight years, and expectations for the then unknown guy out of Southern California on his managerial starter job were, to say the least, modest. But the Cubs are a different kettle of cleats.
The Cubs last won a world championship in the late Pleistocene Age, in 1908 to be exact. Had Mark Twain been in Chicago in October of that year, he could have bought a World Series ticket. Ronald Reagan, however, could not have, as he hadn’t been born yet. We’re talking a championship drought of near Biblical proportions here. Cubs fans and Cubs ownership are so ready for a winner it makes their teeth hurt.
There is widespread optimism that Maddon can help produce that long-awaited winner. He turned the trick in St. Petersburg on an astringent player salary budget (as these things are measured in major league sports). So why not in the Toddlin’ Town, where ownership has, in a dreadful neologism, “payroll flexibility”? Formerly known as lots of money. In the final seven years of his nine-year tour at Tampa Bay, MLB’s salary bargain basement, Maddon’s Rays were in the playoffs four times, won the AL East division title twice, and the AL championship once. Maddon was twice selected AL Manager of the Year. That’s over-achievement by any standard.
At the Monday afternoon press conference to introduce Maddon to Cubs fans and to the local sports press, Maddon and Theo Epstein, the Cubs GM who hired Maddon to the tune of $25 million for five years, said all the right things. But then, as folks in the Tampa Bay area know, the verbally nimble Maddon always says the right things, with perhaps a few too many iterations of “cool” and “man” (not as a noun) for a man his age. (One of Maddon’s strengths is his ability to communicate with, motivate, and get the most out of young players. This means that he has, to some extent, gone native, and often uses words and affects dress that are too hip for the room, if the room is full of old baseball purists like me.)
Maddon said he likes the fine young players the Cubs have — Shortstop Starlin Castro and first baseman Anthony Rizzo, just to name a couple — and the fine prospects in the Cubs minor league pipeline. He said he likes the way the team scouts and develops players. Without supplying details, he said he is philosophically on the same page with Epstein and with Cubs ownership. He said he likes the National League brand of baseball that, without the designated hitter, offers more opportunities for strategizing. He referred to venerable Wrigley Field as a “cathedral,” and said he likes the energy of Chicago. (He didn’t say anything about living there in the winter, though.)
When his turn came, Epstein described Maddon as the perfect mix of old and new school. New school in that he understands all the new baseball stats, called sabermetrics, and is a whiz in using these to produce the best lineups and matchups. Old school in that he appreciates and coaches the fundamentals. “All he has to do is be himself and he can win,” Epstein said. He said Maddon is “both patient and confident,” two qualities necessary to win in baseball (and in just about everything else, come to that).
All very charming. But in any sport you have to play the games, and for the Cubs and their new “impact manager,” as we have learned to say, the games won’t start until April. Between now and then there will be much talk about Maddon’s prospects. As you see by what you are currently reading, Joe’s excellent new job will be column fodder.
Speaking of charming, Maddon ended Monday’s press conference by telling the local sports pressies that he would stand them to a drink at The Cubby Bear sports bar. The conference was held there in lieu of at the “cathedral” across the street, which is undergoing some renovations. Sly dog. One of the many differences Maddon will find between Tampa and Chicago is the folks in the Chicago media are not quite as cuddly or laid back as they are in Central Florida. If things go badly next year, Maddon’s young hitters won’t be the only ones backed off the plate.
If Maddon fails to produce a Cubs championship, or even get the team into the World Series, this will not put him in a select fraternity. Many have tried, none have succeeded in more than a century. These have included some baseball household names, like Leo Durocher, Don Zimmer, Dusty Baker, and even the Rays’ most recent ex-manager before Maddon, one Lou Piniella (definitely old-school guys). The Cubs last appeared in the World Series in 1945, just as the boys were starting to come home, and, thanks to the military draft, major league rosters were stocked with women, children, geriatrics, and members of the clergy. They lost to the Detroit Tigers that year in seven.
Leo’s 1969 Cubs led the NL East for most of 1969, then faded before the Miracle Mets of that year. Zimmer’s Cubs won the division in 1989, but lost to the Giants in the division series. In 2003, Dusty Baker got the team closer to the World Series than any post-war manager, perhaps just a fan-fumbled foul ball from the fall classic. Piniella’s Cubs won division titles in 2007 and 2008, but his teams were swept in the first round of the playoffs both years, discouraging Sweet Lou enough to make him decide to retire from managing.
So Maddon’s challenge in 2015 and beyond may be bigger even than turning a penurious expansion team into a contender. Is Joe Maddon really the “impact manager” the Cubs believe they have hired? And how much difference does a good manager make to a baseball team? (Did Casey Stengel really know stuff other managers didn’t, or did he just write Mantle, Berra, Skowron, and Ford on a lineup card and then go to sleep in the dugout?) Fascinating subjects for baseball fans to contemplate. Subjects we may know more about as soon as next summer. Those with WGN in their cable packages will know first.