Awards Watch: The Maddon Effect
(Photo by Stephen Green)
On Tuesday night, Major League Baseball will select its Manager of the Year Awards. Cubs skipper Joe Maddon is a National League nominee, along with the Cardinals’ Mike Matheny and the Mets’ Terry Collins. Earlier this season, Vine Line ran a feature on the Maddon effect, in which we examined the positive attributes the Cubs’ first-year manager brought to the table in 2015. This story can be found in the October issue of Vine Line.
For the past half-century, the Cubs have paraded out a succession of managers with big plans for changing the team’s culture, creating the groundwork for sustained success and finally hanging that long-awaited World Series banner at Wrigley Field.
Leo Durocher came to town after the 1965 season and declared he was not the manager of an eighth-place team. He was right. The Cubs finished 10th in 1966 before vastly improving their fortunes over the next several seasons. Still, his clubs never qualified for the postseason.
Dusty Baker reminded the public that, “My name is Dusty, not Messiah,” all the while asking, “Why not us?” when he took over after the 2002 season. He even handed out T-shirts with “Why not us?” printed on them. The Cubs came within five outs of the World Series in 2003, but we all know how that ended.
Lou Piniella hoped to develop a “little Cubbie swagger” when he replaced Baker following the 2006 season. The Cubs indeed swaggered into the playoffs in 2007 and 2008, but staggered out in the Division Series each time. They have not returned to the postseason since.
But this year, the Cubs are undergoing a fresh culture change—if not a complete culture shock—under the leadership of inimitable manager Joe Maddon. So far, the 61-year-old skipper’s plan to turn things around at Wrigley Field has worked perfectly, thanks to his unique combination of charisma, creativity, quirkiness and deep baseball knowledge.
Though the Cubs, coming off a 73-89 season in 2014, were expected to be better this year, many thought they wouldn’t contend until 2016 at the earliest. But the North Siders charged into the lead for the second Wild Card spot in late August and eventually made a run all the way to the NLCS. Throughout the ups and downs of the long campaign, this rookie-laden ballclub played hard, remained loose and even developed a flair for the dramatic.
After being no-hit by then-Phillies ace Cole Hamels in the midst of a lost weekend shortly after the All-Star break, the Cubs picked themselves up off the mat and engineered a 21-4 run that put them squarely in playoff contention. Though it’s nearly impossible to quantify what a manager actually means to his team in terms of wins and losses, it’s hard to deny the Maddon effect is in full force on the North Side.
“He’s different from most managers,” said starting pitcher Jake Arrieta, whose career has fully blossomed this season after a breakout in 2014. “It’s obvious from spending just a little bit of time that his personality, the way that he manages people in general, not just players, the way he approaches relationships, it’s on a different level. And it’s something that really works in an environment with a lot of young players. Everybody responds well to it.”
TRICKS OF THE TRADE
During his four decades in the dugout, Maddon has learned the rules of the game, but he’s definitely not afraid to break them. This season, he has defied convention in several ways:
He routinely bats the pitcher eighth instead of ninth.
He’ll often cancel batting practice, calling it one of the more overrated exercises in baseball.
He never officially named a closer, even though Hector Rondon has gotten the bulk of the save opportunities. When Rondon struggled or needed a breather, Justin Grimm, Tommy Hunter, Jason Motte, James Russell, Pedro Strop and Travis Wood all picked up the slack.
Maddon took Starlin Castro’s starting shortstop job away from him, yanked Jason Hammel from starts earlier than the pitcher would have liked and moved Wood from the rotation to the bullpen. And he did all this without “losing” any of the players mentally.
“It’s just a calmness at all times,” said first baseman Anthony Rizzo, who played for three different managers in his four seasons with the Cubs. “He doesn’t really show to us that he’s ever worried about anything. That rubs off big time, especially being young, being a young team. Make a mistake? We know he’s made them, but he doesn’t show it.
“There’s no tension. He’s easy to talk to. That’s big for us.”
Off the field, the Maddon stories are legendary. He’s become famous for themed road trips, postgame parties and any number of other creative ideas for fostering team chemistry. While managing in Tampa Bay, he was even known to bring exotic animals into the clubhouse from time to time.
“I tell you, he brought in this great, big python,” said Cubs bench coach Dave Martinez, also Maddon’s right-hand man in Tampa. “I told him I wanted no part of it. I’m afraid of snakes. I wanted no part of being near that thing or touching it.”
Late in the season, he continued that theme when he brought a few animals (including a snow leopard and a flamingo) to hang out with the club. And he delivered a little magic to the team by bringing an actual magician into the clubhouse in New York. There were also his usual themed road trips (one with players wearing onesies and pajamas) and something called American Legion week, when Maddon procured a banner and a flag from Billy Caldwell Post 806 American Legion and prohibited players from entering the clubhouse until 3 p.m. for night games. If players arrived before that, they had to wait in the concourse.
The idea was to get the Cubs to approach the game the way they did when they were playing legion ball. In other words, just show up and play. The long-term benefit, according to Maddon, was that his troops would be fresher for the September playoff push.
“[It’s a] tribute to playing baseball the old-fashioned way as well as to our veterans,” Maddon said. “It’s been pretty successful in the past.”
A few days later, the clubhouse whiteboard greeted players with this instruction for arriving at the park the next day: “Game time 1:05 p.m. Use your own discretion. Be ready to play.”
Suffice to say, the Cubs have been ready to play all season long. And, for the record, they finished American Legion week 5-0, with wins over the Braves and Indians.
“I knew quite a bit about him, not much on a personal basis, but I played against his teams for four years,” said Arrieta, formerly with the Baltimore Orioles, a division rival of the Rays. “Going to Tampa, I knew that [Evan] Longoria had a drum set in their clubhouse, and they were always playing loud music, and everyone’s having a good time. We would see their guys in the weight room. The mindset and the attitude they had is something that everyone else kind of wanted.
“Now that I’m a part of one of his teams, you can see why. His attitude and his energy bred so much success because everybody was having a good time and enjoying themselves.
“Winning takes care of a lot of that, but I think the basis for winning and team chemistry starts with that looseness, that attitude of, ‘OK, I know the way we’re going to go out and have success on a consistent basis is to enjoy each other’s company.’ Work hard. Put in the hours. But at the end of the day, we need to enjoy each other.”
Major leaguers love playing for Maddon, but let’s be clear about one thing: Underlying all the fun and games is a serious focus on baseball and doing things the right way. “Respect 90” is more than just a Maddon catchphrase—something he’s notorious for—it’s also illustrative of how he approaches the game. Maddon rolled out that particular gem during Spring Training, going so far as to have it painted onto the Cubs practice fields to remind players to respect the 90 feet between the bases and play hard at all times.
“This is his livelihood,” Martinez said. “What he tries to do is take all the pressure off the players so they can go out there and function and have fun and do their daily thing. Whatever makes them click, that’s what he wants to be done. But he wants it to be done in a fun atmosphere. He wants guys to wake up and want to come to the ballpark. That’s what he’s all about.
“He treats everybody with the utmost respect. In return, he earns respect. It’s never about him. It’s about the team and the players. It’s just been incredible. For me, he’s my big brother. That’s what I always tell him. I have so much respect for the man.”
It’s nearly impossible to find somebody in the game who has a bad word to say about the Cubs manager. But there is one man who won’t be effusive with his praise, and that’s Maddon himself. Instead, he spreads credit for the Cubs’ success around to team president Theo Epstein, general manager Jed Hoyer, the coaching staff and the players.
“I’m a part of this whole thing,” he said. “You have to be with us behind the scenes. I didn’t acquire and accumulate all these players. I had nothing to do with that. Zero. I’m a big believer in scouting and development. I was both. I scouted and developed in the minor leagues, and that’s where it all begins. The model Theo and Jed put out there permits you to be successful. It gives you latitude.
“Nobody gives major league coaches enough credit. Our coaches are stellar. I see it. They’re the ones who are teaching these guys. The biggest thing I do is meet with the coaches. We formulate plans bimonthly, primarily. After that, I try to stay out of the way as much as I can. My job is to run the game.”
The key to Maddon’s success is not one single thing. It’s more than keeping the team loose. It’s more than making the right strategic in-game decisions. It’s more than allowing players to have postgame parties and cancelling batting practice on occasion. It’s an ineffable combination of factors that is clearly working for his young and talented team. The bottom line: Maddon is a genuine person, and this is just Joe being Joe.
“I just think Joe’s aura—and it started in Spring Training in what he allows this clubhouse to be—is his best asset,” said Chris Coghlan, whom Maddon turned into a super-utility player this season, in the style of former Tampa favorite Ben Zobrist. “I think his best asset is coming in and giving the freedom and letting everybody know, ‘Hey, you’re going to make mistakes.” It’s impossible to be perfect. When you think about it like that, it’s not like it’s the end of the world. I’m not going to get benched. I’m not going to get scolded for it. It’s like, ‘Hey, man, you duly prepare, do your work and prepare, and trust that it’s going to play in the game.’
“It starts with Joe because whoever the manager is, he’s going to establish the culture. Now, we as clubhouse guys or older guys, our job is to impact the young guys and try to hold them accountable here and there. The whole culture is Joe and, ‘Hey, everybody, do your thing. All I care about is respecting 90, going out there preparing each day and playing. That’s what I care about.’
“That trickles down to us, the same thing. We’re not worrying about all this hoopla and all these little, petty things. It’s just about, ‘How can we put everybody in the best position to succeed?’ That’s it. We try to encourage each other and be there for each other as teammates and as family members for the entire year.”
—Bruce Miles, Daily Herald