Cubs

How Joe Maddon’s blue-collar roots made him perfect fit for Cubs

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How Joe Maddon’s blue-collar roots made him perfect fit for Cubs

HAZLETON, Pa. – If the 2016 Cubs are too big to fail, then Joe Maddon’s five-year contract is the $25 million insurance policy, money well spent for a World Series favorite on paper.

Maddon has the street smarts and the people skills to survive in an organization that historically has been sabotaged by ownership instability, corporate dysfunction and political infighting.

Maddon is fluent in analytics and has a scouting background, making him comfortable interpreting data and trusting young talent, the creative tension felt between his dugout and Theo Epstein’s front office.

Maddon doesn’t believe in clubhouse rules or pregame eyewash – viewing batting practice as a waste of time – and that loose structure appeals to veteran players who want to be treated like men.

Maddon can still connect with the rookies, staying hip as he nears his 62nd birthday, wearing a Lacoste hoodie and puffy North Face gear, gaining almost 280,000 followers on Twitter and streaming episodes of “The Office” through Netflix on his iPad.

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Maddon doesn’t get defensive or show any signs of stress during his media sessions, enjoying the banter after all those nights spent inside working-class bars.

It all started in this blue-collar city, part of Pennsylvania’s faded coal-mining region, where he grew up in the apartment above his father’s shop: C. Maddon and Sons Plumbing and Heating.

Maddon introduced Cubs fans to “The Hazleton Way” – a shot and a beer – near the end of his first press conference at The Cubby Bear in November 2014.

But that spontaneous moment – offering to buy the first round at the bar opposite the Wrigley Field marquee – wasn’t just a throwaway sound bite. The breezy confidence and why-not? attitude would become essential parts of a team that took the baseball world by storm.

“I’m never offended by being second-guessed, because you have to print that kind of stuff for the people here,” he said while sitting at the bar inside Bottlenecks in West Hazleton, during a scene from the “Going Home: Joe Maddon” documentary that premieres Thursday night on Comcast SportsNet Chicago.

“People are into us. We had a nice year. The offseason’s been pretty fruitful, also. You can go back to the day where it was on WGN always (and everyone could watch the Cubs). There’s a good vibe among our group right now.

“These are legitimate baseball fans that like the game to be played properly, which would mean hard. It’s not an easy place to live (here), so the people are kind of tough. They appreciate hard-working – and they appreciate hustle.”

“That’s Joey”

Maddon doesn’t remember his father ever taking a vacation. Joe Sr. served in World War II and considered himself to be a rich man, even if this Italian-Polish family didn’t have a lot of money. The Maddons didn’t take summer trips to the Jersey Shore, making the neighborhood and local Catholic parish the center of their universe.

Steps away from that apartment, Maddon’s mother still works at Third Base Luncheonette, a soda-fountain joint that looks unchanged since it opened in 1949.

Albina – everyone calls her “Beanie” – adds up orders in her head and has a certain way to slice the tomatoes. The lunchtime crowd sits at the countertop on low-to-the-floor stools and eats hoagies. The walls are painted shades of pink. As a kid, Maddon used to mop the floors here.

“That’s Joey,” said Carmine Parlatore, Maddon’s sister. “He’ll talk to the person on the street that has nothing – and then he could talk to a CEO exactly the same. He doesn’t treat anybody any differently. That’s just the kind of guy he is.”

Maddon learned how to compete here on the football fields, basketball playgrounds and baseball diamonds. The lesson: Don’t back down from anyone.

The bottom line: Maddon couldn’t afford college – and get past Hazleton High School – without that athletic potential and a strong academic performance.

The quarterback threw footballs through the tire his father hung from a tree, drawing interest from Ivy League schools, getting a letter from Roger Staubach – the 1963 Heisman Trophy winner and future Hall of Famer – and taking the physical for the Naval Academy.

Maddon settled on Lafayette College, a private school more than an hour away in Easton, taking a financial-aid package – roughly $16,000 spread across four years – that would be cut in half once he decided to give up football and focus exclusively on baseball.

Maddon joined Zeta Psi and partied at a fraternity house that would make the National Register of Historic Places, never quite finishing that degree in economics, beginning a journey out West that would keep testing Joey from Our Lady of Grace.

The Zen Master

“I describe Joe as a little Joe Torre and a little Phil Jackson mixed together,” said Cubs catching/strategy coach Mike Borzello, who experienced four World Series celebrations with Torre’s New York Yankees teams. “Joe’s an outside-the-box thinker with a calm, cool attitude. That kind of sums it up: Phil Jackson and Joe Torre combined.”

The title of Jackson’s autobiography says it all after his run with the Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers: “Eleven Rings.” All Maddon needs is one to set off the biggest party this city has ever seen.

“It’s funny because Joe’s a little bit of a contrast,” said Tampa Bay Rays pitching coach Jim Hickey, who grew up near Midway Airport and spent eight seasons working alongside Maddon. “He likes to promote himself as kind of the California cool, (but he’s more) the blue-collar, lunch-pail town of Hazleton, Pennsylvania.

“Of course, Chicago is ‘The City of Big Shoulders’ – and a very blue-collar city – so I think people really see that (in Joe). But you also know how Chicago is – I think any personality would play there as long as you won. It just makes it a lot easier when you win. It’s going to be really, really special when they end up winning the whole thing.”

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Anything less this year will be considered a disappointment after the Cubs dropped $272 million on Jason Heyward, Ben Zobrist and John Lackey, adding three big-name free agents to a team that won 97 games and advanced to the National League Championship Series in Maddon’s first season. That 24-game improvement – which ended a streak of five straight fifth-place finishes on the North Side – earned Maddon his third Manager of the Year award.

“What’s great about Joe is whether he would be managing a Little League team or a Chicago Cubs season, it’s all the same,” Borzello said. “I don’t think he lets anything stand in his way. There’s nothing that is too big for him. He doesn’t look at things that way. It’s more of paying attention to the little things. He always talks about being prepared, and the team that makes the least amount of mistakes is going to win.

“No matter what level he manages, or how many cameras are on him, or how big the game is, it’s the same for him. Whether he’s managing in Tampa or he’s managing in Chicago, the market doesn’t matter. I just think Joe’s able to handle anything that comes his way.”

Joe Sr. died in 2002 – before Maddon helped the Anaheim Angels win the 2002 World Series as Mike Scioscia’s bench coach – and never got to see Joey work small-market miracles with the Rays. But all those old-school values the Cubs need now – the sense that nothing will ever be handed to you – are rooted in the concrete and asphalt of Hazleton.

Going Home: Joe Maddon," a Comcast SportsNet Original documentary, premieres Thursday, Jan. 14 at 9:30 p.m., immediately following “Blackhawks Postgame Live.” 

Javy Baez can do anything defensively, but what's next for him at the plate?

Javy Baez can do anything defensively, but what's next for him at the plate?

MESA, Ariz. — You don’t need to spend long searching the highlight reels to figure out why Javy Baez goes by “El Mago.”

Spanish for “The Magician,” that moniker is a fitting one considering what Baez can do with his glove and his arm up the middle of the infield. The king of tags, Baez also dazzles with his throwing arm and his range. He looks like a Gold Glove kind of player when you watch him do these amazing things. And it’s no surprise that in his first media session of the spring, he was talking about winning that award.

“Just to play hard and see what I can do. Obviously, try to be healthy the whole year again. And try to get that Gold Glove that I want because a lot of people know me for my defense,” he said Friday at Cubs camp. “Just try to get a Gold Glove and stay healthy the whole year.”

Those high expectations — in this case, being the best defensive second baseman in the National League — fall in line with everything the rest of the team is saying about their own high expectations. It’s been “World Series or bust” from pretty much everyone over the past couple weeks in Mesa.

Baez might not be all the way there just yet. Joe Maddon talked earlier this week about his reminders that Baez needs to keep focusing on making the easy plays while staying a master of the magnificent.

“What I talked to him about was, when he had to play shortstop, please make the routine play routinely and permit your athleticism to play. Because when the play requires crazinesss, you’re there, you can do that,” Maddon said. “But this straight up ground ball three-hopper to shortstop, come get the ball, play it through and make an accurate throw in a routine manner. Apparently that stuck. Because he told me once he thought in those terms, it really did slow it down for him. And he did do a better job at doing that.”

But the biggest question for Cubs fans when it comes to Baez is when the offense will catch up to his defense. Baez hit a game-winning homer run in his first major league game and smacked 23 of them last season, good for fifth on a team full of power bats. But arguably just as famous as Baez’s defensive magic is his tendency to chase pitches outside of the strike zone. He had 144 strikeouts last season and reached base at a .317 clip. Seven Cubs — including notable struggling hitters Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist — had higher on-base percentages in 2017.

Baez, for one, is staying focused on what he does best, saying he doesn’t really have any specific offensive goals for the upcoming season.

“I’m not worrying about too much about it,” he said. “I’m just trying to play defense, and just let the offense — see what happens.”

Maddon, unsurprisingly, talked much more about what Baez needs to do to become a better all-around player, and unsurprisingly that included being more selective at the plate.

“One of the best base runners in the game, one of the finest arms, most acrobatic, greatest range on defense, power. The biggest thing for me for him is to organize the strike zone,” Maddon said. “Once he does that, heads up. He’s at that point now, at-bat wise, if you want to get those 500, 600 plate appearances, part of that is to organize your zone, accept your walks, utilize the whole field, that kind of stuff. So that would be the level that I think’s the next level for him.”

Will Baez have a season’s worth of at-bats to get that done? The versatile Cubs roster includes a couple guys who split time between the infield and outfield in Zobrist and Ian Happ. Getting their more consistent bats in the lineup might mean sacrificing Baez’s defense on certain days. Baez, of course, also has the ability to slide over to shortstop to spell Addison Russell, like he did when Russell was on the disabled list last season.

Until Baez learns how to navigate that strike zone a bit better, it might make Maddon more likely to mix and match other options, rather than considering him an everyday lock like Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant.

But like Russell, Albert Almora Jr. and Willson Contreras, Baez is one of the young players who despite key roles on a championship contender the last few years still have big league growth to come. And Maddon thinks that growth is right around the corner.

“I want to believe you’re going to see that this year,” Maddon said. “They’ve had enough major league at-bats now, they should start making some significant improvements that are easy to recognize. The biggest thing normally is pitch selection, I think that’s where it really shows up. When you have talented players like that, that are very strong, quick, all that other stuff, if they’re swinging at strikes and taking balls, they’re going to do really well. And so it’s no secret with Javy. It’s no secret with Addy. Addy’s been more swing mode as opposed to accepting his walks. That’s part of the maturation process with those two guys. Albert I thought did a great job the last month, two months of getting better against righties. I thought Jason looked really good in the cage today. And Willson’s Willson.

“The natural assumption is these guys have played enough major league at-bats that you should see something different this year in a positive way.”

MLB.com's Cubs' 2018 Top Prospects list full of potential impact pitchers

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USA TODAY

MLB.com's Cubs' 2018 Top Prospects list full of potential impact pitchers

Could 2018 be the year that the Cubs finally see a top pitching prospect debut with the team? 

Thursday, MLB.com released its list of the Cubs' 2018 Top 30 Prospects, a group that includes six pitchers in the Top 10. The list ranks right-hander Adbert Alzolay as the Cubs' No 1. prospect, projecting him to debut with the team this season. 

Alzolay, 22, went 7-4 with a 2.99 ERA in 22 starts between Single-A Myrtle Beach and Double-A Tennessee last season. He also struck out 108 batters in 114 1/3 innings, using a repertoire that includes a fastball that tops out around 98 MPH (according to MLB.com).

Following Alzolay as the Cubs' No. 2 overall prospect is 19-year-old shortstop Aramis Ademan. Ademan hit .267 in just 68 games between Single-A Eugene and Single-A South Bend, though it should be noted that he has soared from No. 11 in MLB.com's 2017 ranks to his current No. 2 ranking. He is not projected to make his MLB debut until 2020, however.

Following Alzolay and Ademan on the list are five consecutive pitchers ranked 3-7, respectively. Oscar De La Cruz, No. 3 on the list, slides down from his 2017 ranking in which MLB.com listed him as the Cubs' top overall prospect. De La Cruz, 22, finished 2017 with a 3.34 ERA in 13 games (12 starts) between the Arizona League and Single-A Myrtle Beach.

De La Cruz is projected to make his MLB debut in 2019, while Jose Albertos (No. 4), Alex Lange (No. 5), Brendon Little (No. 6) and Thomas Hatch (No. 7) are projected to make their big league debuts in 2019 or 2020. All are right-handed (with the exception of Little) and starting pitchers.

Hatch (third round, 2016) and Lange (30th overall, 2017) and Little (27th overall, 2017) were all top draft picks by the Cubs in recent seasons.

Having numerous starting pitchers on the cusp of the big leagues represents a significant change of pace for the Cubs. 

Since Theo Epstein took over as team president in Oct. 2011, a plethora of top prospects have debuted and enjoyed success with the Cubs. Majority have been position players, though.

The likes of Albert Almora, Javier Báez, Kris Bryant, Willson Contreras, Anthony Rizzo and Addison Russell all contributed to the Cubs winning the World Series in 2016. Similarly, Ian Happ enjoyed a fair amount of success after making his MLB debut last season, hitting 24 home runs in just 115 games.

Ultimately, Alzolay would be the Cubs' first true top pitching prospect to make it to the big leagues in the Theo Epstein era. While him making it to the big leagues in 2018 is no guarantee, one would think a need for pitching will arise for the Cubs at some point, whether it be due to injury or simply for September roster expansion.

The Cubs have enjoyed tremendous success in recent years in terms of their top prospects succeeding in the MLB. If the trend continues, Alzolay should be a force to reckon with on the North Side for years to come.