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.
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.”
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.”