Joe Maddon trying to create baseball magic in Cubs clubhouse


Joe Maddon trying to create baseball magic in Cubs clubhouse

NEW YORK – Joe Maddon sat in the office with a big smile on his face, bobbing his head and blasting The Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Do You Believe in Magic?”

“Whatever it takes,” Maddon said after Tuesday night’s 1-0 win over the New York Mets.

With the Cubs on a five-game losing streak, Maddon had reached into his bag of tricks and arranged for a magician to perform inside Citi Field’s visiting clubhouse.

A Cubs PR official asked the media to clear the room at 4:30 p.m. for what would be an unconventional team meeting. But these types of gimmicks – dressing up in pajamas or like nerds for themed road trips – helped make Maddon a star while managing the Tampa Bay Rays.

“It was about time,” Maddon said. “We’re always trying to create some magic around here, so why not bring a magician in?”

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Kyle Hendricks – the second-year pitcher who came into the game with a 5.88 ERA through five June starts – felt like the stunt loosened everyone up and responded with six scoreless innings.

“That’s what Joe does,” Hendricks said. “He kind of knows what triggers to pull at the right time."

Maddon came up with the idea after watching the St. Louis Cardinals sweep his young team over the weekend. The light bulb went off sometime early Monday morning, either on the bus ride from Busch Stadium to the airport, or the flight to New York. Maddon asked traveling secretary Vijay Tekchandani to find a magician during the team’s off-day in Manhattan.

“It’s hard to grab a zoo animal on the road,” Maddon said. “You can do it at the last minute at home. You always have the home connection when it comes to animals. It’s much easier to acquire a magician on the road than it is a 20-foot python. I’ve always felt that way.”

Simon Winthrop – whose website bills him as a Las Vegas magician, mentalist and mind reader – entertained the players and coaches for about 30 minutes before batting practice.

“That was pretty sweet,” rookie second baseman Addison Russell said. “In the middle of his magic tricks, he would take like someone’s watch without us knowing, and then it would be in someone else’s back pocket.”

“I try to stay as far away from that (as possible),” said Matt Szczur, who drove in the only run with a double in the sixth inning. “That stuff makes me nervous. I don’t want him to take my wallet.”

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Maddon described a scene where Winthrop asked All-Star first baseman Anthony Rizzo to write down the name of a movie star – living or dead – on a piece of paper in a book.

“He held it up, and then showed everybody it was John Travolta,” Maddon said. “So Simon types into Google: ‘What is Anthony Rizzo thinking of right now?’ And hit enter. Pictures of Travolta popped up all around (on his computer screen).”

The Cubs didn’t hesitate to give Maddon a five-year, $25 million contract because they wanted a leader to create a relaxed, positive environment where their young talent could thrive. Deflecting attention and distracting the media would be an added bonus.

“I’m more concerned about just mental fatigue more than anything,” Maddon said. “When you have a couple bad days in a row, or a bad week, it can wear on some guys who have never really gone through with it before. So my biggest concern is just keeping it light for them, because they work.

“They care. All the stuff that needs to be in order is in order. The stuff that’s difficult is playing in the major leagues every day. You just went through (Zack) Greinke, (Clayton) Kershaw, the Dodgers and now St. Louis. It’s not easy.

“(It’s) keeping their minds intact. That’s all it is. They’re going to be fine. As we gain more experience by the end of the year, I really anticipate seeing a different group the next time we walk into Busch Stadium.”

The Cubs are now 40-35 overall and 5-0 against the Mets (40-38), a team they figure to be battling in the wild-card race. This will go down as The Simon Game.

As Maddon wrapped up his postgame media session, he asked reporters “You guys ready for it?” before turning up The Lovin’ Spoonful again and making a reference to one of his all-time favorite TV shows: “The Office.”

“I feel like Michael Scott right now,” Maddon said.

Changes aren't exactly popular, but Cubs and Sox — except maybe Willson Contreras — will adapt to baseball's new pace-of-play rules

Changes aren't exactly popular, but Cubs and Sox — except maybe Willson Contreras — will adapt to baseball's new pace-of-play rules

MESA, Ariz. — We know Willson Contreras doesn’t like baseball’s new pace-of-play rules.

He isn’t the only one.

“I think it’s a terrible idea. I think it’s all terrible,” Jon Lester said last week at spring training, before the specifics of the new rules were even announced. “The beautiful thing about our sport is there’s no time.”

Big surprise coming from the Cubs’ resident old-schooler.

The new rules limit teams to six mound visits per every nine-inning game, with exceptions for pitching changes, between batters, injuries and after the announcement of a pinch hitter. Teams get an extra mound visit for every extra inning in extra-inning games. Also, commercial breaks between innings have been cut by 20 seconds.

That’s it. But it’s caused a bit of an uproar.

Contreras made headlines Tuesday when he told reporters that he’ll willingly break those rules if he needs to in order to put his team in a better position to win.

“I’ve been reading a lot about this rule, and I don’t really care. If I have to pay the price for my team, I will,” Contreras said. “There’s six mound visits, but what if you have a tight game? … You have to go out there. They cannot say anything about that. It’s my team, and we just care about winning. And if they’re going to fine me about the No. 7 mound visit, I’ll pay the price.”

Talking about pace-of-play rule changes last week, Cubs manager Joe Maddon said his team would adapt to any new rules. In Chicago baseball’s other Arizona camp, a similar tune of adaptation was being sung.

“Obviously as players we’ve got to make adjustments to whatever rules they want to implement,” White Sox pitcher James Shields said. “This is a game of adjustments, we’re going to have to make adjustments as we go. We’re going to have to figure out logistics of the thing, and I would imagine in spring training we’re going to be talking about it more and more as we go so we don’t mess it up.”

There was general consensus that mound visits are a valuable thing. So what happens if a pitcher and catcher need to communicate but are forced to do it from 60 feet, six inches away?

“Sign language,” White Sox catching prospect Zack Collins joked. “I guess you have to just get on the same page in the dugout and hope that nothing goes wrong if you’re out of visits.”

In the end, here’s the question that needs answering: Are baseball games really too long?

On one hand, as Lester argued, you know what you’re signing up for when you watch a baseball game, be it in the stands at a ballpark or on TV. No one should be shocked when a game rolls on for more than three hours.

But shock and fans' levels of commitment or just pure apathy are two different things. And sometimes it’s a tough ask for fans to dedicate four hours of their day 162 times a year. So there’s a very good reason baseball is trying to make the game go faster, to keep people from leaving the stands or flipping the TV to another channel.

Unsurprisingly, Lester would rather keep things the way they are.

“To be honest with you, the fans know what they’re getting themselves into when they go to a game,” Lester said. “It’s going to be a three-hour game. You may have a game that’s two hours, two hours and 15 minutes. Great, awesome. You may have a game that’s four hours. That’s the beautiful part of it.

“I get the mound visit thing. But what people that aren’t in the game don’t understand is that there’s so much technology in the game, there’s so many cameras on the field, that every stadium now has a camera on the catcher’s crotch. So they know signs before you even get there. Now we’ve got Apple Watches, now we’ve got people being accused of sitting in a tunnel (stealing signs). So there’s reasons behind the mound visit. He’s not just coming out there asking what time I’m going to dinner or, ‘Hey, how you feeling?’ There’s reasons behind everything, and I think if you take those away, it takes away the beauty of the baseball game.

“Every game has a flow, and I feel like that’s what makes it special. If you want to go to a timed event, go to a timed event. I’m sorry I’m old-school about it, but baseball’s been played the same way for a long time. And now we’re trying to add time to it. We’re missing something somewhere.”

Whether limiting the number of mound visits creates a significant dent in this problem remains to be seen. But excuse the players if they’re skeptical.

“We’ve got instant replay, we’ve got all kinds of different stuff going on. I don’t think (limiting) the mound visits are going to be the key factor to speeding this game up,” Shields said. “Some pitchers take too long, and some hitters take too long. It’s combination of a bunch of stuff.

“I know they’re trying to speed the game up a little bit. I think overall, the game’s going as fast as it possibly could. You’ve got commercials and things like that. TV has a lot to do with it. There’s a bunch of different combinations of things. But as a player, we’ve got to make an adjustment.”

Albert Almora's strong connection to Team USA baseball

Albert Almora's strong connection to Team USA baseball

Who was Theo Epstein’s first draft pick with the Cubs?

The answer to that trivia question will always and forever be Albert Almora Jr. picked sixth overall in the 2012 amateur draft.

In some ways, the young outfielder from Florida became the forgotten man in the stable of can’t-miss prospects that Epstein and top lieutenants Jed Hoyer and Jason MacLeod amassed since their arrival over six years ago. While players such as Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber and Ian Happ zoomed through the minor leagues on their way to the majors, Almora took a different path – one that included seven different stops over parts of five developmental seasons before he broke into the big leagues during the 2016 season.

But Almora’s road to the majors began years before he was selected by the Cubs, when he began playing for Team USA as a 13-year-old. Over the next several years, Almora played for the Red, White & Blue seven times, his final appearance coming in 2015. The seven appearances are the most in the history of USA Baseball, and Almora recognizes the impact his time with the national squad had on his playing career.

“[It was] one of the best experiences of my life," he said. "Every year I had something special to play with, unbelievable guys, went to crazy places, and out of those six years, five of them came with a gold medal so that was pretty special as well. Also, that helped me in my baseball life, how to experience things and learn from those type of experiences.

“I’m a Cubbie and that’s what’s on my chest right now, but Team USA will always have a special place in my heart.”

While Almora carries those national team experiences with him every day, his main focus coming into the 2018 season is becoming a consistent difference-maker. Almora made only 65 starts during the 2017 campaign, and 63 percent of his at-bats last year came against left-handed pitching, against which he hit a robust .342. That led to a platoon role in a crowded outfield, with Jason Heyward, Kyle Schwarber, Jon Jay, Ian Happ and Ben Zobrist all taking turns on the merry-go-round. But with the departure of Jay, Almora believes his time is near.

“I have the most confidence in myself that I can play every day, but I try not to think about that kind of stuff because it’s out of my control," Almora said. "All I control is like last year what I did; whenever I was given an opportunity, I tried to do my best and help the team win.”

Almora’s ultimate role on the 2018 Cubs remains to be seen, but there’s no question that Theo’s first Cubs pick will earn whatever role he ends up with, and the foundation of Almora’s journey to Clark and Addison was laid many summers ago during his time with Team USA.