At different points throughout a disappointing season, Cubs president Theo Epstein has used the code words you would normally hear about a manager on the hot seat. Epstein vented his frustrations while the Cubs kept staggering around the .500 mark, admitting the team didn’t have a clear identity or play with the same edge.
But Joe Maddon is a future Hall of Famer, the only manager to lead this franchise to a World Series title since the Theodore Roosevelt administration and a larger-than-life personality in the middle of a long-term contract that will pay him in the neighborhood of $28 million.
Maddon oversees an ultra-talented team that overall has been one of the healthiest in the majors this season. The Cubs play in a mediocre division with three small-market franchises that ranked in the bottom eight in terms of Opening Day payroll – and in a big city where even athletes on last-place teams get treated like royalty.
Is there anything Maddon could have done differently – or can do now – with the defending champs?
“Collectively, from top to bottom, I think obviously we haven’t had the same kind of year as last year, or even the year before,” general manager Jed Hoyer said before Monday night’s 15-5 win over the Cincinnati Reds pushed the Cubs out to a 1.5-game lead on the St. Louis Cardinals in the National League Central. “That assessment is on everybody. I wouldn’t single anything out about Joe that he hasn’t done.
“But in general, as a group, starting with Theo and me, I think we haven’t played as well. We haven’t been as sharp. And that’s something we have to find. But the good thing about baseball is that we still have 46 games left to find it. Starting now.”
Maddon’s “American Legion Week” began with the Wrigley Field clubhouse opening to the media at 4:30 p.m., or almost an hour later than normal for a 7:05 game. Before doing his pregame press briefing, Maddon unfurled a blue-and-gold “Palatine Post No. 690” flag in the interview room and held it up for the cameras. The fine for a player, coach or manager getting to work too early this week is handing over a $100 bottle of wine (with receipt).
“Just show up a little bit later, a little bit more rested mentally,” Maddon said. “Go out and just play the game of baseball like it was intended to be played.
“Data, extra work, all that kind of stuff – it’s the middle of August. We’ve had since the beginning of February to get all that stuff in the barn. So I just want us to play.”
The Cubs have given up 91 runs in the first inning this season – or almost 30 more than any other inning – and seen their defense slip from a historic level to a point where Maddon keeps harping on mental mistakes and making the routine plays routinely. Though the Cubs are still a top-three team in terms of defensive efficiency, even Maddon admits they have not passed the eye test.
Maddon is also a progressive thinker who takes the entire 162-game schedule into account, believes in rest and recovery, tries to keep role players involved and keeps sending positive vibes into the clubhouse and through the media.
“Good or bad, it would have nothing to do with us showing up early or late,” Maddon said. “Taking 50 swings or 100 swings tonight or not has nothing to do with our success or not. When it comes to the offensive side of our team right now, more than anything, it’s about swinging at bad pitches. So if you want to go out there and practice taking pitches, that might be more beneficial.
“There are so many disconnected thoughts in our game regarding work and how you work. When it comes to data and video and information, I’m all about it. But at some point, you got to turn it down just a little bit and go out there and play unencumbered.”
Maddon projected so much confidence and pushed all the right buttons in 2015 when the Cubs went 42-18 in August, September and early October combined, surging to 97 wins and into the NL Championship Series.
All the first- and second-guessing over how Maddon managed last year’s World Series Game 7 overshadowed the way he got the Cubs to “Embrace The Target” and play loose yet focused under enormous pressure.
Maybe Maddon’s sense of calm is the best way to handle this three-ring circus and he will be proven right if a 62-55 team corrects itself and finally takes off. “American Legion Week” started a run where the Cubs will face last-place teams for 13 straight games and 70 percent of the remaining schedule is against teams currently at or below .500.
This is how it works: The manager will either get credit for steering the team toward another division title – or the blame for a stunning collapse – whether or not he thinks like that.
“I just try to treat every game with equal amount of respect,” Maddon said. “I don’t apply any more weight to one game over another. I’ve always said that. I mean it.
“You got to play it right every night. And please don’t take anything for granted in this game, or in any part of your life. I’m just not that guy. We got to come out and play our best game.”