The lead sentence in a Tampa Bay Times story previewing this Cubs-Rays series mentioned how the Joe Maddon photos have been erased from Tropicana Field.
Radiating positivity to his players, distracting the media with zoo animals and dress-up trips and translating for a data-heavy front office, the force of Maddon’s personality helped turn the Rays into a small-market miracle.
Winning at least 90 games five times – as well as the 2008 American League pennant – apparently wasn’t enough to preserve the images of a star manager.
“Oh, really?” Maddon said before Tuesday’s 6-5 loss at Wrigley Field. “I don’t blame them, seriously. No, I don’t think it’s awkward at all. There’s new people in place. Then you have to put the new folks – whoever they are at that time – (up) on the walls. Now I’m not ready for that black-and-white photo – that iconic photo – that’s placed in a hallway next to a trophy. I don’t think I’m that guy.
“Otherwise, I have no ill will whatsoever. Personally, I prefer when my picture’s not displayed somewhere, especially in post offices.
“You cannot walk away from that one. So, no, it doesn’t bother me in the least.”
Nothing seems to bother Maddon. While that upbeat attitude and breezy confidence clicked with the 2015 Cubs during a transitional year that led to 97 wins and the National League Championship Series, it doesn’t seem to be working that well with the defending champs. Strengths – stubborn beliefs in players and decisions and a laissez-faire attitude toward the clubhouse – can slowly turn into potential weaknesses.
Where Maddon just about reached his shelf life with the Rays after nine seasons, he listened to rounds and rounds of Game 7 strategy questions and second-guessing, months and months after the Cubs won their first World Series title in 108 years.
Two-and-a-half seasons into a contract that will pay him in the neighborhood of $28 million, team president Theo Epstein implicitly criticized Maddon while explaining the decision to DFA veteran catcher Miguel Montero last week, saying things like: “Wins don’t just happen because you’re talented and you show up.”
Where Epstein ominously called out the lack of “edge” in the 2017 Cubs – “You can be kind of striving for an identity or a chemistry all year and not find it” – Maddon points to injuries and how the team has hung around .500, stayed in the division race and gotten in position to make a post-Fourth of July push.
“I’m one of those guys that believe you create chemistry and then it turns into wins,” Maddon said. “Other people believe you have to have wins to turn into chemistry. I always believed that you mock what you don’t understand.
“Being with the Rays for several years, the winning wasn’t there, so you had to create something other than that in order to have the winning be the residue. I’m a big believer in that.
“How do you do it? I’ve talked about it a zillion times. It’s about relationship-building and trust first. And then you got to have the guys in the room being aligned with your belief system organizationally. And then you have to have people that are kind of fearless within the clubhouse, guys that are purely Stage 5 players that are trying to win and not just there to try to survive.
“All those things matter. (But) you can intentionally attempt to create that kind of momentum in your clubhouse by how you react, manager’s office, coaches’ room, et cetera.”
The Rays reacted by pushing Major League Baseball to launch a tampering investigation after Maddon used the escape clause in his contract that triggered when Andrew Friedman left to run baseball operations for the Los Angeles Dodgers after the 2014 season.
Except for bench coach Dave Martinez, none of Maddon’s coaches followed him to Chicago. Neither did David Price, Tampa Bay’s homegrown Cy Young Award winner, who followed the money as a free agent and took $217 million guaranteed from the Boston Red Sox.
The Rays did what all teams looking for a correction do, hiring a young, low-key manager with the opposite personality (though it’s not like there are many Maddon clones out there). Kevin Cash oversaw an 80-82 campaign in 2015, last year’s 94-loss, last-place season and a 44-41 run before the All-Star break.
“I’m just curious to see where they’re at right now,” Maddon said. “More than anything, it’s just about saying hi to people. I swear that’s probably my most pressing need right now – just to make sure I connect with these guys.”