NEW YORK – Joe Maddon and Theo Epstein have big egos, strong opinions and multimillion-dollar contracts. If they weren’t wired with that self-assuredness, the “celebrity” manager and the “rock star” president of baseball operations wouldn’t be running the Cubs right now.
There will inevitably be personality conflicts and creative tension between Maddon’s dugout and Epstein’s front office. But 77 games into Maddon’s first season, the Cubs definitely aren’t the same dysfunctional group that finished in fifth place for five years in a row, sweeping the New York Mets out of Citi Field with Thursday’s 6-1 victory.
That’s the high-end talent Epstein’s group has acquired – Jake Arrieta again looked like a frontline starter exactly two years after that trade with the Baltimore Orioles – and the relaxed-but-focused atmosphere Maddon’s coaching staff has created for a 42-35 team that limited the Mets to one run during this three-game series.
The dream sequence is Maddon sitting around an RV park in Navarre Beach, Florida, with Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer, drinking beers and talking baseball philosophy.
The nightmare is organizational chaos, the power play Los Angeles Angels manager Mike Scioscia – Maddon’s old boss – just made in Anaheim. That struggle for control forced general manager Jerry Dipoto to resign this week after a 98-win season last year.
“There should be disagreements,” Maddon said. “The healthy component is when you feel comfortable. How do you get to that point? You build a relationship and you trust each other – and then it becomes a healthy debate. If there’s not relationships and trust, then it becomes pushback on both sides, and therein lies the difference.
“If you truly want to have a healthy situation, you get to know each other. You trust each other, and now you can have a really good debate, so it’s not an argument. It’s not a disagreement. It’s a nice debate. It’s not about who’s right. It’s about getting it right at that point.
“Sometimes people skip over the relationship building and the trusting part. And when you do that, it’s just going to be a battle. The guy with the biggest ---- wants to be heard.”
Scioscia’s resistance to analytics and next-level scouting – the kind of raw data Maddon would try to gather as the bench coach for the 2002 World Series champs – reportedly caused extreme friction with Dipoto.
That’s one area where Maddon’s outgoing nature and sense of curiosity have meshed well with Epstein’s intense desire to find any competitive advantage.
“I love the Geek Department,” Maddon said. “I seek out the Geek Department. I give them stuff all the time to work on. I want information. Jeremy (Greenhouse, the assistant director of research and development) and the boys have been great.
“Stuff I need that I don’t know – I ask them right down to pitch selection. Why is a guy struggling? Has his arm angle dropped a bit? Is it still in the same spot? All these different things that I can’t see with the naked eye – that we can (see) technologically speaking – I want to know.
“You could make a commercial out of that.”
Maddon is a pitchman while being a face of the franchise sometimes makes the introverted Epstein uncomfortable. The big idea is they will balance each other out with their strengths and weaknesses.
Maddon lobbied hard for Javier Baez to make the team out of spring training – and constantly offers ideas about the roster – but he’s not demanding final say.
It helps that Maddon has a life outside those clubhouse walls – and that Epstein has the credibility that comes from those two World Series titles with the Boston Red Sox.
“I only want to do my job,” Maddon said. “I want to do my job and then leave and then go have a glass of wine. Or ride my bike in the morning and not worry about making a ton of phone calls and player-personnel decisions. I’d rather do what I do.”
Maddon already balanced old-school values and Wall Street ruthlessness during his nine years with the Tampa Bay Rays, overseeing an ascendant small-market team that produced five seasons with 90 or more wins.
Scioscia is an outlier at a time when franchises have diminished the importance of managers. Scioscia has three seasons left on a 10-year, $50 million contract and a seemingly direct report to owner Arte Moreno.
Maddon – who has a five-year, $25 million contract – might be one of the few managers left with the stature to tell his bosses: This is what I want. Give it to me.
“I would never say that,” Maddon said. “I will tell you what I think. I really believe in the executive, judicial, legislative branches. I believe in all that stuff.
“I believe in checks and balances. I want ‘em, because I know what I think and what I believe, but then you have to hear this other opinion also to really try to come to the correct conclusion. There’s so much going on out there. There are so many bright people out there. I want to hear what you have to say, man.
“The least attractive item would be for me to have so much power that I would not have to listen to these (people). That would be so unattractive to me.
“This is my job. Even though I feel qualified to do other things, it’s not my job.”
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New York tabloids already buried the Mets on the back pages – “MEET THE MESS” and “ZEROES!” – of the newspapers stacked neatly in piles on Thursday morning across a table in the visiting clubhouse.
Terry Collins – one of several managers Maddon had worked with during his 31 years in the Angels organization – is definitely on the hot seat.
Maddon sat in an office packed with reporters and rattled off the names of other managers who ran the Angels during that time: Gene Mauch, John McNamara, Cookie Rojas, Doug Rader, Buck Rodgers, Marcel Lachemann.
“There has to be a strong relationship between the front office and this seat,” Maddon said. “It’s changed dramatically over the last 15 or 20 (or 30 years) where there was this autocratic manager (whose) power exceeded everybody’s. He was almost in charge of all decision-making, and any time a team changed managers, you really changed everything.
“There were different organizations every couple of years. As a minor-league instructor, the thing that always stood out to me was that every couple years that you got a new manager, you’d have to go back to the minor leagues and teach an entirely different system, which I thought was insane.
“That’s where the confusion could pop up. So I always thought that there should be uniformity, obviously, between the manager’s seat and the front office: How do you want to work this as an organization? Because too many times they become two organizations – major and minor leagues.
“Why have the Dodgers been so good for so many years? Why have the Cardinals been so good for so many years? They have one organization. So that always baffled me (with the Angels).
“In today’s world, there’s got to be synergy between this seat and the front office to make it really resonate for years.”
The Cubs believe they now have that foundation in place – and not enough material for the next season of “Game of Thrones.” Stay tuned, because it will be fascinating to watch.