An opposing player said the guys in the Cubs clubhouse talk about Joe Maddon as if he’s a god.
“It’s kind of crazy,” reliever James Russell said. “You get the feeling that he’s like leaking into your soul, almost, as he’s talking to you.”
What if Maddon managed on the South Side?
It’s a question worth asking this weekend with the Cubs on pace for 89 victories and Robin Ventura under fire as the last-place White Sox come to Wrigley Field for three games before the All-Star break. Even if the noise around Ventura is coming from the outside – Twitter, talk radio, newspapers – and not his actual bosses.
But it’s a fascinating juxtaposition when so many teams that won the offseason – the White Sox, Boston Red Sox, Miami Marlins, San Diego Padres – are in fourth or fifth place while Fangraphs gives the Cubs a 72.8 percent chance of making the playoffs.
In terms of a broader corporate culture, the White Sox have probably been too loyal, too insular over the years, where the Cubs can be so cold-blooded, too quick to slice and dice, making so many decisions off spreadsheets and the bottom line.
Russell has now played for five different managers – Lou Piniella, Mike Quade, Dale Sveum, Rick Renteria and Maddon – during his six seasons on the North Side. The Cubs finally know who’s in charge and can feel that sense of stability.
“He’s really the same guy every day,” Russell said. “There’s no change. You could walk up, kick his dog and I feel like he’s the same guy.”
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It’s certainly not all Ventura’s fault the White Sox are a huge disappointment – in the same way Maddon shouldn’t get all the credit for the premium talent acquired and shaped by Theo Epstein’s front office, scouting department and minor-league development staff.
How much is Maddon worth? Forget Manager WAR. Just look at the five-year, $25 million contract at a time when managers are getting shorter and smaller commitments and less and less autonomy.
“There’s part of what we do that you really can’t put a number on,” Maddon said. “I can’t quantify what happens in a clubhouse. How much does a manager or a coaching staff really (matter)? There’s a lot that goes on behind (the scenes) that really plays into the success out there that I don’t think is measurable.
“The best thing a manager can do is attempt to put the players in the best position to be successful.”
It always comes down to the players.
But if you are a Cubs fan, is there anyone else you would rather have standing in the dugout making split-second decisions?
And if you are a Cubs executive, is there anyone you would trust more to look after young talent, work with the Geek Department and distract the Chicago media?
“He’s awesome,” reliever Pedro Strop said. “He’s the kind of guy who lets you be who you are, no matter what. It’s a huge (key) for a player. When you’re trying to be something that’s not you, it’s tough to get to your top level.”
Maddon, 61, will watch the Blackhawks clinch the Stanley Cup at Tavern on Rush, see the Grateful Dead play Soldier Field and take advantage of everything this city has to offer.
But Maddon is still someone who became rich and famous later in life, after doing grunt work for three decades in the Angels organization.
That’s why Maddon has trouble believing ex-players are ready to move directly into the manager’s office – or understanding why an executive like Dan Jennings would shift from Miami’s front office to the dugout with zero professional coaching experience.
“I’m really grateful for the fact that it took me so long to get to this particular moment,” Maddon said. “I did all those different jobs in the minor leagues – all of them – and even in the big leagues.
“If I didn’t have all those years on a bus, on a back field, in an instructional league, watching guys that I thought did it well – and watching guys that I thought did not do it well – (who knows)? All that stuff matters.
“If you look at how the industry is reacting right now, maybe some people don’t believe it’s as necessary. But I cannot even imagine doing any of this stuff without the experience that I’ve had.”
It’s hard to picture Maddon in a place that’s a better match for his ego, talents and off-the-field interests. The Tampa Bay Rays saw it as another insider deal in Chicago – Maddon’s agent, Alan Nero, has an office on Michigan Avenue – and forced Major League Baseball to launch a tampering investigation.
Maddon is both calculating and spontaneous around reporters. The blue-collar kid out of Hazleton, Pennsylvania, now has a collection of classic cars and a “bicoastal” lifestyle. The shot-and-a-beer guy drinks fine wine after games.
“One thing I do know is that players read everything you say every day,” Maddon said, “whether it’s in print, or online, whatever. So I feel as though I have a team meeting every day, almost, based on what I say to you guys (in the media).”
So when the rookie second baseman looks overmatched at the plate, Maddon drives the conversation in another direction, saying just how good pitching has become, explaining all the ways technology has conspired against hitters and promising everything will be all right. It’s a sleight-of-hand trick that would make Simon the Magician proud.
“He protects his players,” Addison Russell said. “That’s the type of manager he is. He just says: Go out there, play your butt off and have some fun. That’s basically it. That means a lot to me.”
Maddon held court in Comerica Park’s visiting dugout before a game against the Detroit Tigers last month. A TV guy jumped in to begin the manager’s media session with a standard question about changing the culture, and Maddon gave a boilerplate answer.
Almost seven minutes later, the TV guy interrupted the flow and said: “Joe, first off, I apologize, because your answer was brilliant…”
Maddon – who couldn’t remember the question – said: “Of course it was.”
The TV guy said: “But we had a technical glitch. Anyway…about the culture change and all that entails…”
Instead of telling the TV guy what to do with that microphone – or breathing fire the way an old-school manager would have in a different media environment – Maddon kept rolling.
“You have to build relationships, first of all,” Maddon said. “You have to get out and talk to people and get to understand them. When you do that, they know that they have my trust. I got to earn their trust. Once you’ve earned trust, then you can have this real free exchange of ideas. And that’s where the culture shift pops.
“There are low-trust organizations. There are high-trust organizations. You’ll never want to work for a low-trust organization. And if you do, you’re going to work there for a very short period of time.
“We want to be a high-trust organization, and I think we are, so when the guys come in, they feel all that. They want to be there. They feel comfortable and they can be themselves. These are the real key components to any organization thriving – not just a baseball team.
“These are things I believe in. I want to believe that our players feel that when they walk in the door every day. And if they don’t, then it’s my fault.”
This was like something out of “The Office,” one of Maddon’s favorite TV shows. But Maddon seemed satisfied with the answer as he opened it up to the rest of the group: “I think that one was better.”