Joe Maddon checks all the boxes for the Cubs, the free agent who lived up to his contract and already feels like a North Side institution after one unbelievable season.
The Cubs felt like Maddon would be the right guy at the right time to take over a last-place team – and will still be the ideal manager for a World Series favorite next year.
Looking at the big picture, being named the National League Manager of the Year doesn’t mean all that much. Especially when the Cubs are coming off a 97-win season that represented a 24-game improvement from the year before, and the franchise finally has some stability in the dugout after going through Lou Piniella, Mike Quade, Dale Sveum and Rick Renteria since 2010.
But it’s still a nice reward for Maddon, who won the award on Tuesday, getting 18 of 30 first-place votes from the Baseball Writers’ Association of America and finishing with 124 points to beat Mike Matheny (87) and Terry Collins (49).
The BBWAA voting closed before the Cubs eliminated Matheny’s Cardinals in the divisional round and got swept by Collins’ Mets in the NL Championship Series. Even if Maddon admits he didn’t do the heavy lifting in this rebuild, the Cubs still needed a leader to shape all this blue-chip talent.
Maddon is only the fourth manager in franchise history to earn this award, joining a list that includes Piniella (2008), Don Zimmer (1989) and Jim Frey (1984). As Piniella once said, this is not some push-button operation. The Cubs used 150 different batting orders, six different fifth starters and seven different relievers to save games – while still keeping the peace in the clubhouse.
“Honesty minus compassion equals cruelty,” Maddon said. “So you never want to be cruel, but you have to be straight-up. I believe that if I’m honest with my players, they might not like me for a week or two. But if I lie to them, they’ll hate me forever.
“It’s a real fine line that you walk every day. A lot of what we do there is about our confidence level, and you never want to destroy anybody’s confidence. Ever. But the guys need to hear the straight-up truth, too.”
The truth is it wasn’t that difficult of a decision for team president Theo Epstein, who fired Renteria after Maddon used an escape clause in his contract that triggered last October, when Andrew Friedman left the Tampa Bay Rays to run baseball operations for the Los Angeles Dodgers.
The White Sox recently hired Renteria, and the Cubs will be paying him while he works as Robin Ventura’s bench coach. But the Cubs made a great investment in Maddon, who has four seasons left on a contract that guarantees him around $25 million.
“Joe’s made a remarkable impact just by being himself,” Epstein said. “A major-league team over time starts to take on the personality of its manager, take on the sensibilities of its manager, take on the values of its manager, whether it knows it or not. That’s why I think we’re so nutty around here – in a great way.
“He pulled off the impossible, making a bunch of 21-, 22-, 23-year-old kids 40 years his junior gravitate towards him and feel comfortable around him and look forward to coming to work, in part because he was here and the environment that he created.”
Jake Arrieta is now a Cy Young finalist who will be featured in Wednesday’s award show. Anthony Rizzo finished with 31 homers, 101 RBI and an .899 OPS. Kyle Schwarber hit five home runs in the playoffs, one year after getting drafted fourth overall out of Indiana University. Addison Russell established himself as the everyday shortstop during his age-21 season.
“(Maddon) was a big factor,” said Kris Bryant, an All-Star third baseman and a Rookie of the Year this season. “From the very first day of spring training, encouraging us to be ourselves and (saying) don’t change the way you play and just being a real laid-back manager.
“It’s easy to talk to him. And (with) a lot of young guys on the team, I think that just breeds success. He definitely brought the best out of me.
“A lot of our success is just having him leading the way – and keeping us calm and confident – and at the same time having a lot of fun.”
There’s always a method to the madness. Maddon did it his way, trying to deflect negative attention away from the team, create good chemistry and distract the Chicago media by having Simon the Magician perform in the clubhouse, inviting zoo animals into Wrigley Field and playing dress-up on road trips.
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“Joe takes it to (an) extreme as far as just how relaxed he is,” pitcher Jon Lester said. “What Joe’s allowed some of the older guys and (role players) to do is just relax and have fun and not worry about your job. Or worrying about when they do get a chance, they have to produce.
“Having Joe and that relaxed let’s-do-simple-better (attitude) morphed into this. Obviously, a few of these guys have taken it to extremes with some of the stuff that’s gone on.”
The “Play Stupid” Cubs won 34 one-run games and 13 in extra innings, never having a losing month or a losing streak that went longer than five games. Epstein’s front office couldn’t have found a better ringmaster for the Wrigleyville circus.
“He always tries to enjoy life,” said Hector Rondon, the Rule 5 pick who developed into a 30-save closer. “(Win or lose), he tries to get the best we have out of every game. That is a big difference when the manager and players have that good relationship. You can laugh (and relax). Whatever you want (to do) – do it. But the point is to play hard. If we play hard, we’re fine.”
The Cubs should have finished with a 90-72 record, according to the Pythagorean model. That doesn’t necessarily mean Maddon’s presence alone is worth seven wins. But someone had to make it work after benching All-Star shortstop Starlin Castro, moving All-Star starter Travis Wood to the bullpen and juggling two different three-catcher rotations.
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It couldn’t have been as easy as it looked from the outside, but Maddon had instant credibility as a two-time American League Manager of the Year with the Rays.
“Joe’s been preaching since spring training about selflessness, about check your ego at the door,” infielder/outfielder Chris Coghlan said. “You can preach that all you want, but when it messes with guys’ livelihoods and how they play in different roles and things they’ve been used to, the only thing that really gets guys to buy in is wins.
“Joe has won (before). And Joe is winning here. That’s what enables (it). If we were losing a bunch, and Joe was asking us to do all these different roles, there would definitely be some guys that would be frustrated behind the scenes. But we’re winning. And that’s the point.
“It doesn’t matter what our role is – we all say that. But to buy in is totally different. I think slowly but surely throughout the year, our clubhouse has bought in, and (guys played at) different levels, even in different roles that they’re not used to.”
Epstein knows that teams can talk about five-year plans only to watch those windows to contend slam shut. But with Maddon in charge, the Cubs feel like this is just the beginning.