Cubs

How Joe Maddon’s blue-collar roots made him perfect fit for Cubs

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How Joe Maddon’s blue-collar roots made him perfect fit for Cubs

HAZLETON, Pa. – If the 2016 Cubs are too big to fail, then Joe Maddon’s five-year contract is the $25 million insurance policy, money well spent for a World Series favorite on paper.

Maddon has the street smarts and the people skills to survive in an organization that historically has been sabotaged by ownership instability, corporate dysfunction and political infighting.

Maddon is fluent in analytics and has a scouting background, making him comfortable interpreting data and trusting young talent, the creative tension felt between his dugout and Theo Epstein’s front office.

Maddon doesn’t believe in clubhouse rules or pregame eyewash – viewing batting practice as a waste of time – and that loose structure appeals to veteran players who want to be treated like men.

Maddon can still connect with the rookies, staying hip as he nears his 62nd birthday, wearing a Lacoste hoodie and puffy North Face gear, gaining almost 280,000 followers on Twitter and streaming episodes of “The Office” through Netflix on his iPad.

[MORE: Youth movement will pay off for Cubs in 2016]

Maddon doesn’t get defensive or show any signs of stress during his media sessions, enjoying the banter after all those nights spent inside working-class bars.

It all started in this blue-collar city, part of Pennsylvania’s faded coal-mining region, where he grew up in the apartment above his father’s shop: C. Maddon and Sons Plumbing and Heating.

Maddon introduced Cubs fans to “The Hazleton Way” – a shot and a beer – near the end of his first press conference at The Cubby Bear in November 2014.

But that spontaneous moment – offering to buy the first round at the bar opposite the Wrigley Field marquee – wasn’t just a throwaway sound bite. The breezy confidence and why-not? attitude would become essential parts of a team that took the baseball world by storm.

“I’m never offended by being second-guessed, because you have to print that kind of stuff for the people here,” he said while sitting at the bar inside Bottlenecks in West Hazleton, during a scene from the “Going Home: Joe Maddon” documentary that premieres Thursday night on Comcast SportsNet Chicago.

“People are into us. We had a nice year. The offseason’s been pretty fruitful, also. You can go back to the day where it was on WGN always (and everyone could watch the Cubs). There’s a good vibe among our group right now.

“These are legitimate baseball fans that like the game to be played properly, which would mean hard. It’s not an easy place to live (here), so the people are kind of tough. They appreciate hard-working – and they appreciate hustle.”

“That’s Joey”

Maddon doesn’t remember his father ever taking a vacation. Joe Sr. served in World War II and considered himself to be a rich man, even if this Italian-Polish family didn’t have a lot of money. The Maddons didn’t take summer trips to the Jersey Shore, making the neighborhood and local Catholic parish the center of their universe.

Steps away from that apartment, Maddon’s mother still works at Third Base Luncheonette, a soda-fountain joint that looks unchanged since it opened in 1949.

Albina – everyone calls her “Beanie” – adds up orders in her head and has a certain way to slice the tomatoes. The lunchtime crowd sits at the countertop on low-to-the-floor stools and eats hoagies. The walls are painted shades of pink. As a kid, Maddon used to mop the floors here.

“That’s Joey,” said Carmine Parlatore, Maddon’s sister. “He’ll talk to the person on the street that has nothing – and then he could talk to a CEO exactly the same. He doesn’t treat anybody any differently. That’s just the kind of guy he is.”

Maddon learned how to compete here on the football fields, basketball playgrounds and baseball diamonds. The lesson: Don’t back down from anyone.

The bottom line: Maddon couldn’t afford college – and get past Hazleton High School – without that athletic potential and a strong academic performance.

The quarterback threw footballs through the tire his father hung from a tree, drawing interest from Ivy League schools, getting a letter from Roger Staubach – the 1963 Heisman Trophy winner and future Hall of Famer – and taking the physical for the Naval Academy.

Maddon settled on Lafayette College, a private school more than an hour away in Easton, taking a financial-aid package – roughly $16,000 spread across four years – that would be cut in half once he decided to give up football and focus exclusively on baseball.

Maddon joined Zeta Psi and partied at a fraternity house that would make the National Register of Historic Places, never quite finishing that degree in economics, beginning a journey out West that would keep testing Joey from Our Lady of Grace.

The Zen Master

“I describe Joe as a little Joe Torre and a little Phil Jackson mixed together,” said Cubs catching/strategy coach Mike Borzello, who experienced four World Series celebrations with Torre’s New York Yankees teams. “Joe’s an outside-the-box thinker with a calm, cool attitude. That kind of sums it up: Phil Jackson and Joe Torre combined.”

The title of Jackson’s autobiography says it all after his run with the Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers: “Eleven Rings.” All Maddon needs is one to set off the biggest party this city has ever seen.

“It’s funny because Joe’s a little bit of a contrast,” said Tampa Bay Rays pitching coach Jim Hickey, who grew up near Midway Airport and spent eight seasons working alongside Maddon. “He likes to promote himself as kind of the California cool, (but he’s more) the blue-collar, lunch-pail town of Hazleton, Pennsylvania.

“Of course, Chicago is ‘The City of Big Shoulders’ – and a very blue-collar city – so I think people really see that (in Joe). But you also know how Chicago is – I think any personality would play there as long as you won. It just makes it a lot easier when you win. It’s going to be really, really special when they end up winning the whole thing.”

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Anything less this year will be considered a disappointment after the Cubs dropped $272 million on Jason Heyward, Ben Zobrist and John Lackey, adding three big-name free agents to a team that won 97 games and advanced to the National League Championship Series in Maddon’s first season. That 24-game improvement – which ended a streak of five straight fifth-place finishes on the North Side – earned Maddon his third Manager of the Year award.

“What’s great about Joe is whether he would be managing a Little League team or a Chicago Cubs season, it’s all the same,” Borzello said. “I don’t think he lets anything stand in his way. There’s nothing that is too big for him. He doesn’t look at things that way. It’s more of paying attention to the little things. He always talks about being prepared, and the team that makes the least amount of mistakes is going to win.

“No matter what level he manages, or how many cameras are on him, or how big the game is, it’s the same for him. Whether he’s managing in Tampa or he’s managing in Chicago, the market doesn’t matter. I just think Joe’s able to handle anything that comes his way.”

Joe Sr. died in 2002 – before Maddon helped the Anaheim Angels win the 2002 World Series as Mike Scioscia’s bench coach – and never got to see Joey work small-market miracles with the Rays. But all those old-school values the Cubs need now – the sense that nothing will ever be handed to you – are rooted in the concrete and asphalt of Hazleton.

Going Home: Joe Maddon," a Comcast SportsNet Original documentary, premieres Thursday, Jan. 14 at 9:30 p.m., immediately following “Blackhawks Postgame Live.” 

Podcast: Bold predictions for the Cubs offseason

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USA TODAY

Podcast: Bold predictions for the Cubs offseason

With the MLB offseason about to kick off, we run down the boldest predictions for the Cubs winter from around the NBC Sports Chicago Cubs content team. Topics include where Bryce Harper and Manny Machado will sign, how much money they’ll get, what the Cardinals will do this winter, Cubs offseason trades and how Theo Epstein’s front office may add to the pitching staff.

 

One topic we could all agree on was David Ross' potential as Cubs bench coach if the incumbent Brandon Hyde ends up taking a job as manager for another team around the league.

 

Listen to the entire podcast here and check out all of our bold predictions below:

 

 

David Kaplan

 

—Anthony Rizzo and his new wife, Emily, will adopt Manny Machado, change his last name and see Manny Rizzo playing third base for the 2019 Cubs.

—Because of the Rizzo move, the Cubs will move Kris Bryant to a full-time outfielder.

—The Cubs will trade away Jose Quintana and sign Patrick Corbin.

—The Cubs will sign a pair of former Indians relievers for the back end of the bullpen in Andrew Miller and Cody Allen.

—The Cubs will trade Kyle Schwarber to the Royals for Whit Merrifield, who will start 155 games in the leadoff spot in the order.

—Joe Maddon will be a lot more consistent with the Cubs' lineup and batting order all season.

 

Kelly Crull

 

—Anthony and Emily Rizzo will receive more wedding gifts from Cubs fans than Kris and Jessica Bryan received.

—Anthony Rizzo will train this offseason so he will be able to sing — or play the piano — for the National Anthem at Wrigley in 2019.

—The Cubs will have no money left to remodel the media room at Wrigley Field.

 

Luke Stuckmeyer

 

—The Captain Morgan Club at Wrigley Field is going to be replaced by Kap's Kryo & Keto Korner.

—The Cubs will finally find a solution to the leadoff hitter issue.

 

Tony Andracki

 

—The Cubs sign Bryce Harper for less than $250 million. (He follows 23 people on Twitter)
—Manny Machado does not get a contract for more than $250 million, either.
—The Cardinals will sign Craig Kimbrel and either Machado or Josh Donaldson to play 3B. 

 

Rationale: St. Louis could really use the bat and closer and they have a sense of urgency in the division this winter we haven't seen from them in at least a decade. The Cubs and Brewers have clearly been better for two seasons now and look to have a better chance at contending than the Cardinals in 2019, as well. That can't be sitting well with the "Best Fans in Baseball." 

 

Jeff Nelson, producer

 

—The Cubs will trade 2 of the following players:  Kyle Schwarber, Ian Happ, Addison Russell, Albert Almora Jr.

—The Cardinals will sign Manny Machado to play third base.

—Because of construction delays, the visitors’ clubhouse will not be ready for the home opener, forcing the Pirates to dress at their hotel and come to the ballpark in full uniform.

Mike Piff, social media manager

—Cubs sign Nick Markakis.
—Cubs sign Tyson Ross.

Eric Strobel, producer

—The Cubs 2019 saves leader is not currently on the roster.

Rationale: We saw what happened to the bullpen in Brandon Morrow's absence; it got the job done by and large, but was not longer truly feared. Deep 'pens are the norm in October now with lockdown relievers being counted on more and more. The front office knows they can't truly entrust that kind of workload to Morrow with his injury history - Theo admitted as much in his end-of-season press conference. While they probably will not make a big splash, a huge focus of the offseason will be to surround Morrow/Strop/Edwards/etc. with as many talented arms as possible. The Cubs could very well enter next season without a designated closer, but if they do, it will not be Brandon Morrow.

Scott Changnon, multi-platform producer

—The Cubs will sign Bryce Harper.

Rationale: "I dunno, maybe."

Nate Poppen, producer

—Cubs sign Andrew McCutchen, plug him into CF and make Almora a 4th OF (or expendable)
—Bryce Harper signs with Yankees.
—Manny Machado signs with Angels.

Matt Buckman, producer

Non-roster prediction: The Cubs will welcome Sammy Sosa back to Wrigley Field. Sammy turns 50 this winter, and fueled by our wonderful documentary on 1998, the Cubs will finally mend their broken bond with Sammy and bring him back to Wrigley.

Roster prediction: The Cubs will trade Kyle Schwarber for a leadoff hitter. Joe has had to get very creative with the top of his order since Dexter Fowler left. Though the front office has downplayed the importance of a lead-off hitter the last two off-seasons, they will look to add one for 2019 so that Joe doesn’t have to be so creative. They won’t have a place to play Schwarber after they sign Harper so they will swap his power for a new “you go, we go” guy. Look at KC or TB as AL teams that need to add power and also have guys who could potentially lead off for the Cubs. Mallex Smith (TB) or Whit Merrifield (KC) would be interesting options.

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No-brainer: The Cubs should absolutely bring back Jesse Chavez in 2019 bullpen

No-brainer: The Cubs should absolutely bring back Jesse Chavez in 2019 bullpen

Should the Cubs bring Jesse Chavez back for the 2019 bullpen?

This question shouldn't have anywhere near the polarizing effect the Daniel Murphy query had earlier this week, and for good reason.

It's hard to find any real downside for the Cubs working Chavez back into the fold next season. 

Sure, he's 35 and he'll turn 36 in August, but Chavez just had far and away the best season of his 11-year career and all signs point to it being legit.

He won't have a 1.15 ERA forever, of course, but he clearly found something with his mechanics that helped lead to the remarkable consistency he showed in a Cubs uniform (4 saves, 4 holds, 1.15 ERA, 0.79 WHIP, 42 Ks in 39 IP). 

The Cubs will be looking to add some reinforcements to their bullpen this winter and Chavez fits the bill in many areas.

When asked about how to address the bullpen this winter, Theo Epstein said his front office will be "looking for guys who can throw strikes and execute a gameplan and take the ball and pitch in big spots."

The Cubs have publicly placed an emphasis on "strike-throwers" out of the bullpen over the last two winters now and that is right up Chavez's alley.

He threw 68.5 percent first-pitch strikes while with the Cubs, which would've ranked near the top of the league in 2018, right up there with aces like Miles Mikolas, Clayton Kershaw, Aaron Nola and Justin Verlander. Among all relievers, Chavez ranked 5th in baseball in first-pitch strike percentage in the second half.

Expanding further (since the first pitch isn't the only one that matters): Chavez threw the fourth-most strikes in baseball among all MLB relievers after the All-Star Break. Since the day Chavez put on a Cubs uniform, Philadelphia's Tommy Hunter (70.5 percent) was the only reliever in baseball (minimum 30 innings) to throw a higher percentage of pitches for strikes than Chavez (69.8 percent).

If you want strikes, there's no better reliever on the market right now than Chavez.

He also shouldn't be all that expensive at age 35, even despite the breakout and high level of importance placed upon relievers these days. A similar deal to the one Brian Duensing got last winter - $7 million over 2 years - seems appropriate and would be a steal if Chavez can continue to find even a modicum of the success he had since putting on a Cubs uniform.

Speaking of the Cubs uniform, Chavez reportedly doesn't want to wear another logo in 2019, saying this after the NL Wild-Card Game:

That was an emotional time, but Chavez repeatedly raved about the Cubs clubhouse and culture throughout his time in Chicago and really appreciated the way his teammates made him feel comfortable from Day 1.

When the Cubs first acquired Chavez in that under-the-radar trade, they touted his versatility which has become a valuable asset, especially in today's game where relievers are often asked to pitch multiple innings. If necessary, he could also represent depth for the starting rotation, having made 70 starts over his MLB career. 

Unless there's a surprising market that develops for Chavez, bringing him back to the North Side of Chicago on a 1- or 2-year deal is a no-brainer.