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.

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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.” 

'This is who we need to be': Cubs offense spurs win

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USA TODAY

'This is who we need to be': Cubs offense spurs win

The same offense that was shut out the day before turned around and scored eight runs rather handily in Wednesday's 8-4 win over the Brewers. The Cubs put together this offensive explosion with both power and timely situational hitting, and that's the kind of offense that manager Joe Maddon believes is capable of emerging on any given day.
 
But since the All Star break, the Cubs had put together a -28 run differential on their way to a middling second half record, so the hope is that a big win over a division rival in a close race is the catalyst for the production the Cubs are looking for.
 
"I mean that’s who we need to be. We need to be that group. We need to be tougher to strike out. We need to not pull off pitches or expand or give the other team some escape hatches," Maddon said after Wednesday's game. "We got to get away from that. Every team wants it, but we were doing that, and now we got to get back to that."
 
Unlike so many of the past games this season, the Cubs were the first to score, putting together a mini-rally with two outs in the first inning. David Bote singled to left, and then Anthony Rizzo—bumped to the cleanup spot after spending much of this season leading off—homered to the opposite field in left center.
 
This is the kind of hitting that Maddon looks for, when his batters go to the opposite field. It means they're seeing the ball deeper into the zone, he has often said, and that usually yields better results. 
 
Along with Rizzo's opposite field home run in the 1st, Javy Baez went the other way in the 3rd inning when he tripled to right field. This put him in position to score on Jason Heyward's double.
 
In all, the Cubs had 13 hits against Brewers pitching. Maddon has on many occasions called this a "swarm offense" because of the way they string together timely hits and can easily overwhelm an opposing pitcher and his defense. 
 
The swarm offense was particularly effective in the 4th inning, when they rallied to score three runs and bulk up their lead to 7-2. In that inning, they benefited from a couple of bloop singles that landed just beyond the range of second baseman Travis Shaw, who is playing out of his natural position since the Brewers traded for Mike Moustakas. 
 
Albert Almora, Jr., who has struggled for much of the second half, chipped in an insurance home run in the 7th. He spoke to the frustrations of an offense that struggled to score in the previous game.
 
"The game of baseball is so unfair at times. You could have good at bats, and you’re out at the end of the day," Almora said. "I think we’re doing a really good job of putting together good at bats, and that’s all we really can control."
 
The approach worked in part because the offense as a whole does not allow themselves to get rattled by a dry stretch. They go to the plate each day with the belief that a run is always just around the corner.
 
"We just believe that we can get it done. It’s not always going to happen, it’s not easy," Heyward said after Wednesday's win. "We try to give ourselves more opportunities. The more we get, the more I like our odds."
 
The Cubs still have a lot of games against division opponents, nine against the Brewers and Cardinals in September, but they're not living and dying with each win or loss at this point.
 
"We’ve played a lot of meaningful games, so we know not to hang our hat on one," Anthony Rizzo told reporters after his 2-4, 3 RBI day. 
 
This attitude is a product of three straight years of postseason appearances and a World Series title, and it comes from the top.
 
"You can’t overreact. If you want to ride the emotional roller coaster, man, it will wipe you out," Maddon said. 
 
He lauded the pitching of Kyle Hendricks and the defense that featured dazzling catches in the outfield from Heyward and Ian Happ and a bare-handed grab and throw at third from Bote, but Maddon said that for the best results, pitching and offense need to work in tandem more consistently, like they did Wednesday.
 
"For us to really get on that road that you’re looking for, you’ve got to see them simultaneously," Maddon said.
 
The hope is that this kind of win becomes contagious and propels the Cubs into a much-needed winning streak to put some distance between them and the rest of the NL Central. 

Albert Almora leaning on perspective to push through struggles

Albert Almora leaning on perspective to push through struggles

These are commonly called the dog days of summer, and after having played through roughly two-thirds of the season, especially so for baseball players. For Albert Almora, Jr. batting fifth in Wednesday's lineup, this tough stretch of the year has been made even tougher thanks to a prolonged slump.

Almora is hitting just barely above .200 over the last thirty days. August has been even worse, at .185 going in to Wednesday's game against the Brewers. But despite these struggles, Almora is working to keep it all in perspective so that he can turn things around.

"The mental grind of it is obviously overwhelming at times, but if you’re struggling a little bit or seem not to be having a lot of luck, you just think of the positives day in and day out of what you go through," Almora said.

Admitting that this is sometimes easier said than done, Almora said that it helps being on a team that does a very good job of turning the page when things go badly. 

A big help in not letting his struggles at the plate weigh on him too heavily, Almora said, has been his family. Almora and his wife Krystal have a son, AJ, who was born late in the 2016 season, and she is pregnant with their second child. A health scare for her took Almora away from the team for a couple of days in mid-July. Thankfully all turned out well, but it's the kind of thing that puts anyone's life into perspective.

"You rely on family. Obviously my son’s a big part. He’s at a point where he just wants to play with Dad, and we have a lot of fun," Almora said. "He doesn’t really care, and that puts it into perspective for me. I go home, at the end of the day it’s just a game."

All the same, the task of preparing day in and day out and trying to stay productive in the midst of a period of struggle isn't easy when the hard contact he's making lands in gloves rather than grass or among the bleacher faithful. 

"You always try to think about it as a game," Almora said. "This is a game we’ve been playing since we were kids, but it does get away from you at times. You press for a little bit, so it does wear on you a little bit if you aren’t doing what you’re supposed to."

But there are positive signs for Almora. After striking out in a pinch-hit appearance on Tuesday, he drew two walks and hit a homer the next day. And whether the slump continues or not, he hasn't lost faith in himself.

"I have confidence in myself that I’m pretty good at this," Almora said. "And I’ll be alright."