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.” 

10 thoughts on the Cubs heading into the most important series of the season

10 thoughts on the Cubs heading into the most important series of the season

Only 10 games remain in the Cubs' 2019 regular season. 

Seven of those 10 games come against the first-place St. Louis Cardinals, beginning Thursday night at Wrigley Field. 

The Cardinals come into the series with a 3-game lead over the Cubs, while the Milwaukee Brewers — who lost Wednesday night — are also 3.0 games back and tied with the Cubs for the final playoff spot in the National League. Both teams trail the Washington Nationals by 1.5 games for the top Wild-Card spot. 

The only way the Cubs end this weekend in first place in the division is by taking all four games from the Cardinals — who have been one of the hottest teams in baseball the last two months. Anything less than a sweep means the Cubs will enter the final week of the season at least a game out.

It's not an impossible thought. The Cardinals have yet to win a game at Wrigley Field this season, going 0-6. But this is a different St. Louis team than the last time they visited town in early June.

"This is gonna be a lot of fun," Joe Maddon said. "It's not an easy task. Anything and everything's possible and we're gonna go into it with that thought. It's one at a time."

All homestand, the Cubs have been preaching the need to stay in the moment and take each day as it comes.

'We know what's in front of us," Jon Lester said. "We know what lies there and how big of a weekend it is. But if you start looking toward the entire weekend, you forget about tomorrow and we gotta worry about that."

Here are 10 thoughts on the Cubs heading into the biggest series of the season:

1. This Cubs-Cardinals rivalry is about to hit a fever pitch

If you thought the three-game series between these two teams to finish last season was intense, wait until these next two weekends. 

"There is no more fun than how we're doing this right now," Maddon said. "Of course we're expecting a good result, but to do it vs. the Cardinals. When you're looking at the schedule at the beginning of the year, you're hoping you have like an 8-game lead by the time this [stretch] occurs, but then you get in the position we're in here, you're thankful that you have to play them that many times. It is what it is."

Maddon said he already had lined up how the Cubs batting order and defensive alignment would look for the four-game series before Wednesday's game, but was still focused on making sure his team keeps that one-day-at-a-time mindset.

The Cubs know they control their own destiny over the next week-and-a-half, but they can't get there if they're trying to win Sunday's game on Thursday or trying to make up the 3-game gap in the division all in one day.

2. Scoreboard watching will be awfully interesting

The Cubs and their fans will obviously know how the team fares in relation to the Cardinals this weekend, but Cubdom will also be Padres, Pirates and Marlins fans over the next few days.

The Brewers finish off a four-game set with San Diego Thursday afternoon before welcoming the Pirates for three games over the weekend. Meanwhile, the Nationals enjoy their final off-day of the season Thursday before embarking on a road trip to Miami for three games. Beginning Friday, Washington has to play 11 games over the final 10 days of the season, including a doubleheader against the Phillies Tuesday.

Maddon and the Cubs players insist they don't spend too much time watching the scoreboard, but they also can't help themselves, especially at this time of the year.

How do Theo Epstein and the rest of the Cubs front office executives view the rest of the pennant race?

"Do you want the answer I should give or the real answer?" Epstein joked. "We all watch a lot of baseball this time of year — not just our own team. If we win our games, we're gonna win the division because we play the Cardinals so many times. That lessens the import of scoreboard-watching. 

"It's really something you should not spend too much time doing because you can't control it. You're just hoping, you're just watching. It's better to pour your energy into who you're playing or who you're about to play, trying to find some small nugget that might help in some small way. Scoreboard-watching doesn't really get you anywhere. Now, you can root, but you don't want to spend too much time on it."

3. The Brewers are built for this month

Even with Wednesday's loss to the Padres, the Brewers have still been the hottest team in baseball this month, winning 13 of their 17 contests.

This is a team that looked to be running out of fumes entering September, but the Cubs have nobody but themselves to blame for letting Milwaukee back into the race. Maddon and Co. went just 2-5 against the Brewers earlier this month and gave the team life that sustained them even when reigning NL MVP Christian Yelich was lost for the season with a fractured kneecap.

Even still, this is the second straight year where the Brewers look like a totally different team in September than they were during the first five months of the season. Suddenly, their rotation issues aren't a problem since they have so many relievers to help cover and their "starters" now only go three or four innings.

That extreme bullpenning strategy clearly works against good teams (the Cubs and Cardinals can attest to that), but it can be especially effective against rebuilding teams just playing out the season...which is what Milwaukee's schedule consists of the rest of the way (Padres, Pirates, Reds, Rockies).

4. The timelines for Rizzo and Baez

Anthony Rizzo is still in a boot and unable to walk until at least the weekend, but his sprained right ankle will be re-evaluated at that point to determine if he will be able to make it back at all before October. We may not know anything before the end of this homestand, but any Rizzo updates will be crucial.

Javy Baez is supposed to meet with doctors later this week to determine an updated timeline on his fractured thumb. The Cubs aren't expecting him to play again in the regular season, but right now, they don't even know if he'll be able to suit up in October (if they get there).

5. The return of Kimbrel and Kintzler

The Cubs certainly missed their closer and top setup guy Wednesday night. In a tight, extra-inning game, Maddon had no choice but to go to inexperienced rookie James Norwood in the 10th inning with Steve Cishek not available (he pitched both Monday and Tuesday night) and Craig Kimbrel (elbow) and Brandon Kintzler (left side) still not healthy.

David Phelps, Pedro Strop, Kyle Ryan, Tyler Chatwood, Rowan Wick and Derek Holland had already been used after Jon Lester was removed with nobody out and two runners on in the sixth inning.

Kimbrel hasn't pitched since Sept. 1, but threw a bullpen Tuesday night and reported positive after it. He went through a regular pregame routine Wednesday and could be activated from the injured list before Thursday's game. 

Kintzler said he's been dealing with the left oblique issue for the last few weeks, but the pain became too unbearable in San Diego last week, so he shut it down for a little while. He threw Wednesday and is hoping to return to the Cubs bullpen sometime this weekend, though no exact day has been determined yet.

6. Can the bullpen stay hot?

Even with the 2 runs allowed Wednesday night and the bullpen taking a loss, this group of Cubs relievers still has the best ERA in Major League Baseball since the All-Star Break and is head and shoulders above the rest of the pack in September.

The bullpens figure to play a huge role in this weekend's series — and all seven games remaining against the Cardinals. 

Maddon had to utilize nearly every name in the 'pen Wednesday, but anticipated every one of the guys would be available Thursday for the opener against St. Louis. The only guy who might have a bit of a restriction is Wick, who needed 26 pitches to get through the ninth inning Wednesday night.

Cishek should be available and Kimbrel could once again help lock things down at the back end.

7. Hoerner vs. Russell at shortstop

Addison Russell is eligible to return from the 7-day concussion IL Thursday after missing the last week-and-a-half following a pitch to the face in Milwaukee. He went through a complete pregame routine Wednesday, including batting practice and taking grounders at shortstop.

Nico Hoerner is still only 15 months removed from being drafted, but the rookie has given the Cubs a spark over his first 10 big-league games, hitting .317 with an .876 OPS while impressing everybody with his defense at shortstop and calm demeanor.

Maddon has already indicated he may still stick with Hoerner at shortstop even when Russell is ready to return, though he still prefers Russell's defense at shortstop. Both Russell and Hoerner can play second base, so it's possible they are in the lineup — at least defensively — at various points this weekend, too (assuming Russell does not suffer a setback). 

8. State of the offense

The Cubs lineup set records this weekend with productivity, but it came with Rizzo leading off, the wind blowing out at Wrigley and against a bad Pirates pitching staff. They were able to carry it over just one day into the Reds series before once again going back to their Jekyll and Hyde ways.

To a man, the Cubs tipped their caps to the Cincinnati pitching staff after Tuesday's and Wednesday's losses and deservedly so — the Reds pitched well. But this lineup needs to do more, especially at this point in the season. 

[READ: From injuries to harsh criticism, Kris Bryant is still learning how to give himself a break]

Thirteen different Cubs pitchers combined to allow only 7 runs in 19 innings of work the last two nights, which should be good enough to win most games. But the offense managed only 9 hits and 5 walks over those same 19 innings.

Things don't get any easier this weekend, either. If the Cubs thought the Reds pitching staff was good...the Cardinals are even better. St. Louis' rotation leads baseball by a WIDE margin with a 2.11 ERA in September, more than half a run better than the next-closest team (Arizona — 2.65 ERA). 

Rizzo and Baez aren't grabbing a bat at any point this weekend., but there are still plenty of good names in that lineup, led by Kris Bryant and Nicholas Castellanos.

The Cubs still have time to find the "offensive nirvana" they've been in search of for over a calendar year.

9. It's time for the rotation to step up

While the offense rides the roller coaster and the bullpen works back to health, a lot of weight over the next 10 days falls on the rotation. The Cardinals starters — led by Jack Flaherty, who is on a 2015 Jake Arrieta-esque run right now — are going to bring it and the Cubs' veteran-laden rotation needs to respond.

That starts with Kyle Hendricks, who leads baseball in home ERA (1.75) and has absolutely dominated the Cardinals this season to the tune of a 0.39 ERA and 3-0 record in 3 starts.

Cole Hamels and Jose Quintana have been searching for consistency the last few times out and the Cubs badly need them to find that groove this weekend and hope Hendricks and Darvish can continue their hot streak.

10. Zobrist and the leadoff spot

The Cubs lineup finally looked better and more solid 1-through-8 when Maddon moved Rizzo up to the top spot last week in San Diego. The numbers were great and it meant the Cubs' top hitters were all guaranteed to come up in the first inning.

Now that burden of leadoff falls back on Ben Zobrist's shoulders. He's done a nice job atop the order this season, but after he missed four months for personal leave and closely monitoring his birth certificate, the Cubs insisted all along they didn't plan on pushing the 38-year-old veteran too hard.

Things have certainly changed now. Zobrist has started five straight games at leadoff, though Maddon has been able to switch him out in each contest, including a couple times for nearly half the game over last weekend.

"I've been in constant contact with him," Maddon said. "So far, so good. The games against Pittsburgh did help, there's no question. But I'll continue to talk with him on a daily basis trying to figure out the next day."

If Zobrist can't lead off, it's unknown who would get the call up there. Schwarber, Jason Heyward and almost everybody else has taken a turn atop the order and the results haven't been to anybody's liking. 

With the four biggest games of the year on tap, expect Maddon to treat them all like playoff games and that means Zobrist leading off in Rizzo's stead.

From injuries to harsh criticism, Kris Bryant is still learning how to give himself a break

From injuries to harsh criticism, Kris Bryant is still learning how to give himself a break

As Kris Bryant stood at his locker before Wednesday night's game, a reporter asked him how the Cubs have been able to get by recently without their "best players" — referencing the injuries to Anthony Rizzo and Javy Baez.

The reporter quickly clarified and said, "SOME of your best players," but Bryant didn't even bat an eye and he certainly didn't appear to take any offense to the accidental slight. 

In fact, he agreed and also referred to Rizzo and Baez the Cubs' "best players" throughout the interview.

It was just a small, innocuous interaction, but it is a window into how Bryant views himself. 

He's obviously confident (no player can make it to the big leagues without self-confidence), but he's also his harshest critic and a perfectionist. 

There's a strong argument to be made that Bryant is the Cubs' single most important player even when everybody is healthy — he is the only guy in that locker room who has ever won an MVP award — but now that Rizzo and Baez are likely done for the regular season, all eyes are on Bryant.

If the Cubs are going to get where they want to go, they're going to need an MVP-level performance from Bryant. And he'll have to deliver that while battling through right knee inflammation that has hampered him for the last two months.

Bryant received a cortisone shot in that knee last week in San Diego and returned to the lineup with such force that he was named National League Player of the Week. He also surpassed Ernie Banks for the most homer by a Cubs player (137) in his first five years with the team.

He wasn't willing to credit the shot as a magic cure, but he admitted it played a factor in his turnaround at the plate.

"When you speak up and say something's not right and then you — I wouldn't say fix it — but make it feel a lot better, that's very satisfying," Bryant said. "Sometimes people are scared to say stuff or speak up because you think you're gonna look a certain way or you're not gonna look tough. But at the end of the day, you gotta do what's best for the team and at that point, I was hurting the team by not saying anything. I'm glad I did."

Bryant said he still feels like he has a lot to learn in that regard — finding the balance between trying to tough out injuries and speaking up to get some time off or other treatment to address the issue. Even after dealing with last year's shoulder injury and this year's knee issue, he still doesn't know exactly how to walk that fine line.

Part of that is because he has such high expectations for himself. 

He's so tough on himself that earlier this month, Joe Maddon resorted to emailing Bryant some notes and included his career WAR, highlighting how impactful he's been as a player in his five years with the Cubs.

"He can be his own worst critic," Maddon said. "This guy really sets high standards for himself and so does everybody else around him — almost to the point that the standards are unsustainable or unreachable."

The Cubs skipper called Bryant an "underrated" player and feels the 27-year-old with a .904 career OPS still has another level of production he can achieve as he continues to learn how to give himself a break.

Over the weekend, Bryant was discussing his career to date and said he felt it was filled with good and bad but probably more bad days than good. 

Seriously.

The guy who trails only Mike Trout and Mookie Betts in WAR since the start of the 2015 season believes his career has been filled with more bad days than good?

"Think where he came from: He was supposed to be this guy since he was 12," Maddon said. "So he's been dealing with these kinds of thoughts for a long time. And any time he has a bad moment, it becomes overamplified, there's no question about it. 

"...I appreciate that, the fact that he is self-critical in a sense. But he's also gotta give himself a break. Cut yourself some slack, brother. There's 29 other teams that would love to have him."

Bryant agrees that he's his own harshest critic. So any time a fan expresses frustration after he strikes out or complains when he doesn't come through in the clutch, what they're saying holds no weight compared to what he's already telling himself inside his own head.

He appreciates the way Maddon and his Cubs teammates and coaches have had his back and provided him with positive reinforcement over the years, especially when he's slumping or just having a tough day. 

But he also doesn't anticipate a world in which he is not his own harshest critic. 

In fact, Bryant and those around him feel he's actually gotten HARDER on himself over these last few years, even though he's already accomplished so much personally and for his team (including etching his name in history books forever by playing a central role in the 2016 World Series championship).

Bryant is still learning how to forgive himself and not beat himself up too much. Even after hitting two homers in the Cubs' rout of the Pirates Sunday, he spent more time thinking about how he struck out in his final at-bat of the game.

"It's a game of failure," Bryant said. "I need to think that way so that it brings the best out of me so that I'm never satisfied or complacent with anything I do on the field, 'cause I don't ever want to feel that. And it's tough because I'm so hard on myself, but that's just who I am.

"I'm still working on that. It's really hard to get to that point because I think it's just natural for us to be negative sometimes. There's so much negativity in baseball. You're failing so much. But I truly think in sports, the strongest and most mentally tough people are baseball players because you really have to do it for 162-plus games a year — just constantly succeeding and then getting beat up for four straight at-bats, then succeeding, then doing it again, then making an error in the field or making a nice play. Just so much going on, but I wouldn't trade that for the world."