Joe Maddon trying to create baseball magic in Cubs clubhouse


Joe Maddon trying to create baseball magic in Cubs clubhouse

NEW YORK – Joe Maddon sat in the office with a big smile on his face, bobbing his head and blasting The Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Do You Believe in Magic?”

“Whatever it takes,” Maddon said after Tuesday night’s 1-0 win over the New York Mets.

With the Cubs on a five-game losing streak, Maddon had reached into his bag of tricks and arranged for a magician to perform inside Citi Field’s visiting clubhouse.

A Cubs PR official asked the media to clear the room at 4:30 p.m. for what would be an unconventional team meeting. But these types of gimmicks – dressing up in pajamas or like nerds for themed road trips – helped make Maddon a star while managing the Tampa Bay Rays.

“It was about time,” Maddon said. “We’re always trying to create some magic around here, so why not bring a magician in?”

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Kyle Hendricks – the second-year pitcher who came into the game with a 5.88 ERA through five June starts – felt like the stunt loosened everyone up and responded with six scoreless innings.

“That’s what Joe does,” Hendricks said. “He kind of knows what triggers to pull at the right time."

Maddon came up with the idea after watching the St. Louis Cardinals sweep his young team over the weekend. The light bulb went off sometime early Monday morning, either on the bus ride from Busch Stadium to the airport, or the flight to New York. Maddon asked traveling secretary Vijay Tekchandani to find a magician during the team’s off-day in Manhattan.

“It’s hard to grab a zoo animal on the road,” Maddon said. “You can do it at the last minute at home. You always have the home connection when it comes to animals. It’s much easier to acquire a magician on the road than it is a 20-foot python. I’ve always felt that way.”

Simon Winthrop – whose website bills him as a Las Vegas magician, mentalist and mind reader – entertained the players and coaches for about 30 minutes before batting practice.

“That was pretty sweet,” rookie second baseman Addison Russell said. “In the middle of his magic tricks, he would take like someone’s watch without us knowing, and then it would be in someone else’s back pocket.”

“I try to stay as far away from that (as possible),” said Matt Szczur, who drove in the only run with a double in the sixth inning. “That stuff makes me nervous. I don’t want him to take my wallet.”

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Maddon described a scene where Winthrop asked All-Star first baseman Anthony Rizzo to write down the name of a movie star – living or dead – on a piece of paper in a book.

“He held it up, and then showed everybody it was John Travolta,” Maddon said. “So Simon types into Google: ‘What is Anthony Rizzo thinking of right now?’ And hit enter. Pictures of Travolta popped up all around (on his computer screen).”

The Cubs didn’t hesitate to give Maddon a five-year, $25 million contract because they wanted a leader to create a relaxed, positive environment where their young talent could thrive. Deflecting attention and distracting the media would be an added bonus.

“I’m more concerned about just mental fatigue more than anything,” Maddon said. “When you have a couple bad days in a row, or a bad week, it can wear on some guys who have never really gone through with it before. So my biggest concern is just keeping it light for them, because they work.

“They care. All the stuff that needs to be in order is in order. The stuff that’s difficult is playing in the major leagues every day. You just went through (Zack) Greinke, (Clayton) Kershaw, the Dodgers and now St. Louis. It’s not easy.

“(It’s) keeping their minds intact. That’s all it is. They’re going to be fine. As we gain more experience by the end of the year, I really anticipate seeing a different group the next time we walk into Busch Stadium.”

The Cubs are now 40-35 overall and 5-0 against the Mets (40-38), a team they figure to be battling in the wild-card race. This will go down as The Simon Game.

As Maddon wrapped up his postgame media session, he asked reporters “You guys ready for it?” before turning up The Lovin’ Spoonful again and making a reference to one of his all-time favorite TV shows: “The Office.”

“I feel like Michael Scott right now,” Maddon said.

A series to forget: Facts and figures from Cubs' rough weekend in Cincinnati

A series to forget: Facts and figures from Cubs' rough weekend in Cincinnati

The Cubs and their fans may want to invent and use one of those Men In Black neuralyzers because the four-game series in Cincinnati was one to forget.

The Reds finished off a four-game sweep of the Cubs on Sunday with an 8-6 win. The way the Reds won the finale will be especially painful for the Cubs considering they led 6-1 after six innings. Mike Montgomery appeared to tire in the seventh inning and Pedro Strop got rocked out of the bullpen to lead to a seven-run seventh for the hosts.

The Reds have now won seven in a row and 10 of 12, but still sit 13 games under .500. Bizarrely, the Reds also swept the Dodgers, the Cubs’ next opponent, in a four-game series in May. Duane Underwood will start for the Cubs Monday against the Dodgers and make his major league debut.

Here are some other wild facts and figures from the series:

  • The last time the Reds swept the Cubs in a four-game series was back in 1983. That was the first week of the season and three weeks before the infamous Lee Elia rant.
  • One positive for the Cubs from the game was Montgomery’s start. Through six innings he allowed one run on three hits and two walks. However, he gave up a single, a double and a single in the seventh before Strop relieved him. Montgomery had gone six innings and allowed one run in each of his last four outings.
  • Strop was definitely a negative. On his first pitch, Strop gave up a home run to pinch-hitter Jesse Winker, the second home run for a Reds pinch-hitter in the game. Then Strop allowed a single, a walk, a single and a double before getting an out. Strop’s final line: 2/3 inning pitched, four runs, one strikeout, three walks, four hits.
  • The Cubs led in three of the four games this series, including two leads after five innings.
  • The Cubs were 5-for-23 (.217) with runners in scoring position in the series. On the season the Cubs are hitting .233 with RISP, which is 22nd in the majors and fourth-worst in the National League (but ahead of the division-rival Brewers and Cardinals).
  • The Reds outscored the Cubs 31-13 and scored at least six runs in every game. The Reds are now 6-3 against the Cubs this year after going a combined 17-40 against the Cubs from 2015-2017.

Summer of Sammy: Sosa's 32nd homer in 1998

Summer of Sammy: Sosa's 32nd homer in 1998

It's the 20th anniversary of the Summer of Sammy, when Sosa and Mark McGwire went toe-to-toe in one of the most exciting seasons in American sports history chasing after Roger Maris' home run record. All year, we're going to go homer-by-homer on Sosa's 66 longballs, with highlights and info about each. Enjoy.

Sosa victimized the Tigers pitching staff again on the next night, taking Brian Moehler deep in the 7th inning for a 400-foot solo blast.

The homer tied the game at 3, but the Cubs blew the lead in the bottom of the 7th when the Terrys (Adams and Mulholland) gave up 3 runs. The Cubs wound up losing 6-4.

The Cubs were putting together a really nice season in 1998 that ended with a trip to October. They entered the series with the Tigers with a 42-34 record, yet lost both games to a Detroit team that entered the series with a 28-45 record. The Tigers finished the season 65-94; the Cubs finished 90-73.

Fun fact: Luis Gonzalez was the Tigers left fielder and No. 5 hitter for both games of the series. He spent part of the 1995 season and all of '96 on Chicago's North Side. 1998 was his only year in Detroit before he moved on to Arizona, where he hit 57 homers in 2001 and helped the Diamondbacks to a World Series championship with that famous broken-bat single in Game 7.

Fun fact  No. 2: Remember Pedro Valdes? He only had a cup of coffee with the Cubs (9 games in 1996 and 14 in '98), but started in left field on June 25, 1998. He walked and went 0-for-1 before being removed from the game for a pinch-hitter (Jose Hernandez).