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?”
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.