Joe Maddon’s long climb to the top prepared him for craziness of Cubs job


Joe Maddon’s long climb to the top prepared him for craziness of Cubs job

HAZLETON, Pa. – Pressure? The stress of managing the Cubs, dealing with the 1908 baggage and handling the demands from the Chicago market is nothing compared to being stuck in the baseball wilderness.

That’s where Joe Maddon spent enough of his career to know how good he has it now. That’s why Maddon isn’t going to let you see him sweat, especially with a loaded roster that FanGraphs projects will win 95 games this year, an iconic stadium that feels like a computer-generated scene from “Gladiator” and everything a world-class city has to offer a star manager.

“Here’s the thing, and I can’t emphasize this enough: I am so happy that it took me so long to get here,” he said during filming for the “Going Home: Joe Maddon” documentary that premieres Thursday night on Comcast SportsNet Chicago.

“All those like ‘near-misses’ or ‘Should I really keep doing this?’ Or ‘Am I on the right path here? How do I get to the next level?’

“I cannot imagine doing this job without the history that I’ve had. I can’t even begin to imagine what that would be like.”

Thanks for playing

Maddon opened the letter from Mike Port – a California Angels executive who would help shape his career path – after the 1979 season. Maddon wasn’t drafted out of Lafayette College – and had spent parts of four seasons catching on the Class-A level – but the news still felt like a shock to his system.

“A horrible feeling,” Maddon said. “I’m not a college graduate. I’m hanging out in Salinas, California. I thought I was pretty good. And I get this letter I’m being released."

[MORE CUBS: How Joe Maddon’s blue-collar roots made him perfect fit for Cubs]

Maddon had been the first in his Italian-Polish immigrant family – the name had been shortened from Maddonini – to go to college. But he didn’t finish his degree in economics and he definitely wasn’t a silver-spoon kid.

Returning to Pennsylvania’s coal-mining region and taking over the family business in Hazleton – Joe Sr. ran C. Maddon and Sons Plumbing and Heating – was never an option.

“(When) I went to Lafayette,” Maddon said, “I was homesick the first couple days, and I called (my mother) from a pay phone at my dorm. I said: ‘Beanie, I want to come home. I want to be a plumber like Dad.’ She said: ‘No, you’re not.’

“That was the end of that. That was the first week of school. She was right.”

Maddon wound up playing for two independent teams in California – “My room was a closet – I’m not lying – I was living in a closet” – before coming back to Hazleton to work at a home for juvenile delinquents.

By 1981, the Angels had hired Maddon back as a scout and a minor-league manager. He drove all over the Rockies looking for players. He managed six seasons in places like Idaho Falls, Peoria and Midland, Texas. He worked as a roving hitting instructor from 1987 until 1993. He spent time as a minor-league field coordinator and a farm director before finally getting promoted to the big-league coaching staff in 1994.

“Joe had many, many jobs that no one that I knew envied,” said Bob Curry, a longtime friend who married Maddon’s cousin, Elaine, and is the founding president of their Hazleton Integration Project.

“No one was saying: ‘Gosh, I wish I was riding around in a school bus with a baseball bat being a hitting instructor for a (minor-league) team,’ or a scout where he’s going from city to city to city.

“People don’t realize how much you sacrifice. You sacrifice being with your family, watching your kids grow up, and we were always very conscious of that.

“But Joe was single-minded in his purpose. He always understood this is what he wanted to do. And in some ways, that’s a great fortune. There was never any question. This was it. This was his pathway.”

Waiting for the big break

A company man, Maddon took over when the Angels needed an interim manager in 1996 and 1999, raising his profile to the point where he interviewed for jobs with the Arizona Diamondbacks, Seattle Mariners and Boston Red Sox.

Future Cubs executives Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer met with the Angels bench coach at the Arizona Biltmore in Phoenix after the 2003 season, with Maddon finishing second to Terry Francona, who would guide the Red Sox to two World Series titles.

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

“I always thought I would be a big-league manager,” Maddon said. “I always did. I never lost hope with that. I didn’t know where, when or how. But I always thought, too, I would like to start out with an expansion club, so you could build.”

That’s essentially what the Tampa Bay Devil Rays still were when Maddon interviewed with Andrew Friedman and Matt Silverman – two young executives with Wall Street backgrounds – in October 2005. They met during the World Series at a hotel in Houston, where the White Sox would sweep the Astros, ending Chicago’s 88-year drought.

Tampa Bay had lost at least 91 games in each of the franchise’s first eight seasons, and Maddon would get two last-place finishes on his resume before the Rays shocked the baseball world and made it to the 2008 World Series.

Maddon didn’t get the Tampa Bay job until three months before his 52nd birthday, giving him the patience, emotional intelligence and scar tissue to handle a massive rebuilding project and the newfound fame.

“His personality (has) not changed at all,” Curry said. “I think had he achieved success at a very early age, that may have been an entirely different story.

“Because we all know people who do achieve success at an early age, and there’s no sense of perspective. With Joe, he’s always conscious of where he came from, who he is, and he’s always getting back to his roots.

“The Joe Maddon that you guys see on television is the same Joe Maddon that I see in my living room.”

“You think I do crazy things?”

Maddon developed the mad-scientist act throughout his long climb to the top. But at this point, Big Data has overtaken the industry, extreme defensive shifts are standard operating procedure and zoo animals and dress-up trips are all part of The Maddon Experience.

Five 90-win seasons with the Rays – and his easygoing nature in front of the cameras and the national media and on Twitter – turned Maddon into a brand name. 

“What I do in Chicago is what I’ve been doing for the last 25 or 30 years,” Maddon said. “I don’t do anything differently. I know what I think works on the field. I have my methods in regards to running a clubhouse, interacting with the front office, what I think about scouting. I could do anybody’s job there.”

Maddon says things like this in a matter-of-fact voice, without undermining Epstein, Hoyer and a scouting/player-development operation that did most of the heavy lifting before he ever got to Wrigley Field.

“They’re not just about fantasy baseball,” Maddon said. “Regardless of like the new wave or the sabermetrical components or the young guns, whatever, they understand and respect what happened before, purely good old-fashioned baseball and the way it was raised.

“There are dudes out there who are just about fantasy baseball. If you just follow the schematic, it’s going to work and it’s going to play. It’s almost (disregarding) personalities and feelings and feel and thought and what you see in somebodies’ eyes and what their heartbeat is like. 

“There’s that group that believes that has nothing to do with it. It has so much to do with it. When you can combine the forces of what had happened in the past – and what’s going on right now – you can be really successful.”

It’s one thing to sit around an RV park in Florida and drink beers and talk baseball – as they all did after Maddon opted out of his contract with the Rays in October 2014 – and another to follow up a trip to the National League Championship Series with a World Series title.

It’s the different dynamic between the dugout and the front office that this franchise needed to reach the next level, making Maddon’s five-year, $25 million deal a bargain, considering it’s roughly half of what the Cubs invested in Edwin Jackson, or annually about what a decent middle reliever would get as a free agent.

[SHOP CUBS: Get your Cubs gear right here]

“My perspective is that Jed and Theo get it,” Maddon said. “When they ask me something, I believe they’re listening. It’s sincere. And they know I play good in the sandbox, because my job is to make it work with what they set up.

“The best line was (from) Colin Powell. He was talking about giving advice to the president: ‘I give him my best advice and then I give him my strongest loyalty.’”

Pressure? Maddon already did all the grunt work, throwing countless hours of batting practice, sitting through the 11-hour bus rides to Medicine Hat and waiting for a chance like this.

“I love this stuff,” Maddon said. “That’s how you become who you are. So you think I do crazy things? You think I think outside the box? Because I could try different things in Midland or in Salem or in Idaho Falls or in the back fields at Gene Autry Park in Mesa, Arizona.

“Five-man infields, whatever you want to do – done it – back then. All these things that I do now are rooted in the fact that I pretty much had free rein to make mistakes back then, but nobody could see them. And that’s how you get to this point.”

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

Texas Rangers hire Cubs' Shiraz Rehman to be assistant GM

Texas Rangers hire Cubs' Shiraz Rehman to be assistant GM

The changing of the guard continues for the Cubs this offseason. 

After the team hired a new hitting coach yesterday, it was reported today that they're losing a front office member: 

Rehman, who has been with the Cubs in the same position for the last seven years, will reportedly head up the Rangers' analytics department. According to the Chicago Tribune, Rehman's role was " evaluating existing systems, and recognizing and applying solutions in an effort to create competitive advantages for the organization." 

All reports indicate that he'll be doing similar analytic-based work with the Rangers. 

Chili Davis after being ousted by Cubs: 'There were multiple players in there I didn't connect with'

Chili Davis after being ousted by Cubs: 'There were multiple players in there I didn't connect with'

Chili Davis didn't go all scorched earth on the Cubs in a recent interview with the Chicago Sun-Times, but he had quite a lot to say after being ousted by the organization after just one year as the hitting coach.

The Cubs made Davis the scapegoat for an offense that faded down the stretch, struggling for the entire second half and scoring just 1 run in three of the final four games of the year.

When he was hired a year ago, Theo Epstein and Joe Maddon talked up Davis' impressive resume that includes a 19-year MLB career, two separate stints as a successful hitting coach with the Oakland A's and Boston Red Sox and a philosophy that they hoped would withstand the test of time in the game today, preaching more contact and using the opposite field.

Throughout the 2018 season, Maddon often commended Davis for his ability to communicate with players, particularly in the area of mental approach to each at-bat.

Now that the dust has settled a bit on his firing, Davis felt he had some issues getting through to some Cubs players.

I learned a lot this year," Davis told the Sun-Times' Gordon Wittenmyer. "I learned that the next situation I get in, before I say yes to a job, I need to make sure I know the personnel I'll be dealing with in the clubhouse. I hope the next guy connects better with the players, because I felt that there were multiple players there I didn't connect with. It wasn't that I didn't try; it just wasn't there.

The Cubs hired Anthony Iapoce as their new hitting coach Monday afternoon. Iapoce comes over from the Rangers and has a direct link to John Mallee, who was the Cubs' hitting coach for three seasons before being let go when Davis became available last winter. 

Iapoce also spent three seasons with the Cubs as a special assistant to the GM, overseeing the organization's minor-league hitting from 2013-15. Presumably, he found a way over those years to connect with the Cubs' top young hitting prospects — guys like Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber and Willson Contreras that are now leading the big-league lineup.

Hopefully he has better success at this than I did," Davis said of Iapoce in the Sun-Times article. "But regardless of who's there, certain players there are going to have to make some adjustments because the game's changed and pitchers are pitching them differently. They're not pitching to launch angles and fly balls and all that anymore. They're pitching away from that. They're going to have to make that adjustment whether I'm there or not.

Davis had a whole lot more to say on the matter and I encourage you to read the full interview with Wittenmyer over at

A healthy Bryant very likely could've changed everything for Davis and the Cubs' 2018 lineup. Contreras hitting like he's capable of in the second half would've made a huge difference, as well.

But the end result is a finish to the 2018 campaign that was viewed universally as a disappointment — particularly in the offensive department — and the Cubs are left with their third different hitting coach in three seasons.