Joe Maddon rode by The Cubby Bear on Monday morning and noticed a gray sky that reminded him of the day he entertained everyone with that shot-and-a-beer press conference. That drive would be the calm before the storm.
Maddon talked playoffs and the World Series during his first media session as Cubs manager last November, taking over a team that had finished in fifth place for five years in a row and hasn’t won a championship since 1908.
Maddon could have bought rounds all night at the bar opposite the Wrigley Field marquee. It still would have sounded crazy, the Cubs piling up 97 wins, winning the National League wild-card game and getting the St. Louis Cardinals in a playoff series for the first time in a long-running feud that stretches all the way back to 1892.
Cubs fans hadn’t watched a home playoff game since 2008, waiting 12 years to see another postseason win at The Friendly Confines. After a wild 8-6 victory in Game 3, the Cubs took control of this best-of-five heavyweight matchup and on Tuesday can send the Cardinals home for the winter.
“To come full circle on this within a year is kind of amazing,” Maddon said, sitting in a cramped manager’s office that’s about the size of a dorm room and lined with framed photographs of Bruce Springsteen and Jackie Robinson. “To be at this particular moment with all that’s at stake — this is what you work for, man.”
Pearl Jam frontman Eddie Vedder hung out on the field during batting practice. Hall of Famer Ryne Sandberg emerged from exile wearing a No. 14 Ernie Banks jersey and threw out the first pitch. A crowd of 42,411 roared throughout the night.
A clip of the late, great Mr. Cub singing “Take Me Out To The Ballgame” ran on the video boards during the seventh-inning stretch. Cops on horseback lined up across Addison Street and rode south down Clark Street, trying to control any postgame mayhem.
“It’s kind of an incredible thought,” Maddon said. “Within the city itself, it’s been building the entire year. I live downtown, so I get to feel it daily, the response from the people. The fans — their support is incredible.
“To be in this position here in the first year with a young group of players — and do as well as we’ve done to this point and bring a playoff game back to this cathedral — (is) spectacular.
“I know our guys are ready to do it. I think the whole city is ready for this.”
The Best Fans in Baseball should get used to this scene.
Maddon admits he didn’t do the heavy lifting here. Before the game, a large group of baseball-operations staffers walked the dirt warning track while their names scrolled on the video board above the right-field bleachers.
On Sunday night, the Cubs hosted a reception for about 250 people, flying scouts and coaches and their spouses in from around the world, recognizing the hard work in identifying all this young talent and shaping those blue-chip prospects into real big-league players.
Maddon didn’t blink when he put together a lineup featuring four rookies — Jorge Soler, Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber and Addison Russell — between the second and seventh spots. Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro — the fourth and fifth hitters — are 26 and 25, have already made five All-Star teams combined and both remain under club control through at least 2020.
Together, that group drove in seven of the team’s eight runs, generating five homers, nine hits and three walks. When Russell left the game with a tight left hamstring after tripling in the fourth inning, Javier Baez (age: 22) took over at shortstop and got two more hits.
“They’re kind of playoff rookies,” Maddon said. “But the old line that I’ve always adhered to is: After the first bomb falls, everybody becomes a veteran.”
“Every time I screamed,” Rizzo said, “I thought I was gonna faint. You gotta just keep breathing. It was everything we expected and more. Waving all the Ws at the end there, it was something special.”
When Maddon took this job, Jake Arrieta had never pitched a full season in the majors and Bryant and Russell hadn’t made their big-league debuts yet. Around this time last year, Schwarber was beginning instructional league in Arizona. Maddon, meanwhile, was watching NFL games in “The Cousin Eddie” when he got a call from Andrew Friedman.
Maddon had driven his RV to Hazleton, Pa., for a charity golf event in his hometown. Friedman told Maddon over the phone that he would be leaving the Tampa Bay Rays and taking a president’s job with the Los Angeles Dodgers.
A few days later, Maddon found out his Chicago-based agent, Alan Nero, had negotiated an opt-out clause into his contract that triggered with Friedman’s exit.
“Poom!” Maddon said with a laugh. “That’s it.”
Maddon and his wife, Jaye, would soon host Cubs executives Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer at an RV park on Florida’s Gulf Coast, laying the groundwork for what would become the five-year, $25 million contract that changed the course of franchise history.
“It’s night and day,” said Jason Hammel, Tuesday’s Game 4 starter who returned as a free agent after getting flipped to the Oakland A’s in the Russell/Jeff Samardzija deal. “You feel a good vibe around town, lots of blue walking around.
“The pride that this city already has with its sports teams ... I mean, it’s glowing now. The whole city is talking about the Cubs. We’re very excited to put a product on the field — and make it a competitive product. And they’ve been searching for that for awhile. It’s an honor to wear the stripes.”
Maddon remembered looking up at the big crowd and the light towers last year while managing the Rays and thinking Wrigley Field felt like a computer-generated scene from “Gladiator.”
Everyone around the team agrees now: This doesn’t happen without Maddon in the arena.