Last Dance: Similarities between ex-Cubs skipper Joe Maddon and Phil Jackson

/ by Gordon Wittenmyer
Presented By Cubs Insiders

Joe Maddon already is working through what he’ll say to his team if and when a baseball season starts this summer. More specifically, he’s thinking through his Los Angeles Angels roster for what he might need to help each player.

“You need to address how they’re feeling emotionally as a human being first, before you could ever start arriving at cutoffs and relays, bunt defenses, etcetera,” said the former Cubs manager who was a mental-skills manager long before mental skills departments popped up in organizations across the baseball map.

“Who knows what this is going to look like after guys have been sitting out this long distracted like we are, reading all the different things, worrying about [everyone] from their kids to their grandparents and everybody in between,” Maddon said during a conversation with NBC Sports Chicago during a Cubs Talk Podcast this week.

“We have to understand that we’re going to be faced with thoughts and conversations and concerns we haven’t been faced with before.”

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Whether the Cubs’ decision to fire Maddon becomes a title-making windfall for the Angels over the duration of the three-year contract Maddon signed in October, he might at least provide the perfect team leader during this perfect storm of national health and economic uncertainty — the game’s most outside-the-box field manager during the most beyond-the-imagination moment the 144-year-old league has ever seen.


During the coronavirus shutdown, he checks on family and other loved ones, is distributing $20,000 of food per month over a three-month period in his hometown of Hazleton, Pa., with plans to expand to Tampa, Fla., and Orange County, Calif., and has found in stay-at-home orders an opportunity for self-improvement and reflection.

“A lot of time for introspection, a lot of clarity,” he said.

No wonder so many of us see Joe Maddon in Phil Jackson’s face when we watch the Last Dance Bulls documentary — never more than during Sunday’s focus on Jackson’s so-called “Zen-master” approach, including his acceptance and management of offbeat Dennis Rodman.

“It’s hard to not throw that [comparison] in there,” Cubs right fielder Jason Heyward told host Laurence Holmes during an interview this week on 670 The Score. “The glasses, the white hair, the beards, the history making, the turn of time in the city, someone passed the torch to them, you see the organization try to make something happen, and then out of nowhere — boom — you get excitement, you get winning expectation and you get out-of-the-box thinking.

“Very similar, bro.”

Maddon’s only encounter with Jackson was brief: A chance meeting at a steakhouse in Cleveland in 2016 when Jackson and others in the Knicks front office were in town for the NBA season opener just as the Cubs prepared to open the World Series — the timing as symbolic as accidental.

But Maddon, whose first year as a big-league manager came nearly a decade after Jackson’s and Jordan’s second ThreePeat with the Bulls, was drawn to the style from the beginning.

“I’ve always loved the way he does things,” Maddon said. “I often thought back when he started out, ‘I’d like to be able to understand where he’s coming from a little bit better.’ So maybe in an inadvertent way I kind of morphed into that direction.”

Clearly, Maddon brings his own version of “Zen” to the party, marching to his own, vintage drumbeat.

On this day, he conducts his Zoom interview in Southern California, from the inside of his custom-restored 1976 Dodge van — from which he plans to hold his virtual happy hour with Angels season ticket holders later in the day.

But understanding the differences between Michael Jordan and Ron Harper — never mind Rodman — and being able to encourage the genius of each?

“It’s about guys that are really talented and not interfering with their progress, not interfering with their genius, not interfering with them becoming great,” Maddon said. “Javy’s a perfect example.”

Javy Báez, the Cubs’ best player, also was its rawest prospect when Maddon arrived, a big-swinging, high-strikeout power-hitter with a beyond-daring base-running style, spectacular defensive skills and a tendency for his mistakes to show up on routine plays.

Maddon fell in love with the talent and asked only two things of Baez: make the routine plays “routinely” and when struggling at the plate try to think opposite field. The rest of it — go for it.


Baez, a made-for-replay-era runner and tagger, blossomed into a postseason star, MVP runner-up and two-time All-Star. And credits Maddon to this day with “letting me be me.”

“Javy to me represents pure baseball genius so leave him alone,” Maddon said.

MORE: 'Last Dance': Jason Heyward identifies with Michael Jordan on business side

The other classic Jackson-like example might have been Maddon’s and the front office’s approach to 25th-man Tommy La Stella going AWOL in 2016 and heading home to New Jersey when demoted to the minors because of a numbers crunch that involved contract options — and that would have lasted just a few weeks.

It wasn’t exactly a vacation to party all night in Las Vegas and wake up each morning with Carmen Electra.

But it’s a safe bet any of 29 other clubs would have released La Stella.

“I just put myself in that age bracket,” Maddon said, recalling a more confusing age in his own life.

And he listened, he said. La Stella eventually reported to the minors and finished the season on the big-league roster.

“My concern is that if you don’t listen to him, you’re going to lose the guy and you could possibly injure him,” Maddon said. “You could hurt him internally for a long period of time if you don’t really pay attention right now.”

La Stella became an All-Star last year with the Angels, and now they’re reunited.

Incidentally, that in-season vacation idea? Maddon has long touted that as a next frontier in performance management. 

In fact, Maddon said Cubs president Theo Epstein offered Maddon that perk when he was hired before the 2015 season.

“[He said] he thought it’d be wise if I at some point just took a little brody, just took a couple days,” Maddon said. “Which of course I never did. But that was conceptually a pretty good thought. And there’s nothing wrong with it. We play 162 [games]; we don’t get days off.”

Time off won’t be an issue this year, regardless of what becomes of a baseball season — if one is played at all.

Maddon said he believes a season will be played, based on what medical experts such as Dr. Tony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease official, say as well as what he hears from MLB conference calls.

“It’s not going to be perfect,” he said. “But you’ve got to put your toe back in the water at some point.”

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At 66, Maddon is one of two managers considered at higher risk because of his age for the most severe symptoms infected (also Houston’s Dusty Baker, 70).

But he’s “on a roll right now,” he said — having biked 40 consecutive days while in Arizona and continuing to bike regularly where he is now; and he’s very nutrition conscious.


“I want to believe if I were to contract it, I’d be able to fight it off,” he said. “That’s the premise I’m working from. So I don’t necessarily worry about it.“

Besides, he’s got a next act to start. In California, with a generational talent, supporting cast and a chance to pick up where he left off in Chicago.

Where have we seen that before?

“That’s right,” Maddon said. “And I have some of the best players. There’s nothing wrong with Michael Trout and Anthony Rendon and Albert Pujols and Shohei Ohtani.”

Don’t get him started on the pitchers he saw in camp. “This is really interesting stuff,” he said.

But the big question? Come on.

Michael or Michael?

“Listen, in their perspective sports, I mean, Jordan probably is considered the best of all-time. I don’t know who’s going to argue against that,” he said. “And by the time Michael Trout’s done you’re going to hear the same — you’re already hearing it. You’re already hearing it.”

Listen to the entire interview with Joe Maddon on the latest Cubs Talk Podcast.

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