Joe Maddon already giving Cubs fans reason to raise a glass
CHICAGO — Wrigley Field is undergoing the first phase of its much-needed, and hotly debated, renovation project. The bleachers are a pile of rubble, and the streets beyond the left and right field walls are closed to traffic. So when the Cubs needed somewhere to introduce the most important building block in their on-field tear down and rebuild, it was only natural that a place right across the street from the stadium flung open its doors, as it has over the years for so many of the team's fans hoping to think about anything but baseball.
The Cubby Bear, a popular bar on the southwest corner of Clark and Addison streets with a front door that faces the iconic Wrigley Field marquee, may seem an unconventional venue for a manager's first public appearance with his new organization. Yet, this is the Cubs, and the man handpicked to lead the team from potential juggernaut to perennial contender and, eventually, to the World Series, is anything but conventional.
It was in that spirit on Monday that president of baseball operations Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer unveiled Joe Maddon as the 54th manager of the Chicago Cubs. After a brief introduction from Epstein, Cubs fans and the Chicago media were treated to their first sips of a vintage Maddon. The new manager shared a story about how, after opting out of his contract with the Tampa Bay Rays on Oct. 24, he first spoke with Hoyer and Epstein about the Cubs job on his RV – which he likened to that of Cousin Eddie's of National Lampoon's fame – in Pensacola, Fla., while he and his wife were on a cross-country trip.
"The most important thing, what I needed to know, was that we were philosophically aligned," Maddon said, sporting his brand new No. 70 Cubs jersey. "I've been doing this for a bit, and I know I'm a little bit different at times, so for me it's important to have that kind of support from ownership and front office personnel to understand me."
From there, Maddon unleashed 35-plus minutes of polysyllabic thoughts on the state of baseball, how he came to be the Cubs manager and why this opportunity was so attractive to him after nine years as the manager of the Rays.
"The way the game has evolved to this point, the autocratic manager of yesteryear is gone," Maddon said. "I know that the synergy between the front office and the field in today's game is really that important. I feel like this is a good fit for me personally."
Maddon, too, hit all the right notes expected of a new manager, especially one inheriting the 138-year history of baseball on the North Side of Chicago. He called Wrigley Field "magical" and "a cathedral." He said that the city itself is "wonderful," that he loves the "energy and vibe" of Chicago and that he wants to live downtown and "not in a gated community or a country club."
When Maddon discussed his first true Wrigley experience, as manager of the Rays during a three-game set against the Cubs earlier this past season, he recalled a pitching change where he headed back to the dugout and felt like he was in the movie Gladiator because of the perfection of the setting. From the clear blue sky to the way the lower and upper decks filled with fans, the whole scene, he said, looked so perfect as to almost be fake. If Maddon is indeed to be the man at the helm when this franchise finally breaks through and wins a world championship for the first time since the Theodore Roosevelt administration, he may need to be that proverbial man in the arena, his face marred by dust, spending himself in a worthy cause.
"The challenge is so outstanding, how could you not want be in this?" Maddon said. "I don't know all the circumstances surrounding the last 107 years or whatever it has been, but I'm way too optimistic to worry about things like that. I never would have been the manager of the Devil Rays in the first place if I thought that way. Why would you not want to accept this challenge in this city, in that ballpark, under these circumstances, with this talent?"
Under the stewardship of Epstein and Hoyer, the Cubs have been stockpiling the talent that Maddon referenced again and again during his press conference. The team is widely viewed as having the best farm system in baseball, and the fruits of all the labor done by the player development and scouting departments began to show up at Wrigley Field last year. Javier Baez, long viewed as the gem of the system, logged 52 games in the majors last year at age 21 and, despite a flood of strikeouts, remains one of the brightest young players in the game today. He's even drawn comparisons to Gary Sheffield. Jorge Soler, the 22-year-old right fielder from Cuba, stayed healthy for most of the season and posted a .292/.330/.573 slash line with five homers and eight doubles in 97 big league plate appearances.
That says nothing of Anthony Rizzo, who made his first All-Star Game in his age-24 season, belting 32 homers and racking up a .913 OPS, or Starlin Castro, who bounced back from a dreadful 2013 to slash .292/.339/.438 with 14 homers and make his third trip to the Midsummer Classic, or Jake Arrieta, the once-failed prospect who went 10-5 with a 2.53 ERA, 0.99 WHIP and 167 strikeouts in 156 2/3 innings. It's not all about the kids in the minors. The Cubs already have a group of players considered veterans who could form a championship core.
Well, it is still a little bit about the kids in the minors, especially one who remains one rung below the majors. Kris Bryant, the second overall pick in 2013, split this past season evenly between Double A Tennesee and Triple A Iowa, hitting .325/.438/.661 with 43 home runs and 110 RBI. He shot to the top of prospect lists by the middle of the season, and should move east to Chicago from Des Moines early next year, assuming he doesn't break camp with the Cubs. When Maddon insisted that the talent in the organization was a huge draw, he wasn't just indulging his optimistic nature. He was stating a fact that all of Major League Baseball has acknowledged.
Of course, it's not just about the future for Maddon. He said he'll be talking about making the playoffs in spring training. "Why else would you report?" he asked.
"In my mind's eye, we're making the playoffs next year."
It didn't take long for Maddon to convince Epstein and Hoyer he was the man for the job. They're all familiar with one another dating to a time when the two executives were working in Boston's front office while Maddon was managing in Tampa Bay. But they were almost on the same team even before that. Epstein, the Red Sox's general manager at the time, interviewed Maddon for the team's managerial vacancy in 2003 before ultimately going with Terry Francona. That familiarity, Epstein said, came through immediately during their RV meeting in Pensacola.
"Joe's a combination of everything we look for in a manager," Epstein said. "Everyone associates him with new school because they've used analytics in Tampa and he's so open-minded, but this is an old-school baseball guy with a wealth of knowledge. We were reminded of that over these last few days talking baseball. It's hard to find old school and new school in the same package.
"Comparing Joe now to when I interviewed him a decade ago, his confidence has reached a new level because he has done it, and it has worked," Epstein continued. "He knows he can connect. He knows all he has to do is be himself and he can lead and he can win. That's why we feel he's our long-term fit as a leader."
Cubs fans, including the 30 or so assembled outside the Cubby Bear on an unseasonably warm November afternoon, no doubt hope he can lead the team to a place that other high-profile hires, such as Dusty Baker and Lou Piniella, did not. Standing outside the Wrigleyville watering hole, you could see the unfulfilled promise of the franchise's recent past, where one fan wore a Mark Prior jersey and another sported the No. 34 of Kerry Wood.
Maddon was able to take a cash-strapped organization with no history of success in a decrepit stadium to within three wins of a World Series title in 2008, as well as to three other postseason appearances. Now that he has an open wallet, a cathedral and an immensely talented crop of young players at his disposal, he would become baseball royalty if he can get lead the Cubs to their first title since 1908.
Always one to take advantage of the opportunities presented to him, Maddon ended his introductory press conference in the only appropriate way, given that it was in a bar.
"Theo said I can buy one round, so first round's on me," he said. "A shot and a beer."
The team and its fans can now only hope that in autumns to come, Maddon will one day be giving them a reason to drink an even more celebratory beverage.