A franchise on the upswing, the Cubs took a bold and intelligent step forward by hiring the effervescent and charismatic Joe Maddon as their manager.
It was Mark Twain, one of Joe Maddon's favorite sources of wit and wisdom, who observed in 1883's Life on the Mississippi that Chicago was a novelty of a city because of how often it re-invented itself. "A city," Twain wrote, "where they are always rubbing a lamp, and fetching up the genii, and contriving and achieving new impossibilities."
On Monday, Chicago summoned its latest genie, and his name is Joseph John Maddon of Hazelton, Pa., son of an Italian plumber named Joe (nee Maddonini), and a Polish mother known to all as Beanie, a waitress at the Third Base Lucheonette. It's as if Twain himself invented him with the same keystrokes that brought Huck Finn, Tom Sawyer, Injun Joe, Becky Thatcher and the rest of them to literary life.
Today, the Cubs matter more than any time since 2008, when they last made the playoffs, and it's because they officially hired Maddon as their manager. After four losing seasons under Mike Quade, Dale Sveum and Rick Renteria — good baseball guys, but all of them could navigate Michigan Avenue on foot without being stopped — Chicago went for the star power of Maddon and paid for it with star money. Maddon reportedly will earn an average of $5 million per year for the next five years, making him the highest paid manager never to win a World Series and matching the salary of the game's top dugout earner, Mike Scioscia, his boss with the 2002 world champion Angels.
Maddon is one free agent who is worth it. (Would you rather have Maddon at $5 million per year or Boone Logan at $5.5 million per year? Easy there; it's a rhetorical question.) He is the perfect choice for the rising Cubs. He is a born optimist, a teacher, a motivator and a philosopher. He never forgets that the most success happens in a fun, upbeat environment; "Never let the pressure exceed the pleasure," is one of his favorite sayings in the tractor trailer worth of sayings he brings from Tampa Bay.
But don't be fooled by the quirky quotes and trendy eyeglasses. The man knows baseball, and he knows cutting-edge baseball. Never hidebound by tradition, Maddon understands how fast baseball in changing, how virtually all of the informational advances in the game have helped run prevention more than run production. He is 60 years old with a young man's eye and ear, and in some ways he is just starting out, with more resources than ever before at his disposal. Though the Rays actually outspent the Cubs last year, a franchise-record $78 million to $65 million, Chicago should soon ramp up to the $147 million it spent in 2010, if not more, as soon as the Cubs hit the regional television jackpot.
Maddon is the right man for the most appealing challenge in all of sports: to lead the Cubs to their first world championship since 1908. How long has it been? Twain still was alive when the Cubs last won the World Series.
Can Maddon do it? The talent is so evenly spread around baseball these days that the team with the eighth-best record in baseball just won the World Series. The gap between the best team in baseball and, say, the 12th-best team in baseball might never be narrower. World Series predictions are no better than machine-picked lottery numbers. But Maddon will get this team to the playoffs, and maybe as soon as next year, if president Theo Epstein can convince Jon Lester and Pablo Sandoval to come to Wrigley, too.
The Cubs have real star power now: Maddon, Anthony Rizzo, Starlin Castro, Javier Baez, Jorge Soler, Jake Arrieta. Kris Bryant, a rare righthanded slugger, will be up next May to rattle foot and car traffic on Waveland Avenue. Addison Russell will be in the wave after that. The team that lost 400,000 paid customers over the past five years, all of them losing seasons, is the "it" team now. Winter ticket sales should be brisk. National television will want Cubs games again in 2015. Nothing is better for the business of baseball right now than a re-energized, competitive and interesting Cubs team.
The re-branding of the Cubs begins with Maddon. As much as Epstein had been the face of the team, the manager, because he spends so much time in front of cameras and microphones and wears a uniform, is the true public point man of an organization. Maddon provides a wry grin and a twinkle in his eye as the face of this franchise, as if he just knows what is coming next.
In the meantime, a cultural shift is about to rock Chicago. The Cubs immediately are a different franchise under such a charismatic, intellectual manager. To help you prepare for what's coming with Maddon's Cubs, here is your cheat sheet to baseball in Wrigleyville: what's in and what's out now that Maddon is in the city that just contrived "a new impossibility" for itself.
The Book is out
You know, The Book, otherwise known as the unwritten playing rules of baseball, about accepted wisdom, much of it more than a hundred years old? Maddon once mocked such conventional thinking when he said, "I've read a lot of books, but not the proverbial one." He loves to flaunt convention. Sometimes he gets burned, as he did in Game 5 of the 2008 ALCS in Boston when he refused to play no doubles outfield defense with a lead. The Rays, up 7-0, lost 8-7.
Often, he wins. He once walked Miguel Cabrera to load the bases (first base was occupied) to put the winning run into scoring position. He preferred to pitch to Brennan Bosch, and got out of it. He once walked Josh Hamilton with the bases loaded — and won. That business about how a runner is not supposed to make the first or third out at third base? He doesn't care. He doesn't want his runners turning tentative because they are artificially restrained by The Book. He wants his players to play without fear of making mistakes — the same way he runs a game.
The Thesaurus is in
Yes, Cubs beat reporters will have to cart around a thesaurus to keep up with their new skipper. (And no, that is not a kind of cute dinosaur.) Maddon is a voracious reader who loves the sound of little used words. Once, when he and bench coach Dave Martinez were ejected from the same game, he dipped into his Tom Clancy oeuvre to observe, "We were going Politburo at that point."
Lineup stability is out
Maddon is more than a lineup tinkerer. He is the ultimate smith when it comes to lineups. He is the Orange County Choppers of lineup construction.
One veteran Rays player said the hardest part about playing for Maddon was not knowing where you were hitting in the lineup on a day-to-day basis. Maddon will switch his batting order based on streak, pitching matchups and solunar tables. Last year, Ben Zobrist hit in every spot between 1 and 5; Matt Joyce hit in the 1, 2, 3, 6 and 7 spots; Desmond Jennings hit 1, 2, 4, 5, 6 and 7; and Sean Rodriguez hit 1, 2, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 and 9. Only two players spent even half the season in one spot: Evan Longoria fourth (103 times) and James Loney fifth (95).
Shifts most definitely are in (to a point)
Maddon is the George Washington of the modern shifts. As a bench coach with the Angels, he instituted a shift against Ken Griffey Jr., happily trying to tempt him to forsake his home run stroke for a bunt attempt. What he really wanted to do was use a four-man outfield against David Ortiz, and when he became manager of the Devil Rays in 2006, it was the first thing he did when he managed a game in Fenway Park. Maddon only half-jokingly said he did it in part to get inside Ortiz's head. But he is willing to put tremendous trust in spray charts, and he will demand that the Cubs develop information that was as detailed and sophisticated as the Rays kept.
Oh, but he won't force shifts on pitchers who aren't comfortable with them. He always gave David Price veto power, for instance, on shifts in the games he started for Tampa Bay.
Cutting edge ideas are in
In 2008, Maddon proposed a way to measure how many runs a player allows, not just creates, to better define a player's value. He envisioned a GPS-type tracking system that could accurately measure how far and fast a player ranged to field a ball or not. Whaddaya know: today we have Field F/X, which does exactly what Maddon envisioned.
Quick games are out
Maddon's Rays were the slowest team in baseball last year, taking 3 hours, 19 minutes to play their average game. His catchers, Jose Molina and Ryan Hanigan, are notorious dawdlers. His pitchers act is if they're splitting the atom in between pitches. Maddon doesn't even think all the inaction is a problem. He actually said last September that instead of worrying about pace of game, MLB can attract more young fans by having players Skype with schoolchildren.
Yo, Joe: Pace of a game is a huge problem. You can't ask fans, particularly young ones in this age of entertainment options and multiple screens at the ready, to sit through a 3 hour, 19 minute game with so much dead time. Molina shuffling back and forth to the mound at a turtle's pace time after time? Yeah, that's a problem.
The running game is in (though Cubs fans may not recognize it)
Maddon's first seven teams finished among the top three in the league in stolen bases. (They regressed the past two years, finishing 12th and 13th.) Here are the NL ranks for the Cubs in stolen bases since 2009: 16, 15, 15, 11, 13, 12. The last time Chicago finished in the top three in the league in stolen bases? Try 29 years ago.
AL-style baseball is out
Maddon is a National League guy who has been wrapped in an American League uniform all these years. His Rays team was second in the league in sacrifice bunts last year. He is 45-41 all time playing under NL rules, including 0-3 in the 2008 World Series at Philadelphia. Methinks the man who loves to quote Camus, Einstein and Twain will figure out the double switch.