Joe Maddon’s time in Chicago has been so strange. Really. It’s been not normal. And we’re not normal with him, as fans. He’s sort of … changed everything.
Maddon has had four seasons in the Wrigley Field dugout, and “his” worst regular season was with the 2017 squad (92-70) that went on to their third consecutive NLCS. His worst postseason appearance with the Cubs was obviously this past summer, and yet he was just one win away from clinching the first seed in the National League for the second time since he’s been here.
Indeed, Maddon has averaged nearly 97(!) wins during his tenure in Chicago, has won a World Series, has been to three Championship series from 2015-2017, and has even won a Manager of the Year award, and yet I can’t help but hear Rodney Dangerfield lamenting about respect every time someone brings up his name.
And it’s not just Cubs fans, right? For however fair the the fan-driven criticisms of Joe Maddon have been, Theo Epstein’s resistance to a contract extension one year before his skipper hits free agency – and his comments about getting Maddon back in front of the players more often – has reinforced a lot of negativity (though I suspect that was unintentional). If you think Maddon posts bad lineups, you probably feel vindicated. If you thought he handles bullpens poorly, now you have your proof. If you thought he can get too cute at times and too far away from the fundamentals of baseball, well, now you can say, “See, Theo Epstein thinks the same thing!”
None of that is necessarily true, of course, but that’s certainly where we are in the conversation. And I’m including myself in that assessment! I’ve certainly felt my opinion of Maddon change over the years and not always for the better. And as soon as I learned that he wouldn’t be getting an extension, I explored the negativity a little more – I just had to understand what Epstein saw or thought or knew. I had to understand why, and why I was feeling the things I was feeling.
But before we start writing off the literal greatest Cubs manager in team history – that’s not an opinion – let’s remember that despite some legitimate flaws and issues, he still does some things extraordinarily well. For example, I don’t think there’s anybody in baseball better at managing for the long haul of the season, which is obviously quite important. And the secret to his success is really no secret at all: it’s all about culture.
From his first day in Chicago until this very winter, Joe Maddon has not stopped talking about building culture and strengthening relationships in the clubhouse. And while we may not always understand his methods, it’s virtually impossible to say he doesn’t have a feel for it.
If you get a chance today, check out this short interview Maddon did with Jayson Stark and really try to take in his words, because I don’t think he’s lost an ounce of passion in his beliefs and I think there’s often more to this game than meets the eye:
The #Cubs are heading into @CubsJoeMadd's final year of a 5-year contract and he opened up about what creating a culture can do for an organization with @Jaysonst on #BaseballStories. pic.twitter.com/8HClo0NxXW
— Stadium (@WatchStadium) December 26, 2018
I especially liked the idea that building culture can create winning. Sure, winning often leads to a happy clubhouse, but what if you’re not winning? You can’t just give up. You need to find ways to manufacture that feeling and I genuinely believe Maddon has – at least, better than most.
So, yes, 2019 might just be the last season with Joe Maddon at the helm of the Chicago Cubs, but don’t let some of his bad habits erase everything he does so very well. He’s an eloquent, thoughtful, passionate manager with his own unique vision.
And he wins a hell of a lot. Joe Maddon just wants to win the whole dang thing this year, and then figure out the rest later.