Moving Target: Joe Maddon Knows the Cubs Have Expectations and He’s Not Afraid to Embrace Them

Rarely will you find a man in professional sports more honest than Joe Maddon. And I don’t mean in the cathartic post-game-rant sense either. Plenty of coaches and managers have taken the podium after a particularly cringe-worth performance and told the world how bad their team was. But when things are going great? That’s when they fall back on tired axioms and boring tropes, content to conceal much of the trust lest it somehow reveal their weakness.

That’s not something you worry about much with Maddon, who is already discussing the Cubs’ status as the “It” team for 2016. They’ve spent money to improve what was already a 97-win team, which in turn got Vegas to install them at 6-1 to win the World Series, which in turn will get legions of Cubs fans reaching for their own wallets. The sophomore skipper (at least in terms of his time on the North Side) could easily deflect that talk. No one would blame him for doing so.

But in addressing the future from his hometown of Hazleton, PA, where he was working to raise money and awareness for the Hazleton Integration Project, Maddon absolutely owned the fact that his team has sprinted out to the front of the pack. And what’s more, he knows the Cubs are wearing bullseyes on their jerseys this year.

“Of course, we are the target,” the forthright foreman admitted. “Of course, you are, so why deny that you are? You’re the target, OK? Embrace it. Seriously, embrace the target (shameless promo alert). And process it properly and move on. But to deny it? To say that’s not true? It is true.

“I think, once you admit to it, then you kind of disarm it a bit. If you want to constantly push it back and say it’s not true, then you give it more power.”

That might seem pretty elementary, but not everyone is willing to acknowledge the elephant in the room. Joe Maddon? Well, he’s snuggling up to that intimidating animal and asking it if he can go for a ride. Rather then brush the praise aside in order to project some bastardized form of false humility, Maddon wants to let the expectations buoy and motivate his team.

“Of course, people are going to be predicting all these grandiose things for us. And that’s great, cool, because that probably means we are pretty good. But then how do you go about achieving those? That’s why you can’t get caught up in this outcome society. You have to just really focus on today.

“Believe me, man, I’m going to pound that home again. Because if we can really adopt that attitude, which I know we can, that’s our best way to really win eight more games next year.”

Okay, yeah, so maybe those last couple lines came out of the Crash Davis Handbook for Addressing the Media, but Maddon is serious about leveraging the psychological aspects of success. Rick Renteria (short though his time was), Dale Sveum, and Mike Quade seemed unwilling or unable to alleviate the unavoidable pressure of the job. Dusty Baker and Lou Piniella seemed to alternately foment and forget about the rigors that come from playing and managing in Chicago.

And it’s there, in his undeniable awareness and willingness to embrace the pressure, that Maddon provides the most to his team. Yes, his in-game decision-making is a big plus, but his psychological approach to the game is even more important. He can see the big picture without losing focus on the details, and he forces his players to do the same. The Cubs are going to need that perspective as they transition from hunter to hunted this coming season.

That’s what Maddon signed up for though, right? Just over a year ago, as he sat across from Wrigley and talked about his plans for the leading this new team, he was asked: “Do you have any idea what the hell you’ve gotten yourself into?”

“I love it,” Maddon responded with no hesitation.

If he can keep the target moving, I think fans are going to love it too.

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