It was just over four years ago that Joe Maddon blew into The Cubby Bear and took the city by storm. With Wrigley field draped in tarpaulin and buttressed by scaffolding, the backdrop looked more like a demilitarized zone than a monument to rampant gentrification. The team Maddon was hired to manage was in similar flux, trying to establish a winning culture from the rubble of five consecutive fifth-place finishes during which they’d averaged 93 losses.
Over the course of 30 minutes or so, Maddon explained who he was and how he planned to run the team. He had a lineup card “dripping with analytics” and would embrace the pressure that came with managing in the Cubs fishbowl, but showing up early for evening games wouldn’t be part of his routine. That’s how it would be with the players, who needed to learn how to keep the pressure from exceeding the pleasure.
Then he capped off the presser by offering a Chicago Handshake — though he referred to it as “the Hazleton way, in honor of his Pennsylvania hometown — to each member of the assembled media. Not all took him up on the offer and some even publicly noted their residual thirst, but Maddon had clearly set the tone for what the next five years would entail.
As he enters the fifth and final year of that initial contract, however, there’s a sense that Maddon’s methods have grown stale. Some skeptics may even note a bitterness not unlike Jeppson’s Malört lingering at the periphery of Theo Epstein’s calls for greater urgency. Or maybe those are just remnants from the round Paul Sullivan missed out on.
Whether and to what degree any discontent actually exists between Maddon and the front office will remain behind closed doors, though it’s become obvious the manager is going to have to change his ways. He’s copped to reading Managing Millennials for Dummies and has already admitted that he’ll be shifting time from pregame conversations with the media to hands-on coaching. This all comes while working with an overhauled staff for the third straight season, which could mean putting more effort into reestablishing the team’s culture.
The Cubs were very intentional about creating an organization-wide culture that helped to drive them to the World Series, but it can be difficult to maintain the same drive and focus in the wake of unprecedented success. And since it’s not a matter of simply pulling a lever or pushing a button, there’s no easy fix. Some believe just signing a superstar or maintaining good health are the answers, but, while those things definitely help, there’s an intangible element that is often overlooked.
“That’s because people don’t understand it,” Maddon told Stadium’s Jayson Stark when presented with the idea that chemistry doesn’t matter. “I’ve had that argument with [former Angels GM] Billy Bavasi since the early 80’s, about ‘chemistry will follow winning.’ Well, what if you’re not winning? How do you create winning? And I think you create it by creating culture or chemistry first.
“I think as a species, we mock what we don’t understand. In other words, if you’ve never been in a position or understood how to do that in the first place — create chemistry or culture — then you’re gonna mock it. Then you think the easy way to to acquire all these great players [he punctuates this with air quotes], or expensive players, then put ’em together in the same room and they’re gonna win.”
“That’s a bad method, that’s inappropriate thought.”
Taken out of context, someone might see that as Maddon campaigning against the pursuit of someone like Bryce Harper. And maybe he is, though his statements are more about the general idea that you just need talent to win. At the same time, Maddon’s not ignorant enough to believe culture can win separate from talent. Rather, it’s about finding the right mix and creating an environment in which talented players can perform at the highest level.
“First of all, if you’re a major league player, if this major league player is legitimately supposed to be there, he’s good,” Maddon said. “He’s good. He’s a good player, he’s a good athlete. So what do you do to make this group better as a whole that makes you better than these other teams that come in on a consistent basis?
“I think it’s about building relationships first, and once that happens then me and you trust each other. Once we trust each other, now we can exchange thoughts and ideas. Until we trust each other, you’re gonna push back at my thoughts and I’m gonna push back at yours. But once you’ve achieved that — now here’s the real rub, and this is what makes it all work — then you can be constructively critical of each other and then something good occurs after that.”
Well, gee, if I didn’t know better, I’d say that sounds an awful lot like what Epstein said during his end-of-season address. Something about “trying to understand why we’re not where we should be with some individual players” and “doing everything we can in creating the right situation to get the most out of these guys.” Wild, huh?
And it’s not just the guys serving as the public face of the franchise who are saying this, either. Joshua Lifrak, coordinator of the Cubs’ mental skills program, has worked throughout all levels of the organization to foster the notion that a positive frame of mind can yield tangible results.
“It’s tough to put a number on [chemistry’s impact], but it can definitely be a factor,” Lifrak told Cubs Insider. “We won the World Series in Game 7 in extra innings; was it 1 percent, was it 50 percent? Doesn’t matter. It was an edge, and the edges matter in baseball. Chemistry matters; not many teams win without the guys pulling for each other.”
That doesn’t happen by accident, though, which is why Maddon and the Cubs have to be more intentional than ever this coming season. The good news is we’re not looking at some sort of reinvention of people or processes. In fact, it may be as simple as getting back to the basics and retracing those steps from four years ago.
“If you get chemistry and you get culture [right away], you’re kind of lucky,” Maddon told Stark. “But believe me, man, it’s there to be done. It can be done, but you have to pay attention to those things first. That was my first thought when I went to Chicago: build relationships. And then we have to trust each other and then they’ll start listening to you, otherwise they won’t.”
That bit sounds like advice for Anthony Iapoce and Tommy Hottovy, both of whom step into roles that have operated like revolving doors over the last few seasons. But both men also represent the Cubs essentially opting for pre-fab chemistry, since they have spent time in the organization and know what they’re getting into. Such hires weren’t just luxuries then, they were necessities.
Maddon has built up more than his fair share of credit in an around Chicago, but even that may not be enough to buy him a few additional years should the Cubs fall short of expectations again. It’s odd to say it, but finding success so early may actually be costing Maddon now. Had his team paced itself according to plan and first reached the playoffs in 2016, it’s entirely possible an extension would have been signed long ago. Not that anyone would change anything about that title.
Hypotheticals aside, Maddon may need to combine his best work from the last four seasons in order to achieve his goals for 2019. He’ll need to get back to establishing the relationships that were so important as he began his Cubs tenure, but with a core group of players that’s no longer fresh from the farm. Finding a way to balance playing time and navigate losses from injury will be important as well, though not having to deal with replacing several cornerstone players would help.
With the NL Central improving around them and budget constraints potentially limiting the Cubs from going much bigger than Daniel Descalso, Maddon may be facing his toughest season yet. And it doesn’t actually get any easier if Epstein does somehow pull off the unlikely coup of adding Harper. Hell, that might even make it more difficult in some regards.
Anyway, we’ve got several months before we’ll have any real answers to the questions about Maddon’s performance and his employment. So why don’t we all raise our glasses and toast to the the future, whatever it may hold. Or, as many of you may prefer, to be better able to cope with what is yet to come.