CHICAGO -- Breaking the Chicago Cubs’ championship drought hasn't shielded manager Joe Maddon from a heavy dose of criticism.
His controversial World Series decisions already have brought public scrutiny in Chicago and beyond -- during postseason charity events he’s attended and at MLB's winter meetings. Later this week, there’s a good chance he’ll face another round of questions when the Cubs hold their annual fan convention.
Isn’t hanging a banner -- especially such a long-awaited one -- enough to quiet the critics?
Former Chicago Bulls star Steve Kerr knows from his playing days, and now as coach of the Golden State Warriors, that the scrutiny only increases after winning a championship.
“My impression of [Maddon] is he gets it,” Kerr said in a recent phone interview. “That’s his job. It’s one of the things I tell our players all the time: Where you earn your money is [with] the scrutiny you face every day. It’s no fun, but it’s such a great trade-off -- the life we live and the enjoyment we get. It’s one of Joe’s great strengths. He understands the balance, and it’s all part of the deal.”
Kerr's Golden State Warriors came just up short in the repeat quest Maddon will embark on when the Cubs begin spring training. The Warriors lost Game 7 of the NBA Finals in June after setting the NBA's regular-season record for wins -- eclipsing Kerr’s own 1996 Chicago Bulls team.
“It’s interesting because there are different dynamics at play,” Kerr said. “On the one hand, the pressure is off because you finally did it and you can work that angle as a team and a coach. Just go out there and play and go have fun. The burden is gone, especially with the Cubs. There is part of you that can play that angle.
“On the other hand, now they are expected to win again. The pressure and scrutiny never stops, but it shifts. It shifts to a different dynamic.”
Maddon’s in-game managing will be dissected more than ever next season. The moment he overuses a pitcher -- as all managers do at one time or another -- former Cubs closer Aroldis Chapman will come to mind for many. Any unorthodox bunt call will be scrutinized, as was Javier Baez’s bunt attempt in the ninth inning of Game 7 in the World Series. It comes with the territory.
“People are going to criticize,” former Chicago Bears coach Mike Ditka said. “It bothered me at the time, but in retrospect it’s no big deal, and we won. The criticism goes away, but Joe will always have the ring.”
Ditka got hit hard in the media and by the fans as the shine of his 1986 Super Bowl win began to fade. By the early '90s he was openly fighting with some observers who were critical of his ways. Ditka's repeat attempt fell short after a 14-2 regular season didn’t lead to postseason glory -- the Bears lost in the division round in 1987. That’s when Ditka began to hear the criticism.
“If you don’t win it all, there are going to be critics,” Ditka said. “And once you win it, you are No. 1 on the radar. The Cubs are going to be No. 1 on the radar.”
Kerr agrees with the "bull’s-eye on the back theory." His team wasn’t just playing a game each time out last season -- they were involved in an event. It became the norm for the Bulls in the '90s as well.
“Everything was sold out, everywhere,” Kerr recalled. “And that’s a great thing for a team because complacency is the enemy over 82 games or 162 games.”
The Cubs might be one step ahead of the Warriors in that respect. Maddon realized the Cubs' position even before winning the World Series and adopted an "Embrace the Target" slogan all last season.
Now the target is on Maddon's back, more than on his players, which might be the best thing for continued success.
“I tried to take the pressure off our guys,” Kerr explained. “The Warriors hadn’t won in 40 years. We won and no one can take that away from us.
“Let’s do it again, but there shouldn’t be any angst or worry. Let’s just go have fun,” Kerr said of his message to the Warriors after winning. “It’s one of the reasons we won 73 games [in 2015-16], I think. It’s almost like playing with house money. And you think about the burden on teams that haven’t won it. That’s worse.”
Both Ditka and Kerr know Maddon, and they believe he can handle the criticism, whether he welcomes it or not.
“Joe will always be a hero in Chicago no matter what happens,” Kerr said.
Ditka went one step further: “It’s one of the best sports stories of the last 25 years,” he said.
Both note that, no matter what Maddon faces down the road, no one can take his ring away.
“That’s why you play,” Ditka said. “Joe did it. It doesn’t matter what people say.”