You wouldn’t think those would be the thoughts of employees being asked -- make that, told -- to arrive at work later than usual. But that’s the problem in baseball, according to manager Joe Maddon. Players are so used to one routine, it’s hard for them to break from it.
For one week, every August since 2009, a Maddon-managed team is allowed to show up to the ballpark no more than three hours before first pitch and is encouraged to come even later. It’s called American Legion Week, in reference to when Maddon would have a day job and then "show up at 5 p.m. for a 5:30 game" in American Legion ball. Even more than normal, he wants less work from his players before games this week.
“Taking 50 swings or 100 swings has nothing to do with our success right now,” Maddon said. “There are so many disconnected thoughts in our game about work and how you work. At some point you have to turn it all down and go out there and play unencumbered. That’s what this week is all about. Play the game of baseball like it was designed, how you grew up with it.”
There’s actually a fine for showing up earlier than three hours before game time, in the form of a bottle of $100 wine (with receipt). Newcomers to American Legion week were teetering on having to make a run to the liquor store as several found it difficult to adjust on the first day, Monday.
“I thought I was late all day long,” Duensing said. “I don’t know about this. I’ll let you know at the end of the week.”
Happ added: “I am not used to this at all. It feels weird.”
But ask veterans, and they love it -- though it’s not easy convincing players that less work is better for them. All they’ve ever known is to come in early and take their swings, to go along with all the video teams have at their disposal to watch. Maddon figured out years ago that trying to do more at this time of year is the wrong tactic. As a coach with the Angels, he saw fatigue in August, not an uptick in play.
“One of the things we did was hit a lot, and we’d hit on Sunday mornings for an hour,” Maddon said. "In retrospect, I’d see guys fade by the end of the season. I was the hitting coach, and I was in the middle of all that. I thought that was the right way to do things, too.”
But over time, Maddon changed his mind. And so when other teams hit the dog days of August, his would back off ... and be fresher for it. The results have been stunning. Since 2009, Maddon’s teams are 130-91 in August, not including this season. Since he came to Chicago, the Cubs are 10-1 during American Legion week. The results more than justify the strategy, though Maddon insists he would employ it no matter the win/loss record.
“He figured out they needed a break,” longtime bench coach Davey Martinez explained. “It’s a grind every day. Guys need a break. So we told them to come later to the park. Show and go.”
It occurred to Maddon after his first trip to the World Series in 2008 with the Tampa Bay Rays. The next season, he saw a predictably more fatigued group as the year wore on. At that point he declared "less is more," telling his players to come in later.
“This is the time of the year that you really have to fight through,” Maddon said. “I’m talking post-All-Star break into August, because this is the time when you’re a little bit fatigued. That’s why we’re doing the American Legion Week. If you’re able to maintain at this particular point, here comes September and I promise you our guys will be charged up every day. September provides its own energy.”
Few executives or veteran players have ever heard of a manager telling his players to come in late for an entire week. It’s just not the norm, but the Cubs' front office has bought in. General manager Jed Hoyer was asked if the Cubs' record in August (41-15) under Maddon in 2015 and 2016 is a coincidence.
“Oh no, it’s not a coincidence at all,” Hoyer said. “I remember when I was with the Red Sox, always feeling like the Rays played great at the end of the season. Why is that? And I do think part of it is that there’s an accumulation of moments over the course of the year where Joe discourages batting practice and tells guys to come in later.
"People might think that only has value in that moment, but I think what Joe realizes is that there is a bank account to part of that. You’re just, like, putting in an energy savings account, and I think that our guys have been really fresh and healthy down the stretch.”
An expanded roster and the adrenaline of the pennant race take care of September, but those hot August days feel a lot better without hours of outdoor batting practice.
“I love to take swings,” Kris Bryant said. “But you need a break in this game. Joe gets that. He’s always thinking of us. I’ve only had one manager, but he understands the physical as well as mental part of the game. And then gives us some space.”
Bryant seems to be doing just fine with less work. He’s been an on-base machine during this stretch. Maybe he'd be doing this kind of damage anyway, but Maddon isn’t taking any chances -- and ultimately, neither he nor his staff will hear any complaints, no matter how unnerving it is for the newbies.
“No one complains they’re being asked to come to work two hours after the rest of the league,” Martinez said with a smile. “[Maddon] took a chance because we would be criticized if it didn’t work, but it has.”