Ben Zobrist played for Joe Maddon in Maddon's first year as manager, in Tampa Bay, and now, a decade later, he plays for Maddon with the Cubs. The greatest difference in Maddon, Zobrist says, is how so many great stars want to know him, and hang out with him. Charles Barkley, John Cusack, Bill Murray, etc., etc.
As a manager, someone charged with the responsibility of handling players and navigating through games, Zobrist says, Maddon is the same as he was with the Rays: He does crazy stuff and interesting things designed to keep the workplace fun.
But within the context of a high-profile business, Maddon's array of preplanned events -- from a breakfast buffet on the field to the team's travel outfits -- serves a dual purpose, of course. This all can help to distract the players from all of the conversation and critique and concern over their play, and also keep them focused inward, rather than on the pressure building outside of the cocoon of their season.
This is why, as the Cubs continue to run away in the National League Central -- their lead of 12 1/2 games is their largest since 1929 -- Maddon might actually have his greatest challenge ahead, steering the group through perhaps the largest ocean of stress any baseball team has faced in years.
The Warriors have just taken the path on which the Cubs are now embarking: Golden State generated a record-setting regular season by a team enormously talented and eminently watchable, a group that had so much fun. But now, because the Warriors lost Game 7 of the NBA Finals, they have squandered the corner of history that might've belonged to them; in that last game, they were unable to validate all they accomplished from October to June.
It serves no purpose for the Cubs' players to think about any of that, now or ever. But that is the nature of the expectations that will grow around them, no matter what Maddon does; he cannot control that. The Cubs likely will go into the postseason as the World Series favorites, no matter what the actual condition of the team is in October, and whether it's fair or relevant, they will carry the burden of 108 years without a World Series championship.