CHICAGO -- At the 30th annual Chicago Cubs fan convention this weekend, new manager Joe Maddon was every bit the charismatic personality everyone knew he would be, giving renewed hope to desperate Cubs fans.
Maddon commanded every room he entered at the Chicago Sheraton & Towers. That included his hour-long forum with his coaches on Saturday, which began with a standing ovation when he was introduced. Maddon did most of the talking and it sounds like he’s starting to understand the love affair between the city and his iconic team.
“The refrain that catches me, a lot of it is male-oriented, and the guys talk about their dads and their grandfathers a lot,” Maddon explained. “They’ve never had a World Series here in their lifetime. That’s what stands out to me. There is a real passionate generational situation here. Pretty cool stuff.”
It’s not the first time the Cubs have hired a high-profile manager, but it may be the first time they’ve hired one who drives his RV across the country or conducts his job interviews in a trailer park. And he might be the first Cubs skipper to bat his pitcher eighth (he’s thinking about it) or ask a young fan who should play third base (the kid said Kris Bryant).
But after the cheering stops, he has to manage a young team faced with massively growing expectations. Former managers Dusty Baker and Lou Piniella each made it to the playoffs in their first year at the helm, only to be nearly run out of town several seasons later. And now Maddon’s first baseman has basically declared them division winners before the snow has melted or Wrigley Field even has walls.
“I’m here to support everything that he said,” Maddon stated of Anthony Rizzo's bold declarations.
Is Maddon that different than other managers or does he just express himself differently?
“The guy has a brilliant mind so you never know what he’s going to do,” longtime bench coach Davey Martinez said. “He doesn’t do things orthodox, but he’s not a mad scientist. He puts a lot of thought into all the things he does.
“I love the dress code. He says, ‘If you think you look good, wear it.’”
But there has to be substance behind the personality or he’ll end up the in the same boat as Baker and Piniella: hearing boos after the initial cheers. That substance will come from a combination of using the information from the front office and using a personal touch.
“I have to see the guys in person,” Maddon said. “I have to ask questions. I have to get with the analytic people. I’m big on that kind of stuff. I want to talk to them in the dugout, watch their at-bats, see what they’re doing. I have zero pre-conceived notions.”
Along those lines, both at his media session on Friday then again with fans on Saturday, Maddon stressed the notion of accountability and earning time in the lineup.
“I don’t like the entitlement program,” he said more than once.
That kind of thinking applies to the Cubs now more than ever. They have young players all over the place. Sure, there is a pecking order for opportunity, but Maddon doesn’t sound like a manager handing out jobs based on draft status. It’s a clean slate. That can benefit anyone from Mike Olt to Javier Baez.
“They have to earn it,” Maddon stated. “And you stay there by owning up to your mistakes.”
One of Maddon’s best attributes, according to those who have played with him, is his ability to connect. That doesn’t come as a surprise after seeing him relate to fans on Saturday. He asked one for a “shot and a beer” t-shirt he was wearing and told another he needs to make a “bleacher bum” shirt for he and his friends. And yes, he reiterated his desire to buy a round of drinks for fans after a game this season. So maybe it comes as no surprise to hear him say his job isn’t to make sure a bunt gets down or the defense is in the right position -- he has coaches for that.
“My job is to pay attention to the clubhouse,” Maddon said. “Over the course of the last several years I’ve kind of learned my craft a little bit. I intend to bring it here. I believe it’s going to work.”
It sounds and looks like Cubs fans agree.