Rockin' Joe Maddon opens camp

MESA, Ariz. -- With Jimi Hendrix blaring in the background as the Chicago Cubs went through their warm-up drills, the Joe Maddon era began in earnest with the team’s first full-squad workout on Wednesday.

“I wanted to have the stretch louder,” Maddon said after the day was over. “Get the blood going. And it seems to have helped.”

Maddon kept up a “personal” tradition of talking to his team on Day 1 on the field and not in the locker room. The players had already sat through speeches from owner Tom Ricketts and President Theo Epstein, but Maddon brought them outside with one overriding message from their new skipper.

“I want them to be themselves,” Maddon said. “I don’t want them to feel inhibited when they play. Don’t worry about making mistakes.”

Pitcher Jason Hammel heard the speech for the first time in six years, as he played for Maddon in Tampa Bay from 2006 to 2008. He says it hasn’t changed.

“You can make a mistake and go in there and have him pat you on the back,” Hammel said. “He loves aggressiveness. He promotes being yourself.

“You really do feel with Joe that the ‘open door policy’ is real. He levels with the players.”

It’s one reason the Cubs front office believes Maddon works well with young players: He allows them to make mistakes. Sure, he’d like to cut down on the mental ones, but he expects there will be physical miscues -- even more so when guys move around the diamond as much as Maddon likes them to. And he knows it takes time to bring out the best in a player. Failing is part of the process.

“You may have seen the body for a couple years, but the brain hasn’t arrived yet,” Maddon explained. “When a guy totally feels liberated in a baseball sense, then you find out what a guy can do.”

Maddon often says he’s a product of the '60s and '70s, so this free spirit thing is right up his alley. Maybe you would be surprised that winning didn’t come up in the opening meeting early Wednesday, not by Maddon nor by ownership -- though afterwards Ricketts finally sounded sane when predicting good things for his team in Year 6 of his stewardship.

“We all believe this year’s team has what it takes to win the division and go to the playoffs,” he said. “Now it’s just about getting on the field and getting it started.”

The leader of the group is, unquestionably, first baseman Anthony Rizzo. He’s the one who predicted greatness in 2015 long before anyone else jumped on board. In fact, he started the conversation on the final day of last season and only upped the ante throughout the winter. But Wednesday was about spring training -- not October.

“Look down and we’ll look up when we need to,” Rizzo said.

He means this isn’t the time to get ahead of themselves. Far from it. This is the time to put the work in to get better. One day at a time.

So just how different will a Maddon camp look?

He plans on using a pitching machine that uses smaller sized baseballs, and he wants his hitters to use heavier bats.

“Thirty five, 36 ounces, 34/35 inches long,” he said. “Promotes utilizing the hands and not so much the arms.”

And there will be some different baserunning drills as well. Everything Maddon does has a psychological aspect to it. He wants the players to feel in charge while they ready themselves for the long season.

“At this time of year, first and foremost is health,” Hammel said. “It’s making sure you’re ready for the grind. And it starts today.”

Rizzo was asked what’s stopping the Cubs from greatness this season.

“The only thing is ourselves,” he responded.

The Cubs have the manager and might have the talent; experience will be needed as well. Maddon is the link to bring it all together -- different than the rest, but just as effective. It’s time to get to work.

“They’re totally involved, totally into it,” Maddon said of his team on Day 1. “The energy felt great.”

And we’re off.