<
>

Maddon promises cheers aplenty

CHICAGO -- There have been a lot of managers who have driven Chicago Cubs fans to drink, but I'm guessing only one who offered to buy the first round.

"That's a beer and a shot," new Cubs manager Joe Maddon said to the media at his introductory news conference, which took place Monday at the Cubby Bear. "That's the Hazleton Way."

I don't know how it works in Maddon's hometown of Hazleton, Pennsylvania, but the Cubs Way has long been about drinking away one's sorrows.

You know how unlucky gamblers built the casinos in Las Vegas? Well, Cubs fans have done their part to construct the strip of booze palaces that populate Wrigleyville.

With all the construction going on at the ballpark, the team moved Maddon's introduction to the Cubby Bear's main floor.

"To have your Cubs inaugural press conference in a cool bar, it doesn't get much better than that," Maddon said.

The scent of stale beer and money, Eau de Wrigleyville, wafted through the establishment.

For other managers, the post-Cubs hangover can last years. But Maddon, who crushed a can of Guinness after a string of fluffy TV interviews, is just getting started.

So while Cubs news conferences are usually dry in content and alcohol, this one was a little different. That's fitting. Maddon is a little different.

"You have to have a little crazy to be successful," Maddon said. "I want crazy in the clubhouse every day."

Yeah, he'll work out fine here.

Maddon might talk about synergy and good vibes, but he also signed a five-year deal worth $25 million to take over baseball's most sobering task: taking the Cubs to a World Series.

His arrival is a sure sign that good times are here again for the Cubs, who seem intent on a return to acting like a big-market team. Wrigley Field is being rebuilt, and the franchise could be adding to its young, talented core of hitters with free agents in the coming weeks.

It's not a manager's introduction to the Cubs without reporters reminding him about the century-plus World Series drought, the difficulty of day games, the wind, the impatient fans ... and on and on, as we think about all the things the manager doesn't know.

Add to that the Cubs' multitier rebuilding project, which is finally bearing results, both on the field and at the stadium, where a $375 million rehab is in full swing.

But Maddon, a 60-year-old with spiky, white hair, chunky, black glasses and an open-collared shirt, is an optimist. He sees the potential, not the past problems.

"Why would you not want to accept this challenge?" Maddon said. "In this city? In that ballpark? Under these circumstances, with this talent? It's an extraordinary moment, not just in Cubs history, but in baseball. This confluence of all these items coming together is pretty impressive."

Confluence is the right word choice. A lot has happened in the past two weeks to get him here.

After his boss, Andrew Friedman, decamped for the Dodgers, Maddon opted out of his Tampa Bay contract Oct. 24 and was named Cubs manager Friday. The only messy part in this fairy-tale hiring was that the Cubs had to fire their manager, Rick Renteria, after one year of mostly positive reviews, to hire Maddon.

Not that Cubs fans care. Even the most addled knew Renteria was a bridge manager.

"The fact that it happened now is shocking," Cubs president Theo Epstein said. "We've always kind of talked about who are the two or three managers we might see being here long-term one day. Who the long-term managers are going to be if it doesn't work out. Obviously, Joe was always in that conversation."

One week before Monday's news conference, Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer met with Maddon and his wife, Jaye, at an RV park in Navarre Beach, Florida, just outside Pensacola.

It was, as you might imagine, Epstein's first time in an RV park.

"We'll always have Pensacola," he joked.

The group sat in lawn chairs behind Maddon's 43-foot Winnebago, Cousin Eddie, and talked baseball philosophy.

"It was kind of a nice night," Maddon said. "It was in the back of the Winnebago. There's a little beach, the sun was setting, it was kind of cool. Theo needed a jacket. Jaye went back in for more beers."

Maddon said he quickly realized he still fit with Epstein and Hoyer, with whom he interviewed for the Boston Red Sox opening following the 2003 season. That job went to Terry Francona, and Maddon, then an Angels coach, wound up making his name in Tampa Bay.

Epstein has been vocal about the Cubs turning a corner and being ready to compete, and that certainly made this move more desirable. But even with the personal angst of firing Renteria, Epstein said this was a move you make, no matter the circumstances.

Maddon, who deftly mixes so-called old and new schools, is the epitome of the modern manager. He had three decades of coaching, managing and scouting apprenticeships that led to his first gig, and he crushed that one, too.

Is the Cubs job still a different animal? Or is it just another job in Cubs clothing?

Maddon joins big-name managers such as Dusty Baker and Lou Piniella in trying to solve this riddle. While each had immediate success -- each took the Cubs to the playoffs in his first season, and Piniella in the next one as well -- neither was able to go all the way.

Piniella's last playoff team, which had World Series hopes from spring training, completely collapsed under pressure and was swept out of the divisional round.

How will Maddon handle managing a winner in baseball's thirstiest market?

"Don't ever permit the pressure to exceed the pleasure," Maddon said. "Don't ever permit the pressure to exceed the pleasure. That's on the top of my lineup card every night."

But to get pressure, the Cubs need to emulate his 2008 Tampa Bay team, which improved by 31 wins from the previous season.

While Maddon inherits a promising team here, nothing is promised. But that kind of situation is attractive to a guy like Maddon.

"As a baseball lifer, to get that kind of opportunity, working for that kind of owner, that kind of management, that group of players, to get that chance -- once I processed all of it, I thought I had to do it," he said.

While we all love a good narrative, when it comes to actual wins, how much is a manager worth? There's a debate over that, and while some think they can calculate an answer, Epstein says stop wasting your time.

"Sometimes, I think in today's day and age, we try to quantify too many things instead of just appreciating the essence of them," Epstein said. "What does it mean to have a dynamic manager? I think it means you have the potential to have an edge in everything related to the events on the field. Whether it's preparation, decision-making in the game, knowing you can get the most out of your players, trying to ensure the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. All those things ... it's really nice to just have complete trust and faith that the person in charge of running that on-field operation is going to put you in the best possible position. It's hard to quantify. How often does it show up? There are some games it never shows up. In other ways, it shows up every single game. It's really a hard thing to quantify."

In Maddon's minor-league-managing days, he was an early adopter of analytics and was interested in different ways to treat baseball players. Like, say, human beings.

Maddon said his first task is to gain trust with the Cubs players.

"We can talk about hitting mechanics and pitching mechanics, but it comes down to personal relationships and trust," he said. "Once you get to that point, you can have constructive criticism flowing back and forth. When you get to that point, really good things could occur."

The Cubs brought Dale Sveum in as manager three years ago because he was known as a teacher of young hitters. But when things went bad, his tough-love ways weren't seen as helpful. Communication breakdowns between Sveum and management hindered the club's growth. As Maddon noted, the days of the "autocratic" manager are over. The modern one has to be in sync with management.

"If you have talented players, which we do, and you put them in the right environment and set up the right situations where they're not afraid of making mistakes, to me that's the most important thing I want," Maddon said. "Any player that plays for me or for us to never be concerned about making mistakes. That's the worst thing you can do is to coach aggressiveness out of a player, to coach fear into a player. Those are the two worst things you can possibly do."

Maddon was known for having fun in Tampa Bay, a small-market team that exceeded its station in baseball. From themed road trips to penguins in the clubhouse, Maddon was all about creating a loose environment where free-thinking players could succeed. He wants less batting practice late in the season. He doesn't plan on spending his days here "sitting in concrete bunkers, drinking coffee and watching TV."

The "Maddon Men" are going to have fun playing baseball.

It sure looks as if Maddon is exactly what this organization needs after years of inertia at the major league level.

But plenty of managers have come through talking about changing the Cubs and left haggard and beaten.

Will the Cubs change Maddon?

"Why would I ever want to change?" he said with a smile.

We always joke about the expiration date of the new Cubs manager's smile, but I have a funny feeling Maddon will be the rare case who winds up with the last laugh.

So drink up, Chicago. This one's on Joe.