Joe Maddon is still answering doubters after World Series win

Five months ago, Joe Maddon managed the Chicago Cubs to a World Series title. So why is he still answering questions about Game 7? Alex Trautwig/MLB Photos/Getty Images

Fifth inning, it's three to one
And Kyle looks like Greg Maddux
It's in the bag, y'all, it's in the bag
C'mon Blue, that's Strike 3
But also Ball 4
And here comes Joe Maddon
Much to our alarm

-- "We, Joe Maddon," by Chris Thile

MESA, Arizona -- One hundred and forty-one days after Game 7 of the 2016 World Series ended, and 2,003 miles away from Progressive Field in Cleveland, the Indians are playing the Cubs at Sloan Field.

The skippers, Terry Francona and Joe Maddon, have taken their positions at the prow of their dugouts. A moment of silence is observed for former Cubs executive Dallas Green, who built the '84 team that went to the NLCS. Then the beloved baritone Wayne Messmer sings the national anthem, just as he did before the last game played in Wrigley, Game 5 of the Series. A collective expression of surprise gurgles up when the public-address announcer points out that it's 74 degrees in Mesa and 78 in Chicago. Still, it's a gorgeous afternoon with an overflow, predominantly Cubs crowd basking not only in the sun, but also in the glory of being the world champions of baseball for the first time since 1908.

Not that anyone needs to be reminded, but the Cubs fought back from a 3-1 deficit in the Series to win the next three games, the last two games on the road, the final one in a see-saw, hard-fought, white-knuckle, 10-inning, 8-7 epic that ended at 1:48 a.m. on Nov. 3 and is still being toasted and dissected in Wrigleyville.

Now, on March 24, the Budweiser Clydesdales are prancing around outside, and Jimmy Kimmel and Huey Lewis are mingling with selfie-taking fans before they take the field for the seventh-inning stretch. It's a party as much as a game, complete with an amazing array of jerseys past (Santo, Banks, Jenkins, Ryan Theriot) and present, and T-shirts bearing the motivational expressions coined by Maddon and sold by Korked Baseball for his Respect 90 Foundation. "One hundred and eight years is a long time to wait," says a man in one of them, featuring the new slogan "We Don't Suck" above a pair of horn-rimmed glasses.

And yet there's this nagging, look-a-gift-horse-in-the-mouth feeling that permeates the crowd, as if the Cubs' fans can't quite believe their luck, or rather that they won. So conditioned to curses, they saw Game 7 playing out as if it were the latest in the line of Murphy the Goat, the black cat, Leon Durham's Gatorade-soaked glove, Steve Bartman ...

They're still scratching their heads at some of the moves Maddon made in Game 7. Even the guy in a replica Joe Maddon No. 70 jersey, a bar owner from Ottawa, Illinois, named Terry Muffler says, "He did some strange things. But I had confidence he knew what he was doing."

Not so, says a man standing nearby with a nodding friend in an Ernie Banks No. 14. "We won despite Joe Maddon," he says. "We won because of Theo Epstein."

(Wait, didn't Theo hire Joe?)

From the top of the steps
To the front of the mound
Just a-tapping on his arm
Bring in the lefty
The one who can't hold runners on
'Cause I am not ready for this Game 7 to be going, going, gone.

You could say Chris Thile is the Kris Bryant of the mandolin. A child prodigy in bluegrass music, Thile is one of the most acclaimed musicians of his time, adept in a variety of genres. Garrison Keillor, the host of "Prairie Home Companion," chose Thile, a frequent guest and the winner of a MacArthur Genius grant in 2012, to be his replacement on the ever-popular radio show last year.

Thile is also a huge Cubs fan. "I was home-schooled in Southern California," says the 35-year-old Thile, "but a friend got me hooked on the WGN Cubs games at 11 a.m. Ryne Sandberg and Mark Grace. Harry Caray and Steve Stone." (To further cement his bona fides, Thile then delivers a pitch-perfect imitation of the two announcers talking to each other.)

He saw his first game in Wrigley as a college student. "The worst seats in the house, under the overhang, and it was freezing, but it was perfect, and they won. I was a fan for life."

After hosting PHC at St. Paul's Fitzgerald Theatre on Saturday, Oct. 29, he got an email from his musician friend, Jack White, asking if he wanted to go with him to Game 5 in Chicago. "I was feeling like a ghost of a husband and father," Thile says, "but my wife, bless her heart, told me, 'You gotta go.' And so I went to this amazing game that turned me into a kid again. [Jon] Lester starts, [Aroldis] Chapman closes out the 3-2 victory, and we still had hope. Not to mention the best manager in baseball."

Thile watched Game 7 accompanied only by a Negroni cocktail. "I'm feeling pretty good until the bottom of the fifth," he says, "and then the umpire [Sam Holbrook] calls what should've been Strike 3 for Kyle Hendricks Ball 3, Kyle walks him and here comes Joe ... and Lester and Steve Bartman and the whole ill-fated saga of the Cubs."

The rest is a song Thile had to write. So he sat down to compose a re-creation of the game in 7/4 time, questioning Maddon's decisions to bring in the lefties, Lester and later Chapman, and even taking a little time off for a rain delay ... before a 10th-inning crescendo in which the Cubs "went and went and went" to victory.

Thile was taking "Prairie Home Companion" to Chicago's Symphony Center on Jan. 14, so that was the natural place to debut the song. With Thile on lead vocals and Sarah Jarosz singing backup, "We, Joe Maddon" brought down the house. "Sarah was an ideal partner for reasons beyond her beautiful voice," Thile says. "She loves baseball, even though she's a Red Sox fan, and she knew the correct way to spell Maddon. I'm ashamed to say I originally wrote it as 'Madden.'"

Thile also got the score wrong in the fifth inning. It was 5-1. But hey, everyone is entitled to a mistake or two. Especially when it turns out so well.

8th inning, it's six to three
Big Jon's found his curveball
It's in the bag, y'all, it's in the bag
... here comes Joe Maddon, much to our chagrin,
From the top of the steps to the front of the mound
Bring in the lefty
The one whose empty light is on

He is Joe Maddon. No, really.

"It goes with the territory," he says the morning of the spring game with the Indians. "If people want to criticize the way I managed Game 7, I'm OK with that. But I had a reason, a sound reason, I believed, for everything I did in that game."

Much of the criticism centers on two pitching changes: bringing in the pickoff-challenged Lester for Kyle Hendricks with a 5-1 lead, two outs and a man on in the bottom of the fifth, and calling on Chapman for the third straight game and fifth time in six games to protect a 6-3 lead with two outs and a man on in the bottom of the eighth.

But Maddon's plan all along was to go five with Hendricks, two with Lester and two with Chapman. "There was no Game 8," he says. When Hendricks couldn't quite close the deal in the fifth, he brought in Lester, who was already warm. What Maddon didn't count on was two miscues by Lester's personal catcher, David Ross, leading to the second and third Indians runs. After that, Ross hit a home run for redemption and insurance, and Lester settled down beautifully.

As for Chapman giving up a run-scoring double and a two-run homer in the eighth, well, he wasn't exactly gassed -- he hit 100.3 mph on the radar gun during the inning. And he did have a 1-2-3 ninth to send the game into extra innings.

Maddon also caught flak for having Javy Baez attempt to squeeze on a 3-2 pitch with Jason Heyward on third and one out in the ninth. Heyward died 90 feet away when Baez fouled it off for Strike 3 and Dexter Fowler grounded out.

There is a certain irony attached to the second-guessing: Maddon kind of asked for it. After all, one of the more popular Maddon T-shirts last year was "Embrace The Target."

He was certainly made a target in the offseason. Former Cubs pitcher Mike Krukow (47-50), now a Giants analyst, told one radio show, "The Cubs won this thing despite over-managing from Joe Maddon. It was awful. It was awful. It was this arrogance that he was trying to put his signature on what was going to happen."

And Chapman tried to make things uncomfortable for Maddon once he signed with the Yankees as a free agent, saying, "He abused me a bit on how much he made me pitch, and sometimes he made me pitch when I didn't need to pitch."

For the most part, Maddon has taken the criticism in stride and with good humor. During the Cubs' annual convention, when a fan directly questioned the manager about going to Lester in the fifth, Maddon replied, "I don't know if you saw the whole game, but he did very well."

Besides, he has been too busy enjoying the perks that come with winning the Cubs' first title since Teddy Roosevelt was president.

"Kind of a whirlwind," he says, ticking off the highlights. "Let's see. There was the reception at the White House. But before that, there was the Zeta Psi party at my alma mater, Lafayette, a speaking engagement at the Yogi Berra Museum, my dinner for the Hazleton Integration Project -- Bill Murray was there. [My wife] Jaye and I celebrated New Year's Eve in the RV on Beverly Beach.

"But maybe the most special moment was this: I went to my dad's gravesite and told him his son had just managed the Chicago Cubs to a world championship. Pretty cool."

Then came the rain
(Praise the Lord)
Then came the tenth
And then we sang together, "go Cubs go, go Cubs Go",
'Cause boy, they went and went and went

Ferguson Jenkins is chatting before the game. Not a guy in a Jenkins jersey, but the actual Hall of Famer.

"Me, I would've left Hendricks in the game," he says. "But that's me talking. I never wanted to come out of a game -- I took pride in finishing what I started. The game is different now.

"There is one thing I like about Maddon, something that would make me want to play for him. He's a positive guy who can cut through that curse bulls---. That black cat who walked out to Ron Santo in the on-deck circle at Shea when we were battling the Mets in '69? I was the pitcher that day. That was no curse. That cat was thrown out there by Tug McGraw."

The prevailing opinion among Cubs fans, and even the Cubs themselves, is that the turning point of Game 7 was the speech that the normally soft-spoken Heyward gave to his teammates in the weight room as the two teams waited out the 17-minute rain delay. He told them that he loved them, that they were the best team in baseball, that they should stay positive and go out there and win.

Which they did, thanks to an RBI double by Ben Zobrist and an RBI single by Miguel Montero in the top of the 10th, and a 5-3 groundout induced by Mike Montgomery with a runner on first for the final out.

That Zobrist and Montgomery would figure so prominently in the Series is something of a tribute to Maddon, who was their manager when they were in the Rays organization. "He's always been my biggest advocate," Zobrist says. "His presence was the motivating factor for me signing with the Cubs as a free agent."

Montgomery's feelings are similar.

"He's been unbelievable to me," Montgomery says. "I remember struggling in 2013, and him telling me, 'I believe in you.' He gave me that boost of confidence that got me to the majors. So when I came over here, I wasn't about to let him down."

Maddon wasn't actually in the weight room during the delay -- he was checking on the weather radar -- but he was there in a way. "That talk happens," Montgomery says, "because Joe trusts us. He empowers the veterans to set the tone."

Says Maddon: "Maybe it's because I'm a product of the '60s, but freedom is important to me. I want the players to be free to express themselves. I love it when they have those meetings among themselves. It's their livelihood. They should have a say in it."

Maddon plans to roll out a couple of more T-shirts this spring: "One is going to be 'D-Peat.' Defense wins championships.

"The other is 'Don't Forget the Heartbeat.' That one is going to have the logo of an umbrella with raindrops around it. And under the umbrella will be the score, 8-7."

We are Joe Maddon
Just trying to win a baseball game
You don't know that you're right
I don't know that you're wrong
We are Joe Maddon
And the world will never be the same

A fan in a Maddon No. 70 T-shirt is standing with his adult son at the railing behind the right-field seats at Sloan Park. "We paid $50 each for standing room," says Greg Hoyle, a firefighter from DeKalb, Illinois. "Well worth it, though. I never thought I'd see the day when I'd be watching the world champion Cubs."

Hoyle and his son had been in Wrigleyville for Game 7, going from bar to bar. When the rain interrupted play, they debated whether to go home, but when they heard the tarp was being taken off the field, they found a Mexican restaurant on Sheffield. "The rest was bedlam," Hoyle says. "We walked all the way back to Wrigley to pay our respects. I will never say a bad word about Joe Maddon. He created the atmosphere."

Turns out Hoyle has more in common with Maddon than a shirt.

"Do you know where we watched Game 5?" he says. "My father was such a Cubs fan that we put a Cubs emblem on his tombstone in Polo, Illinois. So we went to the cemetery that Sunday night and listened to the game on the radio in the dark at his gravesite."

The game on the field is scoreless after five, but then the Indians hit a couple of homers and take a 4-0 lead into the ninth. No sign of rain. Another man in an Ernie Banks jersey apologizes to his guests for taking them to a boring game.

But then with two outs, a man on and Queen's "We are the Champions" still ringing in everyone's ears, Cubs prospect Ian Happ hits a two-run bomb to halt the exodus of fans. As they turn around, though, minor league catcher Ian Rice strikes out looking.

"You're kidding me," says No. 14. "Looking at Strike 3 with the game on the line." He's actually kind of angry. At an exhibition loss. In the spring after a Fall Classic for the ages.

After failing for 108 years, the Cubs are now expected to repeat. How their fans balance gratitude with great expectations will be interesting to watch, and the spotlight will invariably fall on Maddon. What happens when one of his moves backfires in a crucial game? Will the fans forgive or forget?

"I would never want people to think I was criticizing Joe," says Thile, who wrote his song's final stanza -- "We are Joe Maddon" -- after the presidential election. "He took us to the promised land. He's Moses. If you see him, thank him for me from the bottom of my heart."

As for the man himself, well, he has kind of an unusual request.

"I have a thought for you," Maddon says. "You may have noticed that emotions are high right now. People see things in black or white. They're not listening to different viewpoints, respecting the other side. So I propose that we learn to appreciate a new color. Gray. It's my favorite."

It's like the song goes.

I don't know that I'm right
You don't know that I'm wrong
I'm just Joe Maddon