From savior to saying goodbye, the Joe Maddon story in Chicago has had all the elements of a good drama -- but it doesn't have the happiest of endings for the manager who was in the dugout for the most successful stretch in franchise history, highlighted by the Cubs' 2016 World Series victory.
Maddon's tenure is coming to its end at the same time a disappointing season does. On Sunday, the team announced there will be no contract extension for the man with the second-highest winning percentage in franchise history.
Maddon's dismissal from the Cubs boils down to one sentence: He wasn't able to outmanage the mistakes the front office saddled him with. The issues go deeper than just those 13 words, of course, but it's important to keep in mind the collective failure of the group -- which includes management, coaches and, of course, players.
Maddon is the scapegoat in this story, but he allowed himself to become one by overseeing an underachieving team two years in a row, culminating with an epic collapse to end this season.
Why Maddon is out
Was Maddon set up for success the past two seasons? Not entirely. But he was in charge of a roster that was expected to win big and still had a chance to do so, despite some pretty clear flaws.
He and the Cubs need to look no farther than 90 miles north of them to see a team that did all the things the Cubs could not when adversity struck. The Milwaukee Brewers managed to -- fill in the cliché here -- rise to the occasion, rally around an injury and respond to their manager. Craig Counsell is likely the NL Manager of the Year for leading a team with all sorts of holes on its roster and that lost its best player at the worst time. Sound familiar? That could have been Maddon and the Cubs, but instead Chicago crumbled under the weight of the stretch run as it became evident that the magic of 2016 was gone for good.
"It's hard to put your finger on it or place blame on any one group," veteran Daniel Descalso said. "As a collective whole, we just didn't do enough. We never got into that gear to push past that barrier and get on a roll."
The old saying that staying on top is harder than getting there rings true for these Cubs. Beginning in 2018, the thread that kept them all going in the same direction began to come apart. The cumulative losses of edgy leaders such as David Ross, Miguel Montero and John Lackey began to affect the clubhouse. Left in their place was a group of good leaders by example but not necessarily the type to get in a player's face.
And neither was Maddon.
"When you make a lot of errors in the field, when you make a lot of errors in the baserunning, that's momentum," pitcher Cole Hamels stated. "That's an area that could get corrected. There's still a lot of players in here that are still learning."
That's not to say Maddon didn't have stern conversations with his players, but the sloppy results indict him either way: Either he didn't address matters strongly enough, as errors and outs on the bases piled up to league-leading highs, or the message didn't get through.
The lack of accountability can manifest in many ways, obvious and not so obvious. Leading the league in bad baserunning and unfocused defense is obvious; not progressing as a player or forgetting to play a team game is more ambiguous but is no less on the manager.
"Especially in this city, with the expectations on this franchise, you have to stay a little bit more on it [the little things]," Hamels continued. "Giving away games, early in the year, understanding they will come back and bite you."
And bite they did. The Cubs were in no position to withstand a fluky run in September when they lost five straight one-run games. The answer was to be better earlier.
It isn't Maddon's fault that Albert Almora Jr. stopped hitting, David Bote stopped fielding, Hamels got hurt, Jon Lester showed his age, Kyle Hendricks couldn't win on the road, Willson Contreras and Kyle Schwarber kept getting thrown out on the bases, and the front office signed Craig Kimbrel months too late. But even the most earnest Maddon defenders have to admit one indisputable fact: It all happened on his watch.
"I still don't get why we made all those mistakes," Descalso opined. "They really hurt us."
The majority of Cubs fans -- you know, the ones not tweeting angrily all day -- will recognize the contributions Maddon made to the team and the city during his tenure. He really was the perfect person at the exact right time to lead the Cubs to the promised land.
What was so special?
Maddon firmly believes that playing loose is the only way to play. Yes, it sounds like something that backfired eventually, but in 2015, and especially in 2016, his team faced immense pressure to do something that hadn't been done in over a century. So many previous Cubs teams had fallen victim to what comes with trying to end the longest championship drought in pro sports history. Maddon defused that tension while providing an atmosphere where young players could contribute right away.
"Joe is great," reliever Pedro Strop said. "He lets us be us and just go play."
In terms of Maddon's best moves during that time, two come to mind. In the book "Try Not to Suck," a bio of Maddon, Cubs president Theo Epstein says the manager's best work came in relation to benching perennial All-Star Starlin Castro while promoting 21-year-old Addison Russell to starting shortstop. It showed Maddon was willing to make the tough decision and tell the truth to a veteran. The next spring, he came up with the slogan "Embrace the target," which meant the Cubs were not going to run away from the lofty expectations the baseball world had bestowed on them in 2016. Instead, they were going to meet them head-on. And they did.
"That was really smart," general manager Jed Hoyer said after the World Series. "Joe did a great job of taking all the pressure off and letting the guys just go play."
What came after the 2016 season was always going to be rockier than most wanted to believe. After one championship in 108 years, did people really think the Cubs would go 2-for-2 or even 2-for-3? Many obviously did, but Epstein is too smart to fire a manager simply because he didn't win a second championship. Either way, Maddon's legacy should be cemented. The ending wasn't great, but the body of work speaks for itself. Lester said it best: Maddon should be revered in Chicago. And he will be, especially as the frustration of the past two seasons begins to fade.
"The way that it's ending is tough to see," Kris Bryant said. "The guy is a legend here. A legend. Winning so many games here and completely turning this team into a winning team and culture. I don't think he's getting enough credit for what he's done."
What's next for the Cubs?
The Cubs might already have their next manager in mind, but at the very least they should know the qualities they need. Maddon worked hard to connect with a younger generation of players, but a younger manager and former major leaguer will inherently speak the millennial language. Whether the next manager has experience or not, he had better understand the ever-changing dynamics within a pitching staff, especially as it relates to the National League. If people wondered about Maddon's bullpen maneuvers, what will they say of a rookie manager's?
Just as important as any in-game decision, the new manager must work with a firmer hand. By their own admission, Cubs players have been pampered by owner Tom Ricketts and team brass. It's first class all the way, but the players haven't always reciprocated. In a sense, it feels as if they've taken advantage of their parents and now need a little more discipline in their lives.
"Every player and situation calls for something different," Descalso said. "There's some really respected guys in this clubhouse and when they speak, guys listen. Leadership here is good, but leaders come in different forms and personalities."
Is there one candidate who best fits all those attributes? Counsell's name comes to mind as the prototype of what Chicago is looking for, but he already has a job. Ross has some of those qualities but no experience running a pitching staff. Joe Girardi could qualify but might not connect the way the Cubs need. No matter what happens, the Cubs need a new leader for a new way. The old way led to a magical moment in 2016. Now it's time for something different. And for their sake, it had better be better.