Joe Maddon is sitting behind his desk in the Cubs’ spring training facilities in Mesa, Arizona. He gets up and greets me with a man hug — “Fratello!” — as he always does. He’s a short, stocky, blue-collar guy. He has a gray goatee and black-rimmed glasses from the ’50s, a look that was replicated on thousands of faces in the stands of Wrigley Field last fall.
The last time I’d seen him, Maddon was managing the Tampa Bay Rays through a losing season. It was 2014, and he had already earned a reputation as an innovator, a patient handler of green youngsters and withering veterans who he somehow turned into overachieving teams. But never champions. He’d taken the Rays to the playoffs four times, and to the World Series in 2008, which they lost to the Phillies. Maddon must have known that with the Rays’ limited finances, even he could take them only so far. He’d have to settle for being known among baseball cognoscenti as “the smartest manager in the room.” Some said “too smart” — that he was always experimenting, never using the same lineup twice, a career minor leaguer out to prove he was smarter than all those managers with major league bona fides. It’s true that Maddon never had a single at bat in the bigs, but no one remembers that now. These days he’s known simply as the best manager in baseball, who in two years took the perennially futile Cubs to their first World Series championship in 108 years.
Now, in the spring of 2017, Maddon is under scrutiny to reproduce that championship with a young team that should only get better. For once, he’s stranded on top.
“Do I feel the pressure to repeat this season?” says Maddon. “I had more pressure on me in spring training after the 2015 season. We hadn’t won a game yet, and we were the favorite to win the World Series. The Cubs hadn’t even been in the series since 1945.” He shakes his head. “What’s that all about?”
Maddon believes it’s easier for his championship Cubs to win now because they know how to win. “They know what it’s all about now,” he says, “how to get it done. They don’t run away from the word expectation. They embrace expectations people have for us. I don’t have to motivate them this year. They’re more hungry for it.” I tell him about a story I wrote about a husband and wife who were swingers. When I asked the husband why he did it, he said, “Fantasies fulfilled become addictive.”
Maddon looks at me with a wary smile. He says, “Well, sorta, kinda, I guess. You win once, you want to win every year. Nothing else will satisfy you now. I like to put it this way: A mind once stretched has a difficult time going back to its original form.”
To understand who Maddon is, you need to understand what —or rather, who — came before him. His Italian father was a plumber who never took a day off from work until the day he died in 2002. His Polish mother worked as a waitress in the same diner, the Third Base Luncheonette in Hazleton, Pennsylvania, for more than 35 years, until she retired last year, at 84. Maddon himself worked for the Anaheim Angels organization for 31 years, as a minor league player who never rose above the lowest A league, then as a roving hitting instructor, scout, and manager.
Still, he pined for a call to the bigs. He once told me he was even willing to become some famous manager’s Sancho Panza: “Hey, Joe, could you pick up my laundry on the way to the stadium?” Maddon didn’t care. He’d eat the crumbs of humility just to get a shot because he knew that once he was there, he could prove he could manage a major league team.
At last, in 2000, he became a bench coach for the Angels; and then, in 2004, he was considered for the Red Sox managerial job, but it went to Terry Francona, an ex–major league player. “He was the right guy for that team,” Maddon says. “I was a minor league guy.”
His consolation prize was the manager’s job for the Rays, a team with one of the lowest payrolls in baseball, at the time $44 million a year, and a record of futility that rivaled even the Cubs’. In the Rays’ first eight years, they averaged 64 wins and 96 losses a year. Maddon took over in 2006, and two years later the Rays won 97 games. In fact, the Rays won 90 games or more in five of six consecutive years under Maddon. When Maddon’s contract expired after the 2014 season (he was being paid $2 million a year), he signed a five-year, $25 million contract to manage the Cubs. Instantly he went from being one of baseball’s most underpaid managers to being one of its highest paid.
I ask him if he had to learn how to manage differently with his more talented Cubs than his limited Rays. He shakes his head no.
“At Tampa, it was us against the world,” Maddon says. It was to his advantage to have no fan expectations for a team of youngsters and overlooked veterans. It was like choosing up sides for a three-man basketball game when you were a kid. You pick the worst players for your team: You lose, nobody criticizes you; you win, you’re Superman.
At Tampa, Maddon relished the “intellectual challenge” of making out a lineup with limited talent. In the minors, he learned to juggle one-dimensional players — a home-run-hitting outfielder who gets hit on the head by fly balls, and a slick-fielding outfielder who turns potential doubles into outs but can’t hit his weight. He learned to deal with a fluid roster when his star players were called up.
He once told me he didn’t understand how a manager like the Yankees’ Joe Girardi could motivate himself every day when all he had to do was punch in the same superstars on every lineup. Now that Maddon has those superstars, especially multimillion-dollar pitchers like Jake Arrieta and Jon Lester, I ask him how he motivates himself.
“Everything I did at Tampa, I do with Chicago,” Maddon says. “We do the same things on the field [his famous infield shifts, shortstop on the second-base side, second baseman in short right field]. I used 130 different lineups last year [just like with the Rays]. Kids got hurt [Kyle Schwarber]. Veterans needed rest. I mixed in young kids like Javier Baez, Anthony Rizzo, and Kris Bryant with veterans like Ben Zobrist. I played Ben at second, then the outfield, Rizzo in right and then at first base. At 26, Rizzo’s our oldest infielder. How about that?”
He kept his signature theme road trips, too — Cowboy Trip, Nerd Trip, Baby Pajamas Trip — which he instituted at Tampa to keep his players’ minds off another losing streak. Veterans like Zobrist grumbled, saying those themes were childish. But the younger players took them seriously. On the Baby Pajamas Trip, 6-foot-7 David Price got off the plane wearing a onesie with rabbit ears and feet. No one knew where he had bought it.
“The only losing streak we had last year,” says Maddon, “was six games. So, on the seventh, I brought a magician into the clubhouse before the game [for an exorcism, which worked].” After one tough loss, with his young players hanging their heads in the clubhouse, a mariachi band appeared, and soon the players were dancing. “I liked that,” Maddon says, “so they wouldn’t dwell on the loss.” He sees me smile and quotes Freud. “Freud said, ‘Nobody is remembered for being normal.’ ”Maddon leans over his desk to look at what I’m writing. “You have nice handwriting,” he says. I laugh and tell him it’s my wife Susie’s influence. I ask about his wife, Jaye. “Now that you’re famous, are you taking her to Paris in the off-season? Buy her a new mansion?”
“Aw, I got the same house I had in Tampa,” he says. “But we did go RVing during the off-season. We went to all the beaches we wanted to see in Florida. We lived on the beach in our RV.” I can picture it, Maddon sitting outside on his little deck chair in his Cubs T-shirt and shorts as he watches the sun come up over the ocean. Maddon could pass for any retiree from Hazleton, where he was raised, living the good life under the sun after years of hard work, tooling around Tampa in his restored ’57 Chevy. The only difference is now ”everybody recognizes me,” he says. “They come up to me, not only Cubs fans, to talk a little, but not too long. It’s nice.”
Sitting there in his retro glasses with his jaw like a melon, he reminds me of a boxer, maybe a middleweight. When he’s standing, he leans forward on the balls of his feet like a pug moving in for a body blow, or maybe just a drunk navigating a headwind. But he’s not a tough guy. There’s something soft about him, deferential, childlike. He told me once, “I never considered myself an adult. When I enter a room, I always look for the old guy.” Now in his early sixties, Maddon’s the old guy.
I ask him what he would have liked to have been if not a manager, assuming he’d say a plumber like his father. But he surprises me. He would have liked to have been a chef. Of course. A minimalist genius in the kitchen, turning his homegrown vegetables into peasant delicacies, a pizza made with figs from his tree and peppers from his garden.
“I just opened a restaurant in Tampa,” he says. “Ava, Inspired Italian Cuisine. We wood-grill steaks and pizzas. We make our own pasta. I get up in the morning, talk to the chef, greet customers.” He pauses, thinking a little, then adds, “But if I never had a baseball career, I’d have liked to have owned a resort in the Caribbean. You know, Papa Joe’s, me wearing a Hawaiian shirt and flip-flops, sipping piña coladas, greeting guests, coordinating my staff, making sure everything runs smoothly.” Like his teams. But even the sweetest Caribbean cove has hurricanes once in a while.
If Maddon has a weakness as a manager, it’s that he’s still conflicted by every manager’s most important decisions: whether to base them on data, or accepted baseball wisdom or instinct. Data tells a story based on numbers, and numbers don’t lie. “I learned to use computer data to make out lineups,” he says. “When to take a pitcher out of a game or leave him in.” Just look at the numbers. Maddon is dogmatic about what they say. After 90 pitches, a pitcher’s ERA skyrockets nine out of 10 times. But what about that one time out of 10? “Sometimes,” Maddon says, “a manager’s best decision is one he doesn’t make.”
I ask him what he does when data tells him one thing and his instinct tells him another? “That’s always been my problem,” he says. “I used to fear instinct was not rational, but I’m beginning to realize instinct is thinking in advance.” To Maddon, it’s about tapping into the subliminal knowledge he’s acquired over the years. “It’s something you nurtured unknowingly for years, and now it’s buried in your mind. You’re unaware of it as knowledge when it comes to the surface as instinct. It bothered me because I didn’t understand it for years. Now I’ve learned to trust it more.”
But it’s hard for a manager to explain a failed instinct after the fact.
Reporter: Well, he did give up the game-winning home run.
Manager: Yeah, but I had an instinct he’d get him out this time.
If a manager makes decisions based on data, and they fail, he can always defend them by unrolling his spreadsheet. See! Right there! He hits lefties better in day games. Maddon’s dilemma — data or instinct — caused him problems in the seventh game of last year’s World Series, which the Cubs almost lost in the late innings on decisions he’s had to defend for months, decisions that might have ruined the reputation he had so painstakingly built over the years.
In a nutshell, Maddon yanked starting pitcher Kyle Hendricks with the Cubs leading 5-1 in the fifth, with two outs and a runner on first. Hendricks was in an effortless groove at the time, but Joe brought in a starting pitcher, Jon Lester, who had not relieved in nine years. Lester gave up a swinging bunt for a hit and then two runs on a wild pitch, the score now 5–3. But then Lester settled into a groove in the sixth and seventh and seemed poised to finish out the game, which the Cubs now led 6–3. But to start the eighth, Maddon yanked Lester and put in his closer, Aroldis Chapman, with his 105-mile-per-hour fastball. But Maddon had overworked Chapman in the postseason, especially in game six, a Cubs blowout, 9–2. Now, in the crucial eighth inning of the final game, Chapman had only a 98-mile-per-hour fastball, and the Indians pounded him for three runs to tie the game at 6.
The fact that the Cubs ultimately won by scoring two runs in the 10th didn’t satisfy a lot of fans and baseball minds. San Francisco Giants TV analyst Mike Krukow called Maddon “arrogant” for trying to prove he was “smarter than the game” by “overmanaging.”
Maddon said he found all this second-guessing “humorous” but found himself explaining his thought process over and over. He had a data-based plan, and he stuck with it.
“It was a black-and-white decision,” the manager says. “I had planned to take Hendricks out after the fifth, before the game began, then use Lester in the sixth and seventh and Chapman in the eighth and ninth. But Lester had been throwing in the bullpen in the third inning. I didn’t want to risk tiring him out, so I brought him in early. Then to start the eighth, I had planned to bring in Chapman, so I did (no matter how well Lester was pitching). I had made up my mind in advance.”
But sometimes game situations are fluid, anything but black-and-white, and a manager’s pregame plan should be adjusted. What separates the greatest athletes and managers from the merely very good ones is their ability to act on instinct, not just data or knowledge, in a moment of crisis. They’re open to the possibility of mystery. And then, after the game, no matter the result, they take ownership of that instinct.
Maddon’s players are quick to defend him. Rizzo said the criticism of his manager was unfair. “He’s the best Chicago manager ever, and he has averaged 100 wins the last two years. He brought a culture that everyone has bought into.” He added, “We ride and die on his every move. He’s the ultimate captain of our ship. Without him and the tone he sets, none of us would be doing what we do.”
Rizzo was trying to explain Maddon’s greatest strength as a manager. He’s a master at keeping his players happy, breaking tension, soothing frayed egos and nerves over a 162-game season. Maddon sees the long haul, like a novelist plotting out his novel over 400 pages and three years of work. Then he patiently taps out each word.
But he’s not a poet, open to instantaneous, blinding inspiration. Instinct still scares him, so he tends to go with what got him here. Patience, a belief in data. It’s his nature.
Pat Jordan is the author of 13 books. He wrote about Barry Switzer in the January-February 2016 issue.