Chicago is known as a veritable Mecca of international cuisine, but Theo Epstein and company have a metaphorical buffet of appealing options to satiate Shohei Ohtani’s baseball appetite. The Cubs front office can sell a state-of-the-art spring training facility, ravenous fan-base, freshly minted player clubhouse, organizational culture other franchises can only try to emulate, and leading baseball minds in the business.
And when I say leading baseball minds, I very much mean Joe Maddon, the manager who has been so heavily criticized since the Cubs’ victorious World Series run. Despite all that, Maddon is one of the most crucial aspects of Epstein’s rebuilding plan.
Don’t underestimate the importance of this innovative manager when it comes to recruiting the most intriguing international free agent in recent memory, if not ever. Maddon is the man who wanted to pioneer the two-way player 25 years ago, when talks of such an idea were immediately shut down by front offices and probably seen as criteria for clinical insanity.
“When I was in the minor leagues with the Angels, I wanted to do it with a kid by the name of Deshawn Warren in 1992,” the Cubs skipper told 670 The Score’s Spiegel and Parkins.
“I asked Mr. O’Brien — the [Angels] GM, Danny O’Brien — if I could, if we could work out a schedule for Deshawn to pitch and then DH and play some outfield and take batting practice, etc. Because the tool was that good, the tool of running. I asked and I was denied.”
Maddon certainly isn’t afraid of making unorthodox moves. You may recall how he utilized three relievers — Travis Wood, Spencer Patton, and Pedro Strop — in left field during an extra-innings win in Cincinnati back in late June of 2016. Maddon called upon Wood to play left in a game against the Mariners a month later, the game in which Wood glided into the Wrigley ivy to make one of the most celebrated catches of the year.
Employing defensive shifts in Tampa Bay, batting Anthony Rizzo leadoff, and playing Kyle Schwarber in right field for the first time in his career during the 2015 Wild Card game are just a few more examples of Maddon’s open-mindedness.
But thinking broadly is not Maddon’s defining trait. An intangible level of human understanding is what sets apart him from other managers. The baseball lifer and professional motivator just seems to “get it.” In 2015, Maddon called struggling lefty reliever Tsuyoshi Wada into his office to loosen him up and give him a bit of advice.
“I just wanted to talk to him to get him to settle down — and actually get to know him better — and understand what’s going on,” Maddon explained. “I told him: ‘This next time out, you’re going to use your fastball. You’re going to pitch seven innings. And you’re going to win. And when you get done, I’m going to buy you a really nice bottle of wine.’
“But when you talk to the press, I want you to tell them, ‘I am a badass.'”
Wada went on to do exactly what Maddon envisioned, pitching seven innings of shutout ball en route to a 17-0 shellacking of the Indians.
“As soon as I took him him of the game [against the Indians],” Maddon said, “I walked up to him and I said, ‘Don’t forget what you’re going to tell the press tonight.’ And then he said, ‘I am a badass.’ And then he wrote it down on a piece of paper. It was outstanding.”
Maddon’s experience with other notable Japanese players could factor in the Ohtani sweepstakes as well. The manager permitted the jubilant Munenori Kawasaki to be himself throughout his time as a Cub, which lightened up the clubhouse. Kawasaki was actually one of the first players sprinting out of the dugout when Anthony Rizzo received Kris Bryant’s slippery throw to secure a World Series championship.
Maddon clearly has an innate ability to understand people on a level most managers can’t, regardless of whether a player is from Japan, Venezuela, or the United States. In fact, there are some days I truly wish Maddon could call me into his office to give me a pep talk. It’s not all sunshine and rainbows, though.
From second-guessing bullpen usage in a World Series-clinching postseason in this past NLCS to being branded a liar by the Chicago media, Maddon can’t escape judgment. Nor should he, as perfection is an impossible ideal. But there is no one else in the baseball world I rather have at the helm of this Cubs team than Joe Maddon. He is the best choice to help young players grow into World Series champions by enabling their individuality and promoting a creative environment.
And that’s exactly what the Cubs should try to sell to the 23-year-old Japanese superstar when they sit down with him in the coming days.