Zen Master: Joe Maddon is Phil Jackson 2.0

Phil Jackson is one of the greatest coaches in the history of sports and it’s all because he’s one of the greatest psychological manipulators who’s ever lived. That might sound negative, but I mean it as high praise. Jackson was able to balance egos, focus the competitive drive of his players, and influence figures of authority. The result: 11 NBA titles with the Bulls and Lakers.

An argument can be made that he only did all that with some of the greatest players the game has ever seen, but Jackson’s orchestration went well beyond just rolling the ball out and letting Jordan, Shaq, or Kobe do whatever they wanted. Well, there was some of that at times too, but Phil knew which buttons to push and when.

It’s been a long time since the lanky leader roamed the sidelines in Chicago and the city hasn’t seen a coach or manager of his ilk since. Until, that is, Joe Maddon came to town and started describing his own philosophy of peace, love, and baseball. And given the collection of talent being massed at Wrigley, the parallels become stronger.

Patrick Mooney wrote of Maddon’s approach, which can be boiled down to “see ball, hit ball.” But the words from the bespectacled baseball baron himself sound so much cooler.

“It’s all about routine,” Maddon said, “and the ability to process and stay in the present tense and the ability to eject negative information or noise. It sounds simple, but that’s probably when guys go sideways.

“That’s the biggest problem – we all go sideways. We get obsessed with noise and we just can’t focus on what’s going on right now. So (Ravizza’s) good at presenting thoughts that help guys stay in the present tense. That’s what I’m talking about.”

“That’s where the confusion sets in,” Maddon said. “Because when you’re at the plate, the guy’s got three different major-league pitches he throws really well and you’re up there worrying about where your feet are, (where) your hands are. Your head is (spinning). That’s why the ball gets beyond you and that’s why you’re not a really good hitter.”

In other words, all of that confusion and anxiety takes over, it has a hegemony on what would otherwise be untethered ability. Now the Cubs new yogi seeks to center his charges and help them to push out all the distractions, to straighten out and keep from getting sideways.

“Moving forward, the one thing I want to see us do is be less mechanical and be more mental in our approach,” Maddon said. “(Let’s) have a better plan at the plate that is void of mechanical noise, physical noise. If we can arrive at that point, this is going to be a pretty good offense.”

Bust out the tie-dyed BP jerseys and feng shui the clubhouse, this team is going full on hippie! Maybe I’m mixing and matching too many zeitgeists and cultural movements, but I think you get the point, man. Then again, I’m sort of implying that Maddon’s relying on karmic assistance for the Cubs’ potential offensive prowess when it’s quite the opposite.

He’s not preaching a sermon of sitting back and letting the game take care of itself, but rather of preparation. If his hitters have a plan at the plate and an understanding of what a given pitcher is going to do, they can relax in the psychological recliner of confidence that Maddon and hitting coach John Mallee have provided.

Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo in the 2013 season are perfect examples of what happens when you allow the noise to take over, just as their 2014 campaigns are twin prototypes for what Maddon is talking about moving forward. If Javier Baez can do more of the same…woo, boy.

Starting today, we’ll finally get the chance to pair actions with the soundbites upon which we’ve subsisted these past few months, to see what impact the new regime has on this Cubs team. And if Maddon and Co. walk as well as they talk, they might eject a lot of noise, but they’re going to create a lot more.


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