Joe Maddon shifted my view of just how much I can like a manager. It’s not that I hadn’t liked Cubs managers before, I certainly had. Lou Piniella, for all of his faults, probably earned significantly more of my adoration than he deserved. But those faults sure were there, culminating in a seemingly disinterested Sweet Lou stepping down in the middle of the 2010 season. Looking back, I’m not so sure I’d like him as much these days as I once did.
Dusty Baker was someone I once thought of favorably as well, but consistent unforgivable personnel decisions soured that relationship pretty quickly. To the extent that I have a scale of managerial approval or affection, Mike Quade, Dale Sveum, and Rick Renteria didn’t even do enough to register.
Joe Maddon, on the other hand, didn’t just register — he broke the scale. It’s hard to remember now in the face of a barrage of complaints about the degree to which his act has grown stale, but there was a time when Maddon was much more than just a better fit than he’s perceived to be now. He was an absolute breath of fresh air compared to what we all thought a Cubs manager could do or say.
It all started with that first press conference, hosted at the Cubby Bear across the street from Wrigley Field due to construction at the ballpark. Maddon got his Cubs tenure started off in a way that only he could, strolling in wearing jeans and buying everyone in attendance — other than Paul Sullivan, that is — a shot and a beer.
It wasn’t the Pennsylvanian’s quirkiness, which ranged from that press conference to rolling around in an RV dubbed Cousin Eddie, that made him the perfect guy for our favorite baseball team, though. It’s the attitude he brought and the culture he created.
Maddon threw out the unwritten rules and fostered a positive, supportive, and process-focused environment. He was willing not just to let his young players keep playing through their struggles so that they could learn from them and grow, he stuck up for the cohesive unit he created as its unquestioned biggest influence.
Perhaps no moment cemented that culture more than Maddon’s post-game press conference following an incident in which the first place Cardinals. Led by Mike Matheny, a man who might as well have been created in a lab to be Maddon’s opposite, the Cards threw at Anthony Rizzo with intent.
Maddon had had enough of his opponents’ deification of “The Cardinals Way,” calling out hypocrisy when he saw it and sticking up for a group of players that might not yet have developed the gumption to stick up for themselves. That attitude played at least some part in shattering the myth of the Cardinals’ invulnerability, as the Cubs triumphed over their rivals in a division series victory that no one could have seen coming at the start of a season in which little was expected.
The first year Cubs manager dropped one of my very favorite Maddonisms after that series win, hitting the upgrade button on “trust the process” in saying that “the process is fearless.”
What a line, right?
We all know the story from there. While the team would fall short that season, they wouldn’t have to wait long for glory. Whether you’re one of the folks who chooses to focus on some of Maddon’s questionable bullpen decisions in Game 7 or not, I think it’s beyond doubt that he created the kind of environment that made getting there in the first place possible.
Cubs Insider’s Brendan Miller wrote at length about the culture evident in the 2016 Cubs and the myriad ways in which it contributed to the organization’s success, so I’ll refrain from diving significantly deeper into that here. What I will expand on, though, is the singular role Maddon played in creating the kind of culture that permitted the Cubs to reach the promised land. In a world where results are everything, his unflinching dedication to a sound, consistent process gave the Cubs the best result they’ve ever had.
I’m not oblivious to the ways in which the Cubs’ fortunes have changed in recent years. It would be impossible for anyone who’s followed this team to any significant extent not to be. I truly don’t know the degree to which Maddon was or was not responsible, since it’s nearly impossible to divvy up credit and blame with any degree of confidence. Something we do know beyond doubt is the influence he had in the most successful era of Cubs baseball that any of us have ever seen.
While I certainly wish that Maddon hadn’t led off with Albert Almora Jr. as much as he did, or used Pedro Strop in key situations long past the point at which it was clear he was no longer effective, I also wish that he had been given a strong enough roster that he wasn’t tempted to make those decisions in the first place.
Those flaws aside, the impact Maddon had as the tone-setter for this club was undeniable. If you somehow didn’t know that, allow Jon Lester to catch you up.
More Lester on Maddon: “You talk about a rebuild, you talk about signings, you talk about all that stuff, he was the first guy to write his name on the paper. He believed. Him believing made other people believe. What he’s done for this city, its huge.
— Jesse Rogers (@ESPNChiCubs) September 26, 2019
I still don’t know how I feel about Joe Maddon no longer being the Cubs’ manager, but I know without question how I feel about him having been in that role at all. It’s one of the best things that ever happened to this franchise.