Wednesday, December 13, 2017
Tampa Bay Rays

Joe Maddon matching higher expectations in second year with Cubs

CHICAGO — Joe Maddon has a new thing. Or an old thing that he's making new, anyway. Flamingos. Pink flamingos. Five plastic ones of various detail sit on his desk and around his office in the stunning new home clubhouse under otherwise ancient Wrigley Field. "They light up after a win," he says. "I turn them on."

There are four more flamingos, in life-size decals, on the wall that his desk faces. There's one sporting distinctive dark-rimmed glasses on a T-shirt distributed to his Cubs players reinforcing Maddon's "If you look hot wear it" dress code. And there's a flamingo-related theme with an in-the-works restaurant concept he's involved in that could open as soon as next spring in Chicago.

"They're all over the place," Maddon said. "I don't know why I am infatuated.

"I think the main emphasis was always The Flamingo Room in Hazleton (his Pennsylvania hometown), it was a main barroom on Broad Street. And I think living in Florida and seeing pink flamingos everywhere probably.

"And last year we brought the zoo in (for one of his team-building events) and there was a pink flamingo named Warren, and Warren was fabulous. If this (restaurant) happens, Warren is going to be at the grand opening. It's great."

Certainly, Maddon is in the pink these days.

His second season managing the Cubs has been even better than his first after leaving the Rays in October 2014 via an out clause in his contract. They lead the majors with 101-and-counting Ws and are the leading choice to roll through the playoffs that start next week and put an end to a slightly historic 107-year rut by winning the World Series.

"He's done extraordinary things since he's been here," said pitcher Jason Hammel, who has the perspective of playing for Maddon with the 2006-08 Rays.

Maddon, 62, stepped into a promising situation, taking over a Cubs team that had lost 89, 96 and 101 games the previous three seasons but was positioned for a massive turnaround due to a core of young talent and the resources to supplement with top-shelf veterans.

Last year was pretty good, as they won 97 games (though finishing third in the National League Central) then beat the Pirates in the wild-card game and the Cardinals in the Division Series but were swept in the NLCS by the Mets.

But this year, thus far, has been even better, as on Monday they became the first Cubs team since Gabby Hartnett's boys in 1935 to reach triple digits in wins.

Maddon makes a point of crediting the tremendous starting pitching and dazzling defense as the biggest reasons for their success, producing a stunning plus 252 run differential. (The Rays, in contrast, are minus 45.)

But Maddon has absolutely had a huge hand in it, as Cubs bosses, players and fans rave.

One factor is how he manages the games with occasionally unique strategy, exampled in the June game in which he moved a reliever to the outfield then back to the mound to navigate an extra inning, and again in August when one pitcher he put in left made a key catch and another delivered the winning run on a two-strike squeeze bunt.

"Everybody knows they have to stay on their toes," said Ben Zobrist, the longtime Rays star now reunited with Maddon in Chicago. "You never know what decision's going to be made."

More significant is the way he manages the clubhouse, employing all kinds of off-beat antics to lessen the pressure and dim the spotlight on the players, much as he did with the Rays. This year's list includes bringing in actual bear cubs and a mime to lead stretching drills during spring training to a half-dozen dressup trips, including onesies, Miami Vice and "minimalist zany suit," for which Maddon's featured tulips.

"He's the same guy," Zobrist said. "And he's made it fun for everybody, I know that."

Minimizing the expanded expectations, Maddon said his biggest difference this season is the increased familiarity with the NL competition, specifically within the division. Obviously he knows his own players better. And they him, which time has helped, especially for the veterans who didn't know exactly what to expect last year.

"He's a little different," catcher Miguel Montero said. "He's a tough person to read. … You come to play with him, you're a little skeptical. You don't know how to approach it. … But he's done a lot of great things for us."

The move from Tampa Bay to Chicago not only increased Maddon's bank account with a five-year, $25 million contract, but, obviously, his profile, even with some of the same things he said and did with apparent anonymity with the Rays getting perceived as new and different.

That escalation in attention has been good in certain ways, such as his charitable efforts, now featuring the line of T-shirts, featuring his "Try Not To Suck" slogan, and the just unveiled playoff version "Try Not to Suck-tober," available through korkedbaseball.com that benefit his Respect 90 Foundation.

But it has also made everyday life a bit challenging. He finds enjoying the downtown Chicago lifestyle he relishes a bit more difficult, making one concession by moving from the tony hotel he'd stayed in for two seasons to a lakefront apartment. And he's learning how to say polite "no's" at times to photos and autographs and personal tales of Cubs angst.

"More people are recognizing me now as I walk down there on Rush Street," said Maddon, who still owns an offseason home in Tampa. "Construction workers, little old ladies, guys walking their dogs, tourists. … They're all complimentary. Of course they're not going to say anything negative to your face. But it's incredible how many people are focused on us right now."

Not that this feathered life is anything to complain about.

Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]. Follow @TBTimes_Rays.

   
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