Friday, November 24, 2017

Inside Joe Maddon's approach to Cubs anxiety, expectations


CHICAGO — The possibilities of what that 108-years-in-the-making World Series victory could actually look like around the Windy City have naturally danced fleetingly through the heads of some Cubs.

"I hope it doesn't burn itself down," pitcher Jason Hammel said.

"Obviously it's going to be a party that won't stop for a long time."

For the Cubs to get there, to add another 11 wins to their majors-best 103, they have to defeat the Giants in the division series that starts Friday night, then either the Dodgers or Nationals and the American League survivor.

But equally challenging may be taming the burden of expectations — and history.

These are the Cubs, after all. The lovable losers that just can't win, and have found a way to keep it that way since 1908, not even making it back to a World Series since 1945.

But not only are they in the playoffs for a second straight year, they are — in the name of Bartman, black cats and billy goats — the clear favorites to win it all.

"It's pretty crazy," Hammel said.

As satisfying as last season's 97-win and championship series appearance was in manager Joe Maddon's debut after coming over from the Rays, he knew it would only increase the pressure to do more this year.

So he addressed that from the start, the notes from his spring training opening speech reflecting that: No. 1 on his list of six circled talking points was "Embrace the target," the words "Expectations" and "Pressure" symbolically jotted outside the circle.

Special to the Times

Joe Maddon shared a copy of his notes from his spring training address to the Cubs, telling them to embrace the target and not let the expectations and pressure be negatives

"The biggest thing is to really repel expectations and pressure, and to use those as positives and not negatives," Maddon explained, sitting in his office a couple weeks ago. "Those are the words everybody understands. Almost automatically they are put in the negative column, and I want to put them in the positive column automatically.

"In other words, if you have expectations and pressure attached you, that means something good can happen here."

That's the way Maddon's mind works, as he spewed a similar mantra when leading the previously downtrodden Rays on a run of four playoff appearances in six years, one that now seems like a long time ago.

Pitching that positive spin is a little tougher in Chicago, where the runway of failure extends through generations and the angst and sense of impending doom among the fans can be smothering.

To that, Maddon, who spent nine years with the Rays and 31 before that in the Angels organization, pleads ignorance, even if it may be somewhat disingenuous.

"What's happened in the past has never been part of my thought process," Maddon said. "Plus, I was an American Leaguer. I didn't know hardly anything about the Cubs until I got here. I'd never been in the ballpark until (the Rays played there in) 2014. You hear about all this suffering, but I never really knew about it. So coming late to the party, I don't feel any of that. And I still don't.

"I don't want to say it didn't matter, but it didn't matter. That has nothing to do with my job, and how I'm doing my job. Whether it's a Bartman or a g…" Maddon said, stopping short of saying goat. "Any of this stuff. Why does it matter?"

What does matter is that Maddon has sold that message throughout the Cubs clubhouse, using bench coach Dave Martinez, his consigliere from the Rays days, to get the players to ignore the noise from fans, friends and even family and simply focus on each day in isolation.

"That was kind of the way Joe always approached things back in Tampa Bay, and I think that's the reason why we played so well a lot of those years down the stretch when the pressure was on because we didn't really think about the next day," said second baseman Ben Zobrist, who reunited with Maddon in Chicago this year.

"I think that really helps the mindset in here. It's a stay in the present, stay focused on the simple things, do simple better, that kind of mindset. It helps manage the overall expectations."

Longtime Rays pitching coach Jim Hickey is a Chicago native, so he knows Maddon, knows the Cubs fans and knows the challenge.

"If they win, it's going to be like Boston in 2004 on steroids, and if they lose it's going to be just extremely, extremely disappointing," Hickey said. "It's a different animal now that the expectations are there, and it does become a little more of a burden."

Let the games — on the field, and in their minds — begin.

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

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