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Ex-Rays manager Joe Maddon deflects credit, Cubs eager to give it to him

“He sticks to his thoughts, his convictions, his feelings,” says Jaye Maddon of husband and hugging partner Joe.
“He sticks to his thoughts, his convictions, his feelings,” says Jaye Maddon of husband and hugging partner Joe.
Published Oct. 24, 2016

CHICAGO — Speaking from the stage in the middle of the pandemonium that was Wrigley Field late Saturday night as 42,000-plus who hadn't moved roared for him, to small groups on the infield between hugs and high fives, in the champagne-sprayed clubhouse wearing his custom wet suit, to anyone else who would listen, Joe Maddon insisted the colossal accomplishment of leading to the Cubs to their first World Series since 1945 was about everybody else.

The long-suffering generations of fans. His faith-investing bosses. The hard-working players, coaches and staff. His wife and kids and mom and late father. All the people he worked with on his long journey through the minor leagues.

"That's what I'm thinking about," Maddon said. "Honest to God."

But you didn't have to listen hard elsewhere to get the sense of just how much a part of it Maddon, in his second year managing the Cubs since leaving the Rays, really was.

"There's no way to measure it — Joe's incredible," Cubs owner Tom Ricketts said amid the celebration. "He keeps the players loose but focused. He understands these guys. He's their best friend and also their coach. He has a certain charisma that you just can't replicate. To guide these guys through these very, very tense moments … the guy's incredible."

From Cubs Hall of Famer Billy Williams to veteran players who know Maddon well such as longtime Ray Ben Zobrist to the Cubs' kiddie corps of phenomenal young talent, you hear much the same thing.

Also from his wife, Jaye, who fell in love with him years before Chicago did.

"He remains consistent," she said on the field. "He sticks to his thoughts, his convictions, his feelings about things. And then he follows through with it."

There are some Rays folks, and Rays fans, not all that happy about Maddon's success.

You may think Maddon was wrong in taking advantage of the opt-out clause in his contract spurred by Andrew Friedman's departure after the 2014 season.

You may feel Maddon was greedy in not re-signing when the Rays offered a new deal for more money than the $2 million or so he was making a year.

You may not like how curiously quickly the Cubs fired their manager to hire Maddon to a lavish five-year, $25 million deal.

You may even be convinced that Maddon's magic had worn off and his act had grown old in Tampa Bay, that he wouldn't have made the Rays much, or even any, better than they were this season in losing 94 games under Kevin Cash.

But you really can't deny that Maddon, 62, is the right manager at the right time for the Cubs.

Certainly baseball operations president Theo Epstein thinks so.

Which is exactly the opposite of how he felt after the first time he considered Maddon for a manager's job.

That was in 2003, when Epstein was running the Red Sox and interviewed Maddon, then still a coach with the Angels whose eccentric ways were becoming well known. Epstein actually liked him a lot but decided the fit wasn't right and instead hired Terry Francona, who led the Red Sox to two championships in his eight years and — in a story line for another day — will be in the opposing dugout Tuesday night when the Cubs open World Series play in Cleveland.

"In the end, we loved him, but we thought taking over a veteran team in a big market, that there would have been some risk involved because he's so unique," Epstein said. "I think it worked out best for both sides.

"He could go to Tampa (Bay), which was really like a petri dish at that time, and try things out, grow into it with young players and obviously blossom."

From that "petri dish" grew a 2008 Rays team that beat Epstein and Francona's Red Sox and advanced to the World Series before losing to the Phillies. That provided Maddon with a point of comparison, in having a relatively young team dotted with key veterans, and a base of experience for what's ahead this week.

When the final out was made against the Dodgers that set off the party that went well into Sunday morning, Zobrist, who signed with the Cubs this season, hugged Maddon and said, "We're going back together again."

"There's a lot of history for me and him and (bench coach) Dave Martinez to be able to get a second shot at doing what we ultimately weren't able to do in Tampa Bay," said Zobrist, who won a World Series ring with the Royals last season. "So it's fun."

Maddon is having plenty, enjoying his immense popularity — and probably never having to buy a drink or a meal again in the Windy City, definitely if he leads the Cubs to their first championship since 1908.

He still looks back kindly on his Rays days, saying only good things about his time there and nothing bad about the circumstances of his departure.

"I don't go there," he said. "I don't. It's just that theory and reality kind of came together at this point. And it's worked out."

Just tune in Tuesday to see.

Marc Topkin can be reached at mtopkin@tampabay.com.

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