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Former Rays manager Joe Maddon fulfills promise to Cubs fans

Manager Joe Maddon is already beloved among Cubs fans. He is memorialized on the exterior of Wrigley Field . . .
Manager Joe Maddon is already beloved among Cubs fans. He is memorialized on the exterior of Wrigley Field . . .
Published Oct. 13, 2015

CHICAGO — For a guy who always lives — though not necessarily drives — in the present, Joe Maddon allowed himself a momentary look back Monday morning. Steering his 1976 Dodge Tradesman van with the southwestern-themed side mural, ear-splitting sound system and shag carpet past the Cubby Bear bar on his way to manage the Cubs in their first postseason game at Wrigley Field in seven years, he thought back to his first day on his new job.

Having taken advantage of Andrew Friedman's departure to activate an opt-clause in his own contract with the Rays last October, and a week later having signed a five-year, $25 million deal to take over the lovable losers on the north side of Chicago, Maddon found himself sitting behind a table at the Cubby Bear for an awkward introductory news conference, rambling into what seemed like there-he-goes-again Joe-speak about taking the Cubs to the playoffs. This year's playoffs.

But 97 regular-season victories (17 more than the Rays), a National League wild-card win over Pittsburgh and a split in the first two games of the best-of-five Division Series against St. Louis later, there Maddon was, standing outside the home dugout at Wrigley Field talking with the Tampa Bay Times before Monday's 8-6 win in the first baseball playoff game in Chicago since the White Sox were eliminated in 2008 by his Rays.

"You can talk and talk, and you can think it, but to actually have the ability to live it is pretty spectacular," Maddon said. "To come this far this quickly, yeah, I believed we could. But when you actually feel what that thought feels like, it's pretty special."

As much as a lineup of young hitters and veteran pitchers keyed the Cubs' success, Maddon, 61, is a huge part of the story, applying many of the same philosophies, tactics and sayings — and gimmicks, such as magicians in the clubhouse, dress-up trips and roaming wild animals — he did during nine seasons with the Rays.

"He's been fundamental in the success this year," Cubs baseball operations president Theo Epstein said Monday. "The organization has been amassing young talent and turning around for three years now, but it's really hard to capture just the right vibe at the big-league level, and he's a master at it.

"All our players, young, old and in between, love being around him. . . . He creates the perfect environment for players to be themselves and perform at the highest level while having fun. That's priceless.

"We would not be here without Joe at this moment in time, that's for sure."

Cubs players, who watched Maddon for years from other dugouts, say it has been a tremendous fit.

"He's had the most impact a manager could have on a team in his first year," veteran catcher David Ross said. "His importance can't be overstated. Just his calmness, how collected he is, how he communicates, how nothing seems to be a big deal. His personality in general really rubs off on this group.

"His personality is probably as good of a fit for this team as you can get."

That's even more true in Chicago, where Maddon's perpetual positivity offsets the fatalistic fans who cringe at the first sign of doom they know is impending.

"There's plenty of negativity around this place," said assistant hitting coach Eric Hinske, a member of that '08 Rays team, "so Joe's the perfect man for the job. Definitely."

Praise for the work Maddon has done comes from many other directions, including former Cubs manager Dusty Baker ("Outstanding job"), TBS network analysts Gary Sheffield ("Wonderful") and Hall of Famer Pedro Martinez ("I have to tip my hat to him"), cabbies and talk show callers all over town. A third manager of the year award may be waiting.

It also has come from one of the Cubs' biggest big-name fans, musician Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam. Though Vedder puts words together with music regularly, he was initially at a loss Monday when asked how much Maddon has meant to the team.

"Speechless. Just speechless," Vedder told the Times. "And he's just an incredible human. You can apply his perspective to just about everything and you raise up your level of consciousness and performance. It seems very Zen to me. I think it encourages people to elevate and almost levitate in the present. . . .

"Having one great manager in your life, or one great teacher, it can change not only your future, but the future of those around you. And I feel like that explains Joe perfect as well. . . . It's an incredible fit for this city, and for this team. And we're really fortunate."

Living in a hotel suite in downtown Chicago, eating and grabbing drinks at some of the city's popular establishments, Maddon can't help but be aware of his increasing elevation in status to Saint Joe.

And that's with the Cubs still being two steps from going back to the World Series for the first time since 1945, much less having the chance to win their first championship in, oh, just 107 years.

"It's hard to go anywhere right now without that kind of reception," Maddon said. "But at the same time, people are very respectful of your time. So it's a very Midwestern methodology, and not very obtrusive."

Overall, Maddon said he is "really happy" with the way the new gig has turned out, and that's apart from the success on the field. His wife, Jaye; buddy Michael Stewart, his partner in Ava, the trendy south Tampa restaurant; and some other friends were in Chicago on Monday to share in the moment.

But he hasn't totally distanced himself from the Rays, noting some similarities between the makeup of this Cubs team and that 2008 squad. And he's keeping tabs on the current team overall under Kevin Cash, texting individual players to congratulate or encourage them, staying in touch with some staffers.

"I do miss a lot of what we had down there," he said. "I followed them this year. I was happy. I thought they were pretty successful this year. I know record-wise (80-82) it didn't work exactly like they were looking, but they did a lot of really good things. Injuries absolutely hurt them. . . . They missed so much good starting pitching, that could have made a big difference. But there was the development of a lot of the young players. And I was really happy for Logan (Forsythe). They are definitely on the right track."

What he doesn't get are the fans that have turned on him, claiming he turned his back on the Rays and expressing their animus. There are some, as well as some Rays officials, who view the playoffs with an ABC approach — Anybody But Cubs.

"For me, I think it was good for a change of scenery overall, just having a new challenge," Maddon said. "And from their perspective, the Rays, I think it was good also in that regard. I think it's good to be able to move it along, give other people an opportunity also.

"I think it's kind of a win-win moment. That's how I saw it."

Only to this point, the Cubs have done more winning. And they are still playing.

Contact Marc Topkin at Follow @TBTimes_Rays.