At the end of the 2014 season, the Cubs were 73-89, another losing season mired amidst a team in the middle of a rebuild.
Rick Renteria was the manager back then, hired only a year prior and promised by team president Theo Epstein that he would be back as skipper of the Lovable Losers.
Long story short, Renteria was given the boot and Joe Maddon, the highly successful and slightly unorthodox manager of the Tampa Bay Rays, was in.
And the rest, as they say, is history.
471 wins. Four consecutive postseason berths. Three consecutive NLCS appearances. One massive, end-all World Series title.
That, folks, is the resume of a manager who will go down as one of the best Cubs skippers in a long time. Or maybe ever.
All good things must come to an end unfortunately. Maddon, the pragmatic skipper who helped end the Cubs’ 108-year World Series drought, ended a fabulous five-year run at the helm of the Chicago Cubs last Sunday, with a bottle of Corona in his hand as he talked to reporters one last time. Classic Joe style.
It ended an unremarkable season in which the Cubs failed to reach the postseason for the first time under Maddon, finishing with a 84-78 record. A season in which the Cubs’ bullpen blew 28 saves, tied for third-most in MLB. Hell, even if they notch half of those saves, they win 98 games. But I digress, this is about Joe.
Joe had an unorthodox style when it came to setting a roster, rarely using the same lineup on back-to-back days. Maddon may not have used the same lineup all season for that matter. Regardless, it seemed to work for the past five years, and the players didn’t seem to mind–that was Joe’s way.
Joe brought with him a different kind of culture rarely seen by current MLB managers, one that seemed to fit the mold of the youthful roster the Cubs presented him when he signed on to lead the Cubs back in November of 2014. Costume parties for road trips. Bringing in a magician to help lighten the mood amidst a losing streak in 2015. Yearly team slogans, including maybe his best “Try not to suck” line from the magical 2016 season. This was, and still is, the way Joe operates and connects with his players.
Maddon was the one who told Javy Baez to just be himself. Baez had struggled as a 21-year old highly touted prospect in 2014, striking out a ton and nearly quitting the game of baseball. Four years later, Baez was MVP runner-up and is a major piece of the Cubs roster.
It was Maddon who told Kris Bryant his door was always open for him, another highly regarded hitter out of the Cubs’ farm system. Kris Bryant won rookie of the year in 2015 and was the MVP in 2016.
Anthony Rizzo became one of the best first basemen in the game while under Maddon. Rizzo has seen both extremes as a Cub, playing on 100-loss teams and then on the 100-win team in 2016. Rizzo–a young player himself–became a leader for the youthful Cubs, being one of the most tenured players on the squad. “Joe has changed my life, changed my career,” Rizzo said after learning Joe would be moving on. “I love him like a dad.”
This is just a snippet of what Joe Maddon brought to the Cubs. The common theme? He let the players be themselves. There were more good times than bad under Maddon, but even in the bad times, morale was high. The Cubs were a tight-knot group under Joe. They were allowed to be themselves and have fun.
I’m not sure what the next manager will bring to the Cubs. 2020 is going to look different in Wrigleyville. Maddon won’t be there, standing on the top step of the dugout, laughing and smiling with the group of kids he has mentored, many of them the only manager they have ever known. A definite father figure.
Will that affect the chemistry that many of them have grown accustomed to? Only time will tell. One thing is for sure: Joe Maddon changed the culture of the Cubs for the better. As a fan, one can only hope it stays that way, no matter who they decide to bring in.
Five years ago, Joe Maddon signed up to become manager of the Chicago Cubs. The same Cubs that had not won a championship in an eternity and then-some, the same Cubs that were in rebuild mode, but had a plethora of unproven young up-and-coming stars. It was Joe who took a risk to be the person that could go down in Cubs lore as a savior, or as many had done before him, just another notch on the Cubs managerial belt of mediocrity and disappointment. In the end, it was Joe who took that chance and it was Joe who delivered.
As a fan, I’ll never forget game seven of the 2016 World Series, when Joe pulled starter Kyle Hendricks in the fifth inning. Hendricks had been cruising and was arguably the top pitcher for the Cubs that postseason. I cursed Joe for that decision, screaming at the TV in my living room thinking Joe was overthinking things. It wasn’t the first or last time I questioned a Maddon decision, but it felt like at that moment Joe had panicked and the chance of a Cubs title in my lifetime had gone down the drain yet again in the biggest moment I had ever experienced as a Cubs fan.
But the rest, as they say, is history, and Joe said it best, standing in the hallway holding his Corona after his final game managing the Cubs: “If anyone wants to denigrate what we’ve done over the past five years, come see me at some point.” Touche, Joe. Touche.
And as he stood there, in that hallway in Busch Stadium for the last time in Cubbie blue, Joe left Cubs fans with a lasting impression of the man that we all got to know over the past five seasons: “For those that say those critical things, if you were in the other dugout, I would kick your ass,” he said. “That’s pretty much how this whole thing would work out, so just know that. Your ass would be kicked.”
Classic closing line. Thank you, Joe. Cheers.