Wow, is this tough. I really don’t know whether I can get the words out. Still, I know it’s true, so I have to say it—so, here goes . . . no, no . . . wait. OK, take a breath, calm yourself, and just let people know what’s on your mind:
The Cubs are good.
Yeah, I realize I’m late to the party. Everyone knows that the Cubs are running away with the NL Central right now and that my beloved Cardinals are fighting to keep pace with . . . well, the second-place Pirates. It doesn’t help that the Cubbies are getting help from free-agent acquisition Jason Heyward, who spurned the Cards in the off-season to sign with our nemesis. However, I can’t ignore reality.
The bigger question, however, is how did the famously (and some would say proudly) moribund Cubs turn it around like this? Credit certainly goes to GM Theo Epstein, the former Red Sox GM who took that formerly cursed franchise and built a roster that took multiple World Series crowns. Still, I think the key ingredient in the Cubs’ management has been the addition of manager Joe Maddon.
I confess that I have a bias toward baseball managers. I grew up with Whitey Herzog’s lean and fast Cardinals teams, but there were plenty more managers who did far more than sit on the bench: They made the game more interesting. Think, for example, of Billy Martin and his legendary screaming matches with umpires (and his just as frequent and probably just as acrimonious feuds with his own boss). Never forget Earl Weaver, Tommy Lasorda, or Bobby Cox.
I put Joe Maddon on that list because he breaks with the current preference for buttoned-up baseball managers and more resembles the coaches from years past. (And, yes, I realize that he’s a departure from my Cardinals, who may be the most buttoned-up organization going.) If nothing else, Maddon is quirky. He relies on his players to use common sense, rather than laying down a strict set of rules. The team has no dress code: He recently said, “If you think you look hot, wear it,” which is the closest any baseball guy is going to come to saying, “Let your freak flag fly.” While with Tampa Bay, he bucked the league and insisted on wearing a hoodie in the dugout—and won. Last year, he asked the team to wear pajamas on a late-night flight back from Los Angeles.
So where’s the HR hook here? Well, isn’t it obvious? How could you not want to do your best for this guy! Sure, I realize I am an enthusiastic admirer of St. Louis and their “Cardinal Way,” but I have to admit there’s more than one way to get results. A baseball season is a long grind, and any number of organizations have to run their business as a marathon as opposed to a sprint. Players have credited Maddon with relieving the game-to-game pressures of a division race, freeing them to be in the moment and just play. For a young, talented roster like the Cubs, it looks like that approach just may pay off.