The degree of difficulty increased significantly for Cubs players in 2017, and several failed to play up to expectations in the first half, leaving them two games below .500 and looking for answers.
It was also a tenuous start for manager Joe Maddon, who couldn’t get the team in gear and drew criticism for leading off Kyle Schwarber and any other number of his Rolodex-lineup decisions.
But Maddon flicks off criticism like dandruff on a tuxedo, insisting it’s all part of baseball’s rich pageant. He said he hasn’t changed a thing since he started out, that changing lineups to utilize his bench and rest regulars is one of his trademarks.
“That’s my whole managerial career,” he said. “It’s because we’re not set up for (sticking with a regular lineup), and because if you did, guys would be dead in the ground right now.”
Maddon will likely employ a more set lineup in the postseason, with the same four infielders and Willson Contreras behind the plate. The outfield rotation will depend on who’s pitching and whether Jason Heyward sits against some left-handers, as he did in the 2016 postseason.
No matter what Maddon decides when he sits in front of his iPad Pro and writes out the lineup, he knows it probably will start a spirited debate.
Why does it fascinate Cubs fans that Maddon won’t stick with a lineup?
“I think it’s a regurgitation of what they’ve heard a lot of times,” he said. “Whether it’s interfamily or talk radio or if they listen to one source and that source is pounding on that, they’ll regurgitate.
“I get it. It’s barroom banter, something to do on the internet now, or you read it in the paper or it’s your favorite talk-radio guy.”
Maddon admitted this season was “tougher” than last for him while trying to keep his players “even-keeled, believing in themselves, not losing faith, not becoming pessimistic” during the first-half struggles.
“Everybody is looking in all different directions for answers, and for me the whole thing was mental fatigue, be patient, don’t run them into the ground too early,” he said. “And I thought, if we’re good, if we’re healthy, it’ll come back to us.
“It’s hard to convince people something that simplistic is an answer or a reason. It has to be, like, mechanical, or a guy isn’t using his abilities, or a guy doesn’t care anymore, or he’s satisfied with what has happened in the past. I don’t believe that.
“I do believe that the adrenaline that’s utilized — the adrenaline junkie in all of us — from the previous two years, it’s hard to get back to that level. Here comes April, May, June … it’s hard to really recharge or get to that mental level.”
The Cubs managed to recharge in the second half, and now they’re heading to their third straight postseason under Maddon, the first time that has happened since 1906-08.
Maddon won’t win the NL Manager of the Year award, but it might have been his best job in his three seasons in Chicago, managing to keep hope alive when it looked like a repeat might be a pipe dream.
“The one thing we all take away from Joe is when we were five out on July 1st or 3rd or whatever, and he didn’t say, ‘Oh, my God, we’re five out on July 3rd,'” Cubs Chairman Tom Ricketts said. “He said, ‘We have a good team, we’re just going to keep playing and it’s a long season.’
“One of the things that will really be the hallmark of Joe Maddon when he’s in the Hall of Fame, people will talk about a guy who managed his team the whole season. Not just for June.”
Maddon’s appeal lies in his everyman approach to life. Even though most Cubs fans, and baseball fans in general, disagreed with his handling of Aroldis Chapman and Kyle Hendricks in the World Series, some accusing Maddon of overmanaging on the big stage, he remains as popular as ever in Chicago.
It’s really no surprise.
Chicago likes its characters, and Maddon is like a character actor in a profession full of George Clooneys. When Cubs President Theo Epstein first interviewed him for the Red Sox managerial vacancy that went to Terry Francona, Epstein’s first impression was Maddon was someone who refused to compromise his personality to get a coveted job.
“It was just how different he was than anyone else we ever interviewed — his offbeat sense of humor, and the use of the language and the way his mind worked, and his mode of transportation,” Epstein once told me, referring to Maddon’s bicycle.
“It was different. Everything about him was different than what you would expect from a manager, and it was great and refreshing.”
Epstein passed on Maddon, who went on to establish himself with Tampa Bay, defying the odds by making the small-market, low-payroll Rays a perennial contender.
When Maddon exercised the opt-out clause in his contract after 2014 and arrived in Chicago with his “shot-and-a-beer” news conference at the Cubby Bear, one of his first edicts was he would be “talking playoffs” in 2015.
It sounded like fake news, but the Cubs have been talking playoffs ever since Maddon arrived.
“Chicago has changed me in that I feel so fortunate to get the opportunity to live there,” Maddon said. “I’ve always wanted to live in an urban situation, in a big city, and the best one came to me very fortuitously.
“Living there for me, a guy from my background and how I got there, to be 60 years old and have this first-time event, first-time method of doing all this, I felt so revitalized and refreshed. It was kind of like being a freshman in college and going to the University of Chicago Cubs.”
Cubs fans immediately accepted Maddon, and three years into his job, he feels completely at home.
“Chicago is just a bigger version of Hazleton, (Pa.),” he said. “I was so familiar with everybody there, the people I’d met for the first time. It’s really just a bunch of small neighborhoods, no different (than Hazleton). So there are all these connections. I can’t tell you why (I was accepted), but Hazleton is a microcosm of Chicago. It’s like home and I connected with them immediately.”
Maddon has two years left on his five-year, $25 million deal, though an extension before long seems a no-brainer. At this point, Maddon doesn’t see himself managing in any other city.
“No, I hope not,” he said. “I don’t want to. We’ll see how long everyone wants to stay together, keep the band together, and then I don’t even know what the next thing is for me.
“I know with my age (63), it indicates it should be (the last stop), but hopefully we’ll keep it rolling right. You have different things you might want to accomplish later in your life, but I’m pleased and fortunate to be where I’m at.”
Now Maddon is back in the October spotlight, where the scrutiny is more intense and every move becomes life or death.
He welcomes the regurgitation, same as it ever was.