Cubs manager Maddon deserves credit for all the moves we did not see
After the Chicago Cubs ended their World Series drought, Marc Lancaster assesses the contribution of manager Joe Maddon.
It has been and will be said that the Chicago Cubs won the 2016 World Series despite Joe Maddon.
While his tactical decisions in Games 6 and 7 could have, and probably should have, cost his team the championship, to reduce an assessment of him to those moments is to misunderstand his value.
Maddon is a great manager - and he is a great manager - because of the feel he has for people. There is a certain reductive nature to our evaluations of managers and coaches in all sports, simply because we do not get to see what goes on in clubhouses and locker rooms and have to rely on what happens in the arena to make our judgments.
But that decision to go to the bullpen, the play call on fourth and 1, the play diagrammed in the timeout with 3.2 seconds to go, are a miniscule part of the job. The vast majority of it plays out behind closed doors, whether in a casual one-on-one conversation between coach and player or in a tone that is set and then reinforced through policies, actions, reactions and just the general vibe around the team.
That is where managers make their greatest impact, in shaping the mass of the iceberg that we do not see. And few do it better than Maddon.
There are plenty of things about his approach that rub people the wrong way. It is no secret that he is hardly a favourite of some old-school baseball insiders, who do not have much use for his philosophical musings or motivational slogans or themed dress-up road trips.
All of those devices, though, are employed in the interest of creating a certain culture. Players should feel comfortable being themselves, doing whatever it is that they need to get the maximum out of their abilities. There's already enough pressure when the lights are on, particularly in the postseason. It is about building enough confidence over the course of the most gruelling season in professional sports for players to perform on that stage without overthinking.
Was Maddon guilty of overthinking in Games 6 and 7? Almost certainly. Yanking Jake Arrieta with a five-run lead, one on and two out in the sixth inning of Game 6 started the cascade that led to the ridiculous burden placed on Aroldis Chapman the last two nights.
And that was nothing compared to pulling likely NL Cy Young winner Kyle Hendricks after a dubious walk with two outs in the fifth inning of Game 7. Sure, Jon Lester had been warming for too long, but Hendricks had shown no vulnerability to that point and is not the type to fall apart as the game goes along - opponents hit just .214 against him the third time through the order during the regular season.
But Lester managed to make it work, and the Cubs eventually bailed out Chapman, and ugly as it was to get there, the end result could not have been more beautiful for Maddon and the Cubs.
He is not stupid; he understands how the game is played. Eight years ago, on the eve of his first World Series as a manager with Tampa Bay, Maddon spoke about helping the Angels to the 2002 world championship while serving on Mike Scioscia's staff and the validation that title brought to their methods.
"All of a sudden you become smarter, even though you're doing the same things," he said.
The 62-year-old pride of Hazleton, Pa., has been refining those 'things' for years. From his short-lived career as a minor-league catcher through a decades-long apprenticeship in player development with the Angels to helping lift the Rays from obscurity to respectability and finally the magic that transpired on the north side of Chicago this spring, summer and fall, he perfected an approach, a process. And it worked.
Sure, you have to have the raw ingredients for that to happen. That was why Maddon jumped to join Theo Epstein and the deep-pocketed Cubs after maxing out what Tampa Bay could do.
Given the perfect proving ground for his method in the form of a talented but still malleable roster and a fan base that needs perpetual soothing, which he is more equipped than most managers to provide, it all came together over the course of two years on the North Side.
So, no, not every move Maddon made worked out like he or the long-suffering fan base would have preferred, and his reputation as the smartest guy in the room - for better or for worse - figures to take a hit after the last two nights. Fair enough.
But remember that before Maddon was hired two years ago, 51 different men (including interims) had spent more than a century trying and failing to get the Cubs where he got them on Wednesday.
Omnisport's US news desk deputy editor Marc Lancaster covered Maddon and the Rays for the Tampa Tribune from 2007-09.