Joe Maddon: the BA in Baseball

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“Walt Whitman once said, ‘I see great things in baseball. It’s our game, the American game. It will repair our losses and be a blessing to us.'” – Annie Savoy in Bull Durham.

Who is this guy? He talks about books, wine, and liberal arts. He gets around town on a bike or in a 1956 Chevy BelAir. He travels in a motor home named “Cousin Eddie.” His lexicon is littered with “mans” and “cools.” He speaks Spanish. He is a community activist. He is… the most interesting man in baseball.

In weekly radio interviews and post-game pressers, Joe Maddon rattles off the wisdom of a man much older than his 61 years. During his introductory press conference as the newly-minted manager of the Chicago Cubs, Maddon issued a universal mantra:  “Don’t ever permit the pressure to exceed the pleasure.”

Major league organizations are grasping for the brass ring with massive payrolls managed by recently retired players. The Dodgers hired Don Mattingly, who could not deep clean the glue out of his pants after Clayton Kershaw deteriorated in Game 4 of last year’s NLDS. Mike Matheny looked like Pat Matheny juggling a bullpen. (No shot at Pat Matheny’s music.) Matt Williams batted Bryce Harper sixth in last year’s NLDS. Robin Ventura parlayed an MLB career and a cozy relationship with Jerry Reinsdorf into a managing job. The White Sox the last three years? Enough said.

Maddon would probably loathe critical opinions of other managers, but he would probably have no problem talking about his decades of experience starting with the Idaho Falls Angels in 1981. But that’s just who he is. “With all due respect to Tommy (LaSorda), I never wanted to be him. There’s a lot of guys I never wanted to be,” he said in 2010. “For me to do this, and do it well, I believe you’ve got to be yourself.”

Maddon spent six years managing in the minors, and served time as the Angels’ minor league roving hitting instructor from 1987-1993. He got his shot in the majors with a couple of interim stints in California before he was hired by the Devil Rays as their new manager in 2005. “I like numbers. I like instincts. I like trusting your gut,” he said at the time. “I think you think with your brain, your heart and your stomach.”  Maddon spent nine years in Tampa Bay and compiled a .517 winning percentage in a brutal AL East. He took four teams to the playoffs and went to the World Series in 2008.

The Liberal Arts

A month after Maddon was hired by the Cubs, he tweeted out a curious thought:

“It really is the message I want to get out there,” Maddon explained. “I believe if we respect that 90 feet every day, a lot of good things are going to happen here.” What was that supposed to mean? Matt Spiegel, radio host for The Score 670AM in Chicago, fleshed out the philosophy of the Maddon Rule:

“Run hard to first. If you do that, Maddon believes it then permeates to every aspect of the game. It’s fait accompli that you’ll run hard beyond that initial 90 feet. Not going aggressively after a ball on defense then seems ridiculous and an insult to your teammates. It is every bit of that.”

Joe Maddon likes to talk about the “liberal arts” of baseball. But exactly what is that supposed to mean? In a New York Times feature from 2010 he describes his global approach to the game:

“That’s just how we want to play, period, regardless of who we’re playing,” Maddon said. “It’s more of the liberal-arts form of playing baseball. It’s not just about power or just about speed. You really want to be able to do all those different things. I want us to play every component of the game well, and that’s what we preach. Athletically, we’re able to do that, and why not?

“I think at the end of the year, when you get to the playoff situation, being multifaceted makes it that much more difficult for the other team and permits you to win tougher games.”

Enough said.

The Real World

Joe Maddon’s influence is not confined to baseball. Hazleton, Pennsylvania is his hometown and, like many American towns, it is changing. Hazleton is an old coal town of about 25,000 people that has transitioned awkwardly from an industrial past to an uncertain future. Towns that become casualties of economic downturns nationwide often develop anti-immigration sentiments. The new wave of Latino citizens in Hazleton has felt that. In 2006, 60 Minutes featured Hazleton Mayor Lou Barletta after he passed a series of stringent municipal laws aimed at new immigrants, and in particular an ordinance called the “Illegal Immigration Relief Act.”

Joe Maddon, whose family’s name was Maddonini, could see the tensions mounting during his visits home. He decided to do something about it.  In September of 2011, Maddon introduced The Hazleton Integration Project. On the homepage of the HIP website, he states its purpose:

“We are a country of different cultures that are continually evolving into a single people. That has always been the American way, and it is our greatest strength as a nation. I am confident that as long as we are all willing to work together, we will continue to build our city into a model community that will inspire a deep sense of pride in all our citizens.”

Joe Maddon is a man for all seasons. In an age of digitized and Twitterized mega stars, who rise and fall with vacuous worship and manufactured rage, Maddon represents a blend of the old and new schools of baseball. Take a few minutes and look beyond the wins and losses he will endure as the new Cubs manager. This guy is cool.

“If we get the kids together, then a lot of good things are going to happen,” he said. “It’s about bringing the kids together, and then the parents come together, and then …”

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