What makes Cubs manager Joe Maddon so good?

                                                                                                                                                                                                   
  • At 62, Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon says it's easy to relate to players if you strive to remain relevant and contemporary.

    At 62, Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon says it's easy to relate to players if you strive to remain relevant and contemporary. Brian Hill | Staff Photographer/file

 
 

If there is someone who can speak with authority about Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon, it's Ben Zobrist.

The second baseman-outfielder played under Maddon at Tampa Bay from 2006-14 before rejoining his old boss this year.

Maddon has gone through two wildly successful regular seasons with the Cubs. He came aboard in November 2014 as a complete culture changer. Armed with sayings, slogans, counterintuitive thinking and a wealth of baseball experience, Maddon took Chicago and his players by storm.

The big question I had as this season wore on was whether Maddon has changed, evolved or introduced new courses to the curriculum. In other words, is there a Maddon 2.0?

"I feel like I never left him, to be honest," Zobrist said. "It didn't feel like I had much of a period in between where he wasn't my manager.

"It's more like the times I was managed by Bob Melvin (Oakland) and Ned (Yost, Kansas City) were very short periods of time compared to the times I spent with Joe. If there's one manager that kind of feels normal to me, it's Joe.

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"He hasn't changed. He's the same guy. There's a level of consistency there. He's a nonconformist by nature.

"As far as being consistent within that nonconformity, you kind of know that he's going to come up with something new every year. You know he's going to come up with different slogans. You know he's going to have a philosophical approach to the season.

"Coming in and experiencing that this year was like more of the same for me. It was just with a different team."

The look and feel around the ballclub are pretty much what they were last year.

The atmosphere is loose. Formal batting practice happens with less frequency as the season moves along, as Maddon trusts his players to get work in as they see it.

Maddon still uses his pet sayings: "Never let the pressure exceed the pleasure," "A mind once stretched has a hard time going back to its original form" and "The process is fearless."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

If anything has changed from 2014 to 2015, Maddon says those changes are slight.

"There's little nuances within the game, maybe teachable moments," he said. "What I really try to do is have the coaches bring the message to the players so there's a teaching point. If I absolutely feel like I have to bring it to the player, I will.

"But I really like when guys stay within their departments. I like to empower coaches. So if there's a message to be taken, I always think it's better to be coming from the coach to the player, and the player normally receives that better or well."

The players echo that.

"I feel like Joe stayed very, very consistent in his message," said veteran catcher David Ross, who will retire after the postseason. "Even from last year, I think the more you grow, the more the expectations come. The message changes only with the expectations.

"I feel like that's it. Stay true to who you are. He stayed true to who he is. I think there's more expected out of the group, and he knows the group better.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"So you may see some different things at times, but I feel like he does a good job of getting to know the players and what they can do and what he expects of them and is able to implement that during a game. But for me Joe's been as consistent as it gets."

That seems to help when Maddon makes in-game changes and has players moving from position to position and even back again. The players know ahead of time they may be used like that.

"I think that goes back to Joe," said pitcher Jon Lester. "Joe's done a good job of communicating. I think that's what makes him such a good manager. He communicates. He pulls guys aside. He talks to them as a man. I think that's a big thing.

"In this game, there are so many people who beat around the bush and not necessarily lie to you but may not tell you the complete and honest truth of why they're doing things.

"Joe has never done that. He's upfront with all our guys. I think that makes guys want to play for him no matter where they're at in the lineup or where they're at in the field."

With as loose as Maddon makes things, that doesn't mean the players are running the show, even though they have a wide berth.

Near the end of the season, after the Cubs had clinched the National League Central, pitcher Jake Arrieta briefly expressed displeasure after the Cubs changed catchers in the middle of the game. Maddon countered by saying the team had been winning in the final weeks of the season.

"He's in charge, but he doesn't put the hammer down," Zobrist said. "There's only one time I can remember being managed by him that he yelled down the dugout. Every other time he yells, he's yelling at the umpires.

"He very rarely tries to light a fire under us because he believes in the professionalism of the player, and it's your job to be prepared yourself. And he wants to put you in a position to do what you know already how to do. So he shouldn't have to tell you how to do it."

The other important thing Maddon has done is remain relevant. At 62, he's old enough to be some players' father and others' grandfather. Still, he relates. And being relevant, he says, keeps him in a job.

"I'm over 50 by several years, but I so identify with what they're doing and how they do it," he said of the players. "The one thing I always wanted to do is remain contemporary. I think if you remain contemporary, you remain employable.

"The group that chooses to not remain contemporary only because they have to be locked in to old beliefs, at some point you become unemployable.

"Jimmie Reese, who I worked with with the Angels and lived to be (92) years old and was Babe Ruth's roommate at one point, Jimmie was the best. I always thought when I worked with Jimmie in the '80s -- he passed away in the early '90s -- 'Here is a 90-something-year-old man who is so contemporary.' And that's why he's pertinent among these young players.

"We all think we're right all the time. We think the way we do things is right all the time. Sometimes you don't see everybody else's take on things. That's the mistake.

"Actually I may not like some of the music. That's OK. Methods of dress, I'm in. I'm good. Cars, I'm totally in.

"I just think if you permit yourself an openness to be absorbed in what's going on, then you can. If you want to fight that for some strange reason, which a lot of people do, then at some point you deem yourself unemployable."

• Follow Bruce's Cubs and baseball reports on Twitter @BruceMiles2112.

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