Maddon still creating loose atmosphere for Cubs

March 10th, 2019

PHOENIX -- The growing narrative had been about the back-to-basics nature of Cubs camp, about the absence of magic and mimes and zoo animals and what it must mean in the big picture for a ballclub coming off consecutive postseason disappointments.

Joe Maddon, architect of antics, had become more buttoned-up. Or so the story went.

Then came the dunk tank Sunday morning at the Cubs’ complex in Mesa, with that narrative – and clubhouse assistant Danny Mueller -- going down with a splash prior to the Cubs’ Cactus League game at the Brewers.

“That was, like, perfect,” Maddon said. “The fact that I really enjoyed was the fact that the apparatus worked. So it hit, there was this slight pause, Danny was anticipating, the mouth opens, and then he gets dunked in front of everybody. I thought it was outstanding.”

Maddon, who said the dunk tank made sense now that we’ve reached the midpoint of camp (“Wait ‘til it gets draggy, then incorporate some shenanigans,” he explained), had faced plenty of questions in the build to Sunday about the lack of gags at morning stretch thus far in camp. When he was asked last week why camp wasn’t as loose this year, he answered with uncharacteristic curtness: “That’s your perception.”

What Maddon knew was that behind the scenes the Cubs have been as loose as ever. Yes, Maddon, operating in the final year of his contract with the Cubs, has adjusted his approach this camp. He’s taken a more hands-on coaching role, especially with the bats after the offense fell apart in the second half of 2018. And as starter Jon Lester noted, he has been approachable to players both young and established.

“I think we’re all guilty of at times worrying about what we need to do to make someone better or make ourselves better and we get stuck in ruts,” Lester said. “I think [last year] he was worried about our team so much that he was in there trying to figure out what we need to do to get better. And sometimes that’s just saying hello. And our clubhouse [in Chicago] isn’t really conducive for that. It kinda sucks. You don’t really go by the manager’s office unless you’re going to that room to do your interview.

"So I think that’s the biggest thing I’ve noticed with Joe is he’s been more visible. I think that’s good for our young guys to see the manager and not be afraid to talk to the manager if something is going on, good or bad.”

But just because Maddon has slightly adjusted his style doesn’t mean Cubs camp has become a no-fun zone.

“Our morning meeting, I have to believe, exceeds everybody else’s daily,” Maddon said. “The things that go on in there every day. … Bussy [strength coach Tim Buss] is having his best year. Bussy, for me right now, is at that level if you want him to replace Jimmy Fallon or Jimmy Kimmel or the former David Letterman, I think he’s on the verge of being able to do that. His content and his delivery this year have been his best. That’s what people don’t get to see. We have all this stuff going on that’s pretty funny, actually.”

In words (the deeds won’t really matter until the games count), the Cubs have made it clear that they intend to quiet their critics after the rare 95-win season that fell far south of expectations. Sometimes teams splinter after a season goes south as abruptly as the Cubs’ 2018 did, but this group has not given off that vibe.

On Sunday, the togetherness of the team was visible not just in the dunk-tank mischief but in the shirts the Cubs wore beneath their jerseys. At the behest of the players, they honored the late comedian and Cubs fan Brody Stevens with T-shirts that bore his name and the words “Positive Push,” a reference to the name of Stevens’ video podcast. Stevens took his own life just days before he was scheduled to make his annual appearance at Cubs’ camp, and the Cubs wore the shirts in advance of a Monday celebration of Stevens’ life at the Comedy Store in Los Angeles.

“It’s our meager way of supporting him and his family,” Maddon said of the shirts. “It’s just sad. It’s a bad, bad thing.”

So hearts were simultaneously heavy and light in Cubs camp on this day. But in bringing more public-facing fun back to the practice field, Maddon and the Cubs both honored Stevens’ spirit and reminded observers that, yes, they still know how to have fun.