Cubs' Maddon era comes to emotional end

September 30th, 2019

ST. LOUIS -- Of course Joe Maddon had one more thing up his sleeve. The day had become a circus surrounding him and his future, but there was more to Sunday's season finale than the anticipated announcement that Maddon would not be managing the Cubs beyond this year.

This was also a day of expected change in other areas of the organization. Among them, the departure of veteran Ben Zobrist -- the MVP of the 2016 World Series triumph that snapped the Cubs' 108-year drought -- into free agency and possibly retirement. So in the midst of Sunday's 9-0 loss to the Cardinals, Maddon had some instructions for the long-time utility man.

"You're going to get the last out," Maddon told him.

"You don't trust me?" Zobrist quipped back.

So Zobrist was handed the ball for the entirety of the eighth inning. Fittingly, it was old friend Dexter Fowler -- remember Maddon's "You go, we go" mantra about the outfielder from that '16 season? -- awaiting in the batter's box. Four batters later, it was Yadier Molina, striking out swinging on a ball in the dirt as Zobrist bounded off the mound joyfully.

Zobrist pointed both hands skyward before returning to a series of fist bumps and high-fives in the visitors' dugout.

"It was just really fun to be able to get up there and be a kid, you know?" said the 38-year-old Zobrist. "Play the game like a kid again."

That quote seemed to sum up Maddon's Cubs tenure, which concluded with 471 more wins on his managerial resume, four trips to the postseason and one curse-ending trophy. It was announced before Sunday's game by both Maddon and Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein that the manager's contract would not be extended beyond this year.

Privately, Maddon delivered the news to his players during a gathering at the team's hotel in St. Louis following Friday's win over the Cardinals. He spoke to the team for several minutes and then had a series of individual chats over drinks deep into the night. Anthony Rizzo said it was a bittersweet scene.

"But, just talking to Joe, he's in a good place," Rizzo said. "It's tough for me and the guys. From losing 100 games to winning 100-plus. Joe's changed my life, changed my career. I love him like a dad. I love my dad, but I talk to Joe all the time. I'll be forever grateful for him."

Kris Bryant said Maddon made his way through the crowd that night and made a point to tell the third baseman that their relationship -- one built through countless conversations behind the scenes -- will not end. The manager's office door, so to speak, will remain open.

"Some of my favorite moments with him are just me and him sitting in his office," Bryant said, "breaking down how I'm feeling or what I'm doing at that certain moment in time. And for him to tell me to keep doing that, even though he's not going to be here, it really means a lot to me."

Rizzo was one of the first core pieces for the current Cubs team, blossoming into a regular part of the lineup by 2013. That is the year Bryant was landed with the No. 2 pick in the MLB Draft. Besides the Draft, the club also made a series of trades through the '13 and '14 campaigns that had Rizzo feeling like a corner was about to be turned.

Then, the Cubs reeled in Maddon prior to the 2015 season, and then veteran Jon Lester came on board. That is when optimism transformed into belief for many of Chicago's young players, and the signing of Lester may not have happened had Maddon not joined the fold.

"If Joe doesn't sign, Jon Lester doesn't sign here. I really believe that," Rizzo said. "I've talked to Jon about that. Joe and Jon sign, that belief is, 'Wow, we really can do this. This is for real.'"

Asked about that theory, Lester did not disagree.

"For them to go out and hire Joe right away, that makes things interesting, you know?" Lester said. "Obviously, I had a history with him, just seeing him a lot across the way for seven years, eight years over in the [American League] East. So I was familiar with that."

Lester was also not entirely sure what to make of Maddon at first from across the field. During the manager's days with the Rays, everyone saw the themed road trips, the mantras on T-shirts and the out-of-the-box happenings that looked gimmicky from afar.

"You're on the other side, you think it's kind of a tired act," Lester said with a smirk. "Like, this is the big leagues. What're we doing? This isn't a zoo or anything, with some of the stuff he would do. But when you're with him every day and you see the process of how he goes about it, I mean, it's more pro, big league than anything I've ever seen. He does it the right way."

Zobrist, who grew up as a big leaguer under Maddon with those upstart teams in Tampa Bay, knew he wanted to try to get in the door with the Cubs ahead of the '16 season.

"Knowing in a market like Chicago, a fan base like the Cub fans," Zobrist said, "it felt like with young players, he's going to go in and take a lot of pressure off and he's going to be fun, he's going to be innovative and he's going to be interesting. And I just felt like it was the perfect scenario to try to take this team back to a World Series and to win a World Series.

"So, that's why for me, I was so eager between '15 and '16 to get over here and be a part of it, because it just felt like it was going to happen whether I was there or not."

Throughout the day, there was not one negative word said about Maddon's time with the Cubs, even in the wake of this very disappointing season for the franchise.

In the dugout before the game, players continued their usual handshakes with the manager. Willson Contreras wrapped his arms around Maddon, who pulled the catcher's head close and told him he would miss him. Maddon helped Contreras learn to channel his emotions. Similarly, the manager let Javier Báez bring his flashy personality and play to the field with no restrictions.

"If it wouldn't have been him, I wouldn't be myself out there," Báez said. "I'm thankful for what he did for me."

With so many kind words flowing throughout the morning and into the moments after the final game of the season, some players were asked if the Cubs and Maddon were making a mistake by parting ways.

"Making a mistake?" Lester said. "That's not my decision. Theo and Joe, that's their decision. They talked about it and I think Joe's in a good place and I think Theo's in a good place. So, a mistake? No. I don't think there's a mistake on anybody's part."

Zobrist had a hard time with that question, too.

"Sometimes when you're at the end of the cycle, you have to have a change," Zobrist said. "That decision was made and I think it's probably best in the long run. But, right now, it's hard to feel that way. It's hard. I would say there's a sadness that we feel."

Whether it was Zobrist firing the final entertaining pitch of the Cubs' 2019 season, or Maddon removing his blue cap with the red "C" for the last time, it was undoubtedly the end of an era on Sunday.

"Every good story comes to an end," Rizzo said. "You hope the next book we open up is just as good."