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Maddon's guidance puts Cubs on winning path

NEW YORK -- Go ahead. Ask Joe Maddon about the black cat.

We dare you.

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Through his first 167 games as Cubs manager, only one superstition has grabbed Maddon's attention, and that was lucky socks.

As for the Billy Goat curse and all other supposed harbingers of impending doom, Maddon announced in Spring Training he doesn't "vibrate at that frequency." He's walked that walk all the way to the National League Championship Series, four wins away from the Cubs' first trip to the World Series since 1945 and only eight shy of the Holy Grail, the championship that has eluded the Cubs for 106 seasons and 50 managers, including Phil Wrigley's goofy College of Coaches.

:: NLCS: Cubs vs. Mets -- Tune-in info ::

Unlike Chicagoans of a similar age, Maddon remembers the summer of 1969 mostly for the music, cars and his Vietnam lottery number, not the Cubs being run down by the Mets after leading the NL East since Willie Smith's home run on Opening Day.

While the Cubs won NL East titles at the expense of runner-up Mets teams in 1984 and '89, those brief forays into October did little to heal the wounds caused to the Bleacher Bums by Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman, Tommie Agee and the rest of the '69 Mets. They went 22-5 down the stretch to blow past the Cubs, who were running on fumes in September.

Any recital of Cub lore includes prominent mention of the black cat that crossed between Ron Santo, standing in the on-deck circle, and the visiting dugout at Shea Stadium on Sept. 9 that season. But what's largely been forgotten about that turning point game is that Leo Durocher was pitching Fergie Jenkins, his ace, on two days' rest, even though Jenkins had already thrown 272 2/3 innings that season, on his way to 311 1/3 innings.

This was one of many poor decisions by Durocher, a Hall of Fame manager who was behaving erratically as the end of his career neared. Meanwhile the Mets were run by 45-year-old Gil Hodges, an innovator who was only six years removed from the end of his decorated playing career.

The biggest difference between the Cubs and Mets in '69 was their respective managers. Durocher was dug into his my-way-or-the-highway style of doing things, and also wildly distracted by the courtship and marriage of a Chicago socialite, while Hodges was both reliable and creative.

This time around, both the Cubs and Mets are led by solid managers who have learned from experience.

Terry Collins, the tough 66-year-old who navigated New York past the innings-limit controversy with Matt Harvey and the late, semi-slide from Chase Utley that broke shortstop Ruben Tejada's leg in the NLDS, is as solid as they come. Maddon, 61, is an independent thinker who is unafraid to take chances.

Maddon led the Cubs to a 24-game improvement this season, the biggest leap in the Major Leagues but not even close to his greatest act. His 2008 Tampa Bay team won 97 games and an American League pennant only year after a 66-win season.

Could Maddon have guided Ernie Banks, Billy Williams, Jenkins and Santo to glory in 1969? There's no way to put him in a time machine and find out. But it's going to be fascinating to watch these teams go against each other 46 years later.

Hodges generated a Pythagorean rating of plus-8 in '69 compared to a minus-1 for Durocher. That Bill James tool to evaluate teams' records relative to their statistics gave Maddon a plus-7 this year (compared to Collins' plus-1).

Hodges, who died from a heart attack when he was only 47, was, like Maddon, a big believer in the need for depth and keeping players fresh. He was one of the few managers to go with a five-man starting rotation in '69, and he did so even though the 24-year-old Seaver was arguably the best pitcher in baseball.

Like the Orioles' Earl Weaver, Hodges was an early devotee to left-right differentials and platoon advantages. While Durocher essentially wrote the same lineup down every day -- he caught Randy Hundley a record 160 games in 1968 -- the Mets platooned at third base, second base, first base, catcher and right field. He also trusted more relief pitchers, keeping his bullpen fresher than the Cubs.

The '69 Mets had the same kind of late-season kick as Maddon's Cubs, who have won 19 of their last 24 games. When the Cubs set a postseason record with six home runs in Game 3 of the NLDS, Maddon pointed to his players' talent but also to their energy level.

Video: NLCS Gm1: Maddon on facing Mets, teams' youth

"Coming into the postseason, I thought our guys were rather fresh," Maddon said. "The last couple of weeks of the season, we have so many good players we were sort of bouncing lineups back and forth. I think you're seeing a well-rested group right now."

Durocher was 64 in 1969, only three years older than Maddon this season. But it's doubtful he ever said "60's the new 40," and there was no personal connection between him and his players. He was a demanding boss who ruled through fear and lost the respect of his players.

Durocher left the Cubs or simply didn't show up on seven different occasions between the start of Spring Training and the end of the season, at least twice without telling his bosses or his team that he would not be there. That probably should have gotten him dismissed, but he remained so controlling that when he got married on June 19, a Thursday when the team was off, he required Banks and all of his teammates to attend.

Contrast that with Maddon, who kept his distance after the Cubs defeated the Cardinals in the NLCS. Maddon was not sitting outside on Jon Lester's deck when Eddie Vedder played guitar and sang "All the Way," a song he had written for the Cubs in 2008. Maddon said the next day that players probably feel freer to enjoy themselves "when dad's not around."

Adolfo Phillips had been described by Durocher as "another Willie Mays" after the Cubs acquired him in 1966. But he had fallen into the doghouse in '68, and there would be no escape. Phillips was the Cubs' center fielder at the start of '69, but he was hitting only .229 at the end of May. After being traded on June 11, he told reporters he hadn't spoken to Durocher for over a month.

When Maddon effectively benched Starlin Castro in early August, moving Addison Russell from second base to shortstop, he met with him in his office. Castro says that Maddon told him "how important I'm going to be for the team," and to keep his head up.

Castro bought in, worked with infield coach Gary Jones on playing second base and followed hitting coach John Mallee's suggestion that he close his stance. He's become one of the most dynamic Cubs, compiling a .961 OPS during his final 143 plate appearances in the regular season.

Video: NLCS Gm1: Theo Epstein on journey to NLCS

Some people felt Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein crossed a line when he pursued Maddon last October, as Rick Renteria had two years left on his contract and was doing solid work. But Epstein saw a manager who could make a difference, like Hodges had back in '69, and he landed him.

You can't change history, but you can always make it.

Phil Rogers is a columnist for
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