SAN FRANCISCO -- Sixty-five miles each way. That's how far Joe Maddon was willing to drive to play part-time for the Santa Clara Padres in 1979, his last chance to make it as a catcher.Maddon was getting paid $200 a month, he remembers. He says he lived "in a closet''
SAN FRANCISCO -- Sixty-five miles each way. That's how far Joe Maddon was willing to drive to play part-time for the Santa Clara Padres in 1979, his last chance to make it as a catcher.
Maddon was getting paid $200 a month, he remembers. He says he lived "in a closet'' in Salinas, Calif., and was able to survive financially only because he drove a Volkswagen that got good mileage. He did it because baseball was his passion.
Thirty-seven years later, that's still true. Because it is, Maddon traveled first class on his latest trip to the Bay Area, arriving for Game 3 of the National League Division Series (Monday at 8:30 p.m. CT/6:30 p.m. PT on FS1 and FOX Deportes) as manager of a Cubs team that has done nothing to diminish its standing as World Series favorites.
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Maddon learned long ago to take nothing for granted. He knows it won't be easy to finish off the Giants but vows to "control the controllables.'' If you've paid attention to Maddon's decade as a Major League manager, you know his team will be both prepared and fearless.
Catcher David Ross, the 15-year veteran who is retiring after this season, raves about the "freedom'' that Maddon gives to players while finding little ways to make them better.
"There's a power in letting the guys be free and play kind of without any restraints and thinking [about] things,'' Ross said. "He wants you to kind of just play the game, almost like in Little League. When you make mistakes, which we have done all year, you learn from them, try to teach and move on. These guys continue to grow. … There's a continual growth, and that stems from Joe.''
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While the Cubs were the winningest team in the Major Leagues this season, they were also one of the youngest. Their postseason roster includes six players who have made their debuts since Maddon left the Rays to join the Cubs two years ago.
That list includes Kris Bryant, Addison Russell and Willson Contreras. It doesn't include 23-year-old Javier Báez, the Game 1 hero who had hit .169 with a 41-percent strikeout rate as a rookie in 2014; Kyle Schwarber, the '14 first-round pick who hit five postseason homers last year but spent this season recovering from knee surgery; or Cuban outfielder Jorge Soler.
Maddon has helped those players transition to the Major Leagues, just as he once did Evan Longoria, David Price, Chris Archer and Kevin Kiermaier with the Rays. He insists on an attention to detail in Spring Training, finding fun ways to instill the fundamentals he learned from a variety of instructors, coaches and sages while he was a player and then a young coach and instructor, and he then does a remarkable job to keep players fresh during the regular season.
Maddon is a firm believer that less can be more in such a time-intensive sport, selling players on the value of balanced lives over 12-hour days in the clubhouse. His teams have generally finished strong, with his two in Chicago going a combined 82-35 after July.
The Cubs clinched the National League Central on Sept. 15 and had four idle days before meeting the Giants, but Maddon didn't complain about the chance his club would lose its edge. Instead, he encouraged players to treat the unusual situation like a second Spring Training, using it to work on areas where they can improve, like contact hitting or aggressive bunt defenses.
That paid off in Game 1 when Ross fired to Baez to catch Conor Gillaspie after Gillaspie had strayed too far from first base in an attempt to beat a possible force at second.
When Maddon unexpectedly became a managerial free agent two years ago because of a clause in his contract that allowed him to leave the Rays if general manager Andrew Friedman departed, it was a no-brainer for Theo Epstein to pursue him.
Consider this: From 2008-13, Maddon's Rays averaged 91.7 wins, second only to the Yankees in the Major Leagues. They did that while ranking 28th in spending, with an average Opening Day payroll of $57,900,000 ahead of only the Pirates and Padres.
Maddon could see what Epstein was building with the resources and autonomy he was being provided by chairman Tom Ricketts, and he wanted to be part of not only winning the franchise's first championship since 1908 but sustaining that success for a long run, perhaps even one like the Yankees enjoyed in the Derek Jeter years.
"Why would you not want to accept this challenge?'' Maddon said after signing a five-year deal. "In this city, in that ballpark, under these circumstances, with this talent, it's an extraordinary moment. Not just in Cubs history but in baseball, today's game, this confluence of all these items coming together at the same time, it's pretty impressive.''
Maddon explained on his first day in the organization how he would bring out the best in his players, gaining their trust and putting them in spots to succeed.
"When you have talented players, which we do, you put them in the right situations, where they're not afraid of making mistakes,'' Maddon said. "Any player who plays for me, or us, can never be afraid of making a mistake. That's the worst thing you can do -- to coach aggressiveness out of a player, to coach fear into a player.''
Maddon has led his teams to a 19-22 record in the postseason, including 6-5 as manager of the Cubs. His Rays shocked baseball by advancing to the World Series in 2008 but lost to the Phillies. He's worked patiently to get another chance at winning a championship, approaching every day with the determination and optimism that put him on U.S. 101 in that Volkswagen driving to games when everybody except him knew he was washed up as a player.
"Listen, I just wanted to put on a uniform,'' Maddon said. "I thought I could still do it.''
Only a tiny percentage of players have a gift to perform at the highest level. Maddon's gift, as we've learned since Friedman gave him a shot with the Rays, is to teach both the art and science of baseball and to put players in a position to succeed.
Epstein called Maddon "a real difference-maker for us'' when the Cubs hired him. It has been the perfect marriage between an organization and a manager.
Phil Rogers is a columnist for MLB.com.