THE NEW FACE of the Cubs, manager Joe Maddon, recently came nose-to-nose with the face of the Cubs' past, or at least a proxy for the heaviest psychic weight in professional sports. White-haired, bespectacled and wearing the requisite Cubs T-shirt, Rhena Knourek met Maddon at a club function last month with the distinct frankness that comes only from being a Cubs loyalist for eight decades.
"Joe," she said, "I'm 80 years old. Can you please get us one World Series before it's too late? I'm running out of next years."
"You know who you remind me of?" Maddon replied. "My mom. You kind of look like her, too."
Maddon's mom, Albina, whom everybody calls Beanie, is 82 and still works the counter three days a week at the Third Base Luncheonette (so named because it's the next best thing to home) in Hazleton, Pa., the former coal-mining town where the Maddons have lived since Joe's grandfather, Carmen, arrived from Italy in 1906.
"I was born a Cubs fan," Knourek said after getting Maddon's autograph at the 30th annual tribal function known as the Cubs Convention, a sweetly strange amalgam of nostalgia (jerseys of retired Cubbies outnumbered those of active players), tent-revival fervor and commiseration washed down with $8 noontime bottles of beer. "It says so right on my birth certificate. 'Name, address, father, mother ... Cubs fan.' I married a Cubs fan. My kids were baptized Cubs fans. I hope this is the year. I pray this is the year."
The heritage of the Cubs is mythical, in a Sisyphean kind of way, of course. They have not won the World Series in Rhena's lifetime, plus one score and six years more. The last time they did win it, in 1908, occurred in the lifetimes of Mark Twain, Florence Nightingale, Geronimo, Winslow Homer and Joshua Chamberlain, in a world before the 19th Amendment, talking motion pictures, electric traffic lights and world wars.
Maddon is the 52nd manager (counting only once those who took multiple cracks at it) to attempt to break the drought since the 1908 Cubs of Frank Chance, who was followed without success by both of his melodious double-play partners, Joe Tinker and Johnny Evers, as well as, from Altobelli to Zimmer, a representative of every letter in the alphabet except I, N, U, X and Y.
"Joe, please take care of the goat," beseeched one fan, invoking the Curse of the Billy Goat, a hex placed on the franchise by tavern owner Billy Sianis after the team refused to allow his pet goat to sit with him at Wrigley Field for the 1945 World Series. The team hasn't been back to the Series since.
Maddon didn't miss a beat: "Right between the eyes!"
One group of friends requested that Maddon precede his autograph by writing the phrase A Shot and a Beer, the double play of drinks he offered media members at his introductory press conference, which was held, naturally enough, at a local bar. Chicago fans immediately seized on the idea that after more than a century of riffling through an entire deck of managerial cards, number 52 is different, right down to his blue wingtips.
"Oooo, I like your shoes," purred one female fan.
"Why, thank you," Maddon replied. "You're the first one to notice my blue Cubbie shoes."
Different? Maddon is the zag to the world's zig. He proposed to his wife, Jaye, at 1:30 in the morning in the parking lot of a liquor store in Boulder, Colo. (Maddon couldn't find his intended target, the baseball field where he once played semipro ball, so he audibled to the joint where he worked part time.) He always carries a bar of dark chocolate with him ("Good for brain stimulation"), his preferred modes of transportation include an RV ("the Maddon Cruiser"), a 1956 Belair named Bella, a '67 Ford Galaxy named Aunt Hen, a '72 Chevelle named Babalou and his trusty bicycle (he has already mapped a route for his commute from his downtown hotel to Wrigley), and he has a Bartlett-like habit of including a Quote of the Day on all of his lineup cards (e.g., last May at Fenway Park: "To know what you know and do not know, that is knowledge. —Confucius") With his white hair, thick-rimmed glasses and twinkling eyes, Maddon resembles a cross between Spencer Tracy and Clarence Odbody.
"Look at this," Knourek, the 80-year-old fan, said as she reached into a canvas bag that came with her Cubs Convention entry. She pulled out a ticket, the one that came inside her bag as a surprise and entitled her to Maddon's autograph. "You know what this is? It's a Godwink."
"Like when the man stays home because his son is sick so he doesn't get on the plane he's supposed to take—and then something happens to that flight. Little things that happen for a reason. That's a Godwink."
Maddon answers to many designations: Renaissance man, polyglot, polymath, oenophile, restaurateur, community activist, humorist, contrarian. As manager of the Cubs he may be acquiring a new appellation: Godwink. He'll take all the help he can get.
OVER THE past five seasons Chicago has finished in fifth place every year by a combined 125 games out of first, lost more games than any team in the National League and burned through four managers. A long, painful rebuilding plan under owner Tom Ricketts, who bought the team in 2009, and president Theo Epstein, whom Ricketts hired after the '11 season, has finally brought the Cubs to the brink of contention—or even better if you listened to the crowd at the Cubs Convention.
"Joe, let's win it all this year," one fan told Maddon.
"Why not?" the manager replied. "There's no reason to wait."
First baseman Anthony Rizzo promised on the eve of the convention that the Cubs will win the NL Central this year.
"I'm with him—we will," Maddon says. "I'll go with him. I'm definitely backing up my big Italian first baseman, no question."
Says Rizzo, "After he was hired, I went to dinner with him at his restaurant in Tampa. I was blown away. He flat out told me, 'The reason I'm coming here is to win the World Series. There's no sense aiming for anything lower.' "
Optimism this big for a team that has been this bad this long is rare. Las Vegas (relying more on fan perception than on expert projections) gives only the Nationals and the Dodgers better odds of winning the World Series than the Cubs. Through trades and free agency this winter Epstein added Maddon, pitchers Jon Lester and Jason Hammel, catchers Miguel Montero and David Ross, outfielders Chris Denorfia and Dexter Fowler, and infielder Tommy LaStella. They complement the team's core of returning young players, featuring Rizzo, 24; shortstop Starlin Castro, 24; pitcher Kyle Hendricks, 24; outfielder Jorge Soler, 22; and infielder Javier Baez, 21. The Cubs expect third baseman Kris Bryant, 23; catcher Kyle Schwarber, 21; and infielder Addison Russell, 21, elite prospects all, to join that core soon. The abundance of youth makes a 2016 liftoff more likely for Chicago, but if a youngster (or two) develops quickly into an impact player, and if Epstein trades from his cache of young position players to acquire a young pitcher with dominant stuff, the talk of the playoffs this year may not be so far-fetched.
"Every year I speak to the team on the first full day of workouts," Ricketts said at the convention. "When I leave the clubhouse, the media is there waiting for me, and they want me to tell them what I expect. Every other year it was always based on a lot of hope. Hoping guys would improve. Hoping we'd find out about others. Now it's not about hope. It's about real talent. Now it's just, 'Go play.' Did you see the shirt I wore last night? It just said, LET'S GO. That's where we are now."
Maddon, who had one season remaining on his contract with Tampa Bay, "seemed like the perfect guy for our situation," Epstein says. "[But] it's really hard to hire an experienced manager at the top of his game. Those guys rarely change teams."
It took more than money for the Cubs to get Maddon. It took a Godwink. This Godwink came in the form of a hanging curveball by Clayton Kershaw in October.
The Dodgers lefthander took a 2--0 lead against St. Louis into the seventh inning of Game 4 of the NL Division Series. With two runners on, Kershaw threw a curveball to Matt Adams. Kershaw had thrown 503 curveballs to lefthanded batters over his seven-year career without ever giving up a home run. When Kershaw hung his curveball to Adams, he began a series of events that Cubs fans like to believe will connect all the way back to the franchise's first championship in more than a century.
Because Kershaw hung the curve, Adams hit a home run. And because Adams hit a home run, the Cardinals eliminated the Dodgers, the team with the most expensive payroll in baseball. And because the Dodgers were eliminated, they reassigned general manager Ned Colletti and replaced him by poaching Andrew Friedman from the Rays, where Friedman had been working without a contract. As a result, Maddon could exercise an opt-out clause in his contract that kicked in if Friedman left—a clause Maddon knew nothing about until Rays president of baseball operations Matthew Silverman called Maddon's agent, Alan Nero, and asked, "So, what will you do about the opt-out?"
"If nobody had told me, I would never have known about it," Maddon says. "Of course, I think my agent would eventually have said something to me, but I had no idea."
Nero approached the Rays about a four-year extension for Maddon. "My intent was to stay," Maddon says. He opted out only after "it appeared it wasn't going to work out."
Maddon was on the road when he became a free agent. He and Jaye set off in the RV from their home in Tampa to drive to their home in Long Beach, Calif. Nero spoke with several clubs, including the Cubs. (The Rays filed tampering charges in November against Chicago, claiming they contacted Maddon before the opt-out was official. The MLB investigation is ongoing. Says Epstein, "We expect it to be resolved before spring training starts with the finding that no tampering whatsoever occurred.")
Epstein and his top lieutenant, GM Jed Hoyer, had interviewed Maddon after the 2003 season when they worked for the Red Sox and needed a replacement for the fired Grady Little. Leaning toward experience then, they hired Terry Francona, who had managed in Philadelphia, over Maddon, who had logged 31 years in the Angels' system as a minor league player and manager, scout and major league coach before Tampa Bay hired him before the '06 season.
Now Epstein and Hoyer pressed Nero for urgency. They had told their incumbent manager, Rick Renteria, about their interest in Maddon, and promised a resolution after no more than one week. Joe and Jaye were at an RV park in Pensacola, Fla. Based on their driving schedule, Joe figured San Antonio would be a good rendezvous with the Chicago executives. But then he remembered that "there were no really attractive RV resorts in San Antonio," he said. So he suggested Epstein and Hoyer meet him in Pensacola.
The next morning Epstein threw on a pair of old jeans, pulled a Bears trucker cap low and headed to the airport to meet Hoyer for a clandestine trip to Pensacola. Upon nearing the RV park, Epstein realized they had been so rushed, they forgot to bring Joe and Jaye a gift. He saw a supermarket across the street from the RV park. Knowing Maddon's fondness for wine, Epstein and Hoyer headed over and bought the most expensive bottle in the house. It was $9.99.
The RV was parked just steps away from a bay beach. The four of them set up lawn chairs in the sand and cracked open 16-ounce light beers. They chatted for six hours, including dinner at a Mexican restaurant.
"It was purely philosophical," Maddon says. "For me, I needed to know we can get along, and that we agree on things. I had to know I was talking to the same guys [as in 2003]. And I found out that I was. I hope that doesn't sound pretentious, but you get to a certain point careerwise, you want to be able to go to work where you want to go to work. And people you can work with."
Epstein texted his wife, Marie Whitney, that night, recognizing in Maddon the emotions Epstein felt when he left Boston for Chicago after the 2011 season: "I think he wants to be a Cub, but he's really connected to Tampa, both the organization and the city. I think he really wants it, but he's not emotionally there as far as leaving."
Two days later, when the RV was in Junction, Texas, Nero called him. "We had been talking to other groups," Maddon says, "but then Alan told me what the Cubs were thinking about. I was like, Whoa. It staggered me, I'll be honest."
The offer: five years, $25 million. The annual value would put Maddon on par with Angels manager Mike Scioscia, his old boss, then the highest-paid manager in the game.
"So you are driving along, driving along, trying to process all this stuff," Maddon said, "and of course when someone makes you an offer you can't refuse, you don't refuse."
He agreed to the deal. Only three weeks had passed since the Godwink of Kershaw's curveball.
The trip had become a deeply reflective one. On the road Maddon retraced the miles of his life. He thought about his father, Joseph Anthony Maddon, who died in 2002. One of nine children, he had gone into the family business that Carmen opened after he left the mines in the 1930s: C. Maddon & Sons Plumbing and Heating. He and two of his brothers raised families in apartments right above the plumbing shop on 11th Street.
At the end of every workday the original Joe the Plumber would play sports with Little Joe. Sometimes the boy would accompany his father on jobs, but that was only so they could share company. He had no interest in joining the family business, at least not until a homesick Maddon called Beanie after just three days at Lafayette College.
"I want to come home and be a plumber like dad."
"No," Beanie told him. "Put that out of your head. Everything is going to be fine."
"In two weeks," Maddon said, "I went from 'I want to be a plumber like dad' to 'I never want to come home.' Lafayette was the best thing that ever happened to me."
WHEN THE RV rolled through Louisiana and into Beaumont, Texas, Maddon remembered managing Midland against Shreveport and Beaumont in the Texas League in 1985 and '86. He thought about the eternal bus rides in that league, and the discouragement when the signs on I-10 would announce in a mocking tone, EL PASO, 800 MILES.
"I'm retracing the steps from Midland to Beaumont through San Antonio, and this started coming together," he said. "The interest from the Cubs and the fact they wanted to pay me some money, that could be staggering—except for the thought that driving these miles, maybe I did earn it. Maybe I did earn it."
The RV forged into Arizona. Driving along the Mexican border brought back memories of scouting outfielder Chad Curtis at a junior college in Douglas, and then heading into Mesa, he remembered playing at the Riverview Golf Course, where now stands the state-of-the-art spring training facility of the Cubs.
"If you are blown away by good fortune," Maddon says, "and you have the chance to retrospectively look at your life in an RV.... There were many times where I was not making a whole lot of money and there were times when it was paycheck to paycheck, and it was kind of difficult. So I guess I've always been a late bloomer. I'm going to be 61, and I've never wanted something before it was my time, ever. So maybe it was just my time."
About a week after her husband hired Maddon, Epstein's wife, Marie, noticed a change in her husband.
"Look at you," she told him. "I can't remember the last time you were like this."
"You're always in a good mood."
Epstein pleaded guilty as charged. "[Maddon is] so engaging, you find yourself sitting up a little more, leaning forward in your chair a little more, your mind is going a little faster and you want to make him laugh," Epstein said. "You want to rise to his level of energy, intellect and accomplishment. I think he has that effect on players. They want to match his energy and offer him ideas."
Maddon is a portable generator of fresh air. In his nine years with Tampa Bay, Maddon arranged 33 themed road trips in which his players and staff wore outfits that nodded at Miami Vice, pajama parties, the 1960s and other looks. He would fine his players by having them reach into a fishbowl that contained scraps of paper, on which were written vintage wines that cost as much as hundreds of dollars a bottle. The player would have to buy the wine he picked and uncork it with Maddon. ("Poor Joey Gathright. He got killed. He would always pick the most expensive ones.") Reporting times are suggestions. And dress codes? His rule is simple: "Wear whatever you think makes you look hot."
Maddon also defies convention in the dugout, where he never sits because he says he can't think sitting down and because he wants to feel "the energy" of the players. Maddon was one of the earliest adopters of extreme defensive shifts (using a four-man outfield against David Ortiz in 2006), he once walked Josh Hamilton with the bases loaded, he prefers bullpen matchups based on pitchers' stuff rather than platoon advantage, and, new to the NL, he has commissioned a study by the Cubs' analytics department on the pros and cons of batting the pitcher eighth. The Cubs have assigned Jeremy Greenhouse, who works under the title of Analyst, Research & Development, to be Maddon's personal liaison to all the number crunching.
"Every time we played the Rays," Epstein says of his days in Boston, "it felt like they dictated the game to us. I think there was a fearlessness associated with his style. He wasn't afraid to look silly, do something unconventional—and if it was something he thought would work, he was never afraid to try it in the most important part of the game."
FOR THE past 13 years Maddon has carried with him to every city the Angels hat that his father used to wear. It is a periwinkle model with the winged-a logo the club used from 1997 through 2001. The hat is as flat as an ignored omelet and is flecked with the dirt and grime from the plumbing shop.
Maddon's father passed away on April 15, 2002. Six months later the Angels, who never had won the World Series, took a 4--1 lead over the Giants into the ninth inning of Game 7. Maddon, then the Angels' bench coach, dashed into the coaches' locker room. He grabbed his father's hat and ran back to the dugout, where he set the hat on a ledge above the bench, making sure the winged-a logo faced the field. "So he could see the last three outs," Maddon said. Now he often thinks about what his father would make of seeing his son managing the Cubs.
"For him to be alive right now and witness all this, he would just smile constantly," he says.
The plumber's son is part of a massive Cubs reconstruction effort, which includes a $575 million renovation of 101-year-old Wrigley Field. Maddon saw Wrigley for the first time last year when his Rays played a series against the Cubs. He was so taken aback by the timeless beauty of it—the cinematic collision of the golden sunlight over the grandstand, the vast blue of a cloudless sky and the greenery of the park—that he caught himself daydreaming on the field during a pitching change. My goodness, he thought, this is like a movie, like Gladiator.
Since then he has learned that the people who fill the Cracker Jack box of a ballpark, even more than the ballpark itself, define what makes the Cubs unique. The need to honor those who came before them is why they come, their hopes and prayers now hitched to a Godwink in the dugout.
"The biggest difference so far is the fans," Maddon says. "There is constant dialogue or narrative about their parents and grandparents and how they tie into the moment today. Everybody wants to have the Cubs win because of their dad or grandpa or grandma. That's the refrain I get smacked with every time somebody talks to me. We need to get this straightened out, so all of a sudden they can go out to the gravestone and have a shot and a beer with somebody."
MADDON IS THE ZAG TO THE WORLD'S ZIG. HE PROPOSED TO HIS WIFE AT 1:30 A.M. IN THE PARKING LOT OF A LIQUOR STORE.
Photograph by Stephen Green
SHOW OF HANDS Who thinks Maddon can work a North Side miracle, maybe as soon as '15? Plenty of the Cubs faithful, and oddsmakers are taking advantage, giving better World Series odds only to the Nationals and the Dodgers.
MEET THE NEW BOSS Epstein (left) and Hoyer interviewed Maddon for the Red Sox job in '03 before bringing him to Chicago (top right).
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STEPHEN GREEN (LESTER)
VET GAIN New ace Lester (above) joins Chicago's promising young core of hitters, which includes (left, from top) Rizzo, Baez and Bryant.
NAM Y. HUH/AP (RIZZO)
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DAVID DUROCHIK/SPORTPICS (BAEZ)
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DAVID DUROCHIK/AP (BRYANT)
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ANNE RYAN FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
TO THINE OWN SELFIE ... Maddon was embraced at the Cubs Convention by fans who are buying in, even as they still ask the tough, century-old questions.