He’ll never say it, I’ll never prove it, but I can’t shake the feeling that Theo Epstein has been thinking about this day since somewhere around Game 6 against Cleveland. That was the night that Joe Maddon first panicked, up five runs with Jake Arrieta on the mound. That necessitated Aroldis Chapman coming in to get four outs, after he had throw 2.1 innings in Game 5, and of course left him scorched for Game 7. And then there was the pulling of Kyle Hendricks for little reason (not no reason, you could squint and see it) the next night. We don’t need to re-litigate this. You know the story.
But it felt like then Theo realized that Joe wasn’t going to manage the team as he saw the game. And it feels like that only got worse. Which maybe is why on the day after the most accomplished manager in Cubs history, and the most accomplished we might ever see, I don’t feel much of anything about his departure.
There’s two competing outlooks on the past couple seasons that probably have me stuck in the middle on the whole thing. The first is that I refuse to buy the argument that the ’18 team underachieved. 95 wins with half of a Kris Bryant, a hole in the rotation until Hamels showed up (and that’s with Chatwood in there) a bullpen disintegrating throughout the season, that played for 45 straight days. It’s being judged on two games at the end of the season, which seems wholly unfair based on the 162 before. We know the Cubs front office was upset about the handling of Brandon Morrow at the end of May. That has always screamed of ass-covering for a truly bad signing that had every chance of not working out, which it didn’t. That goes along with my feeling that the ’17 team didn’t underachieve either, given that Schwarber wasn’t quite ready for a starting role, Happ and Almora in center was iffy, Baez hadn’t achieved his higher plane yet, the entire pitching staff regressed, etc.
On the opposing side, whatever last year is categorized as, this was a season where the Cubs were supposed to play with urgency and have something to prove. Yeah, we can go back and forth on the offseason and the roster construction all day. That doesn’t change the fact that the players on the roster played looser, less focused, far more mistake-prone than they’d ever been under Maddon. The Cubs were simply not as locked in as they’d been, and it cost them games. In the field, on the basepaths, and on occasion with runners on base, the Cubs were simply not a tight enough unit. That’s on Maddon. This team did underachieve.
Did the Cubs set up Maddon to fail by not extending him, and essentially telegraphing their intentions before the season even started? Probably. But if Maddon truly had a hold on this team and everyone’s loyalty and attention, the constant looseness just would not have happened. That doesn’t mean the Cubs had totally tuned him out or were ignoring him, but they weren’t as attentive to his message. I get the impression they still liked him without totally buying in to whatever he was selling anymore. That generally only goes one way from there. So it feels necessary.
As with any manager or coach firing, Maddon isn’t wholly responsible for what went on here. We’ve spent all summer talking about the failures in ownership and the front office and what they provided. The bullpen at the start of the season was simply negligent. None of the younger players were ever ready to take on an everyday role. The hitters simply refused to change their approach ever.
I guess you could put some of the blame on the lack of development of some of the young players on Maddon. That’s a stretch though when he’s the manager for Rizzo, Byrant, Contreras, and Baez who have all flourished under him. Maybe they’re just such supreme talents it doesn’t manager what the manager is, but I have a hard time buying that and you’d have a hard time selling that.
Perhaps my general shoulder-shrug on this is I don’t think baseball is like hockey or football where there’s like five good coaches and you’re fucked if you don’t have one. You can find another manager. They’re out there, though I’m queasy about it being David Ross, which has a feel of placating the masses about it, whatever his managing acumen might be.
Some have speculated that Theo wants a hard-ass. Does that even exist anymore? Does that really work? I look around at the best teams and I don’t see any red and nude managers. Dave Roberts? A.J. Hinch? Aaron Boone? Alex Cora? Brian Snitker? I don’t think players respond to that anymore. I hope that’s just speculation. Sure, things seemed like they got too relaxed with Maddon, and you want a tone set for the whole season. That’s all the Cubs need, I think. They don’t need Sargent Hartman in blue pinstripes.
Perhaps that feeling of “it just had to be” comes from Maddon himself. He seemed to make it clear that he didn’t think he had much more to give to this team yesterday, though maybe that was just dealing with the situation. He certainly couldn’t ignore all the mistakes his team made throughout the season and how he couldn’t seem to stop it. It doesn’t feel like five years is a very long time for someone’s shelf life to run out, but things move quicker now.
Maybe that’s just the shelf life on Maddon, too. He only won 77 games in his last year in Tampa, though there are obviously other considerations there. Perhaps it’s something about his style.
Still, he’s the manager who ended our GREAT BURDEN. The Cubs don’t win it without him, even if you only want to credit him for creating an atmosphere that allowed the players to take all of that head on which had asphyxiated every other team before them. With something as huge as 108 years, just as it was with the 86 in Boston, you have to have a team that can smile and laugh at it all the way through while the rest of us are losing our minds and screaming about why they aren’t. You have to find a team to embrace the ridiculousness of it and not treat it like a plague. Maddon did that. His name will live forever here because of it. He as the perfect guy at the perfect time for Rizzo and Bryant and Baez and Contreras and Hendricks and everyone else.
And now he’s not. And that’s ok. I’d trust the front office to get this one right. It’s a job most everyone would want. There’s still a ton to work with here, especially if the that front office doesn’t get silly and do something just to do something this winter.
Thanks for everything, Joe. It was quicker than we thought, but it was everything it was supposed to be.