MESA, Ariz. — Like almost every reunion these days in professional sports, Joe Maddon’s return to Sloan Park on Monday afternoon was filled with hugs, laughter and a little revisionist history.
The past always seems perfect when you’re looking back at good times with a bit of distance in between, especially when you’ve landed a new job in paradise.
But if everything really was as great as Cubs players and Maddon insisted before Monday’s Cubs-Angels game in Mesa, then why did Maddon have to go?
After all, third baseman Kris Bryant said the Cubs never would’ve won their 2016 championship with anyone else at the helm.
“He was the absolutely the perfect guy for that job for that time,” Bryant said. “And if he wasn’t here, I don’t think we would have been able to do it. Not at all.”
“Sweet,” Maddon replied when informed of Bryant’s assessment. “We would not have won without him being there either.”
Everyone laughed, and it seemed like old times for a minute.
It was a veritable lovefest at Sloan Park, as expected, when Maddon rolled in, followed by ESPN reporter Jesse Rogers and a camera crew recording his every step.
Cubs fans cheered as Maddon walked down the left-field line and again when he entered the Angels dugout. Players lined up to exchange hugs with Maddon and former Cubs coaches Brian Butterfield, John Mallee and Tim Buss.
Buss, who was the Cubs strength coach, is now a quality assurance coach with the Angels, whatever that means.
“Something is assured,” Buss said. “I don’t know if it’s quality.”
Maddon didn’t have to defend his methodology when he helped bring the Cubs off the mat in 2015, or when they won the World Series in 2016, or even after they lost to the Dodgers in the National League Championship Series in 2017.
But Cubs President Theo Epstein deemed that same methodology insufficient after a late-season letdown and quick playoff exit in 2018, and the writing was on the wall after that, making the 2019 season a long countdown to Maddon’s inevitable exit on the final day.
Epstein said afterward simply that change sometimes is needed. Maddon went along with the narrative for a while, at least until an ESPN.com interview before spring training in which he referred to the front office as “controlling.”
Maddon said Monday he didn’t “take it personally” when the Cubs told him they needed a new voice, which turned out to be an old voice in a new role after they hired David Ross.
“I know the way it’s presented,” Maddon said. “I understand that. I understand where the boys are coming from.
“Listen, I like change, but it’s got to be for all the right reasons. The fact that Theo and the whole group understood it was time to do something different for both of us, there could not have been a better candidate available than David.”
The Cubs felt Ross would bring a new energy and a commitment to detail in fundamentals that was lacking in 2019. So far in camp, Ross has done just that.
Whether Maddon was unfairly blamed for the sloppiness is debatable, but he was the manager and the buck traditionally stops there.
Maddon said he didn’t care to relitigate the reasons for what went wrong, and he compared his relationship with Epstein to an amicable divorce.
“Stuff happens along the way where you have internal discussions,” he said. “And then eventually it might be best to (part). But you can still be friends with your former partner.
“There is nothing adversarial. I just texted Theo and I called him a couple days ago. We’re going to try to get together, have a beer and talk more about it. It’s just the (way) of the world today where everybody is looking for (something) adversarial.
“It was a great moment. We did wonderfully together. It was a great marriage, a great union, and I’m grateful for it.”
But you did call the front office “controlling” recently, I reminded Maddon.
“OK, if I said that, that’s still not being adversarial,” he replied. “That’s just the methodology. What I mean by that, there is more information and more want from upstairs to downstairs. And I’m not saying that was wrong. It’s not my baby. It is in the dugout.
“But overall I’ve always learned to play well in the sandbox with the people I’m working with. I think that’s my minor-league training. But if you’ve asked me the question, that’s the answer. It’s true. But I’m not saying it was wrong (to be controlling).”
Whatever happened, Maddon soon took his act to Anaheim, where no one is telling him to learn the millennials’ way of doing things or making him set his lineups three days in advance.
The fun is back too. Maddon invited Charles Barkley to come talk to his players Monday. Asked what he likes about Maddon, Barkley said: “I like his leadership style. I like his personality more. And we both hate analytics.”
California is a state of mind that suits Maddon to a T, and he has turned camp into a daily show, just as he did with the Rays and Cubs. He gave Buss free rein to do his shtick, giving the Angels a chance to share some belly laughs before the long grind begins on opening day.
Buss, like Maddon, also was let go for dubious reasons.
“It broke his heart that he had to go,” Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo said. “He’s a pro. He gets it. He gets the grind of this game with the best of them. In this game you’re very, very lucky to call people your true friend, and Bussie is one of my true friends and I’m grateful for it.”
Rizzo may be close friends with Ross, but he and the others have a “forever bond” with the manager who taught them how to win together. Maddon was touched that Rizzo’s parents came to see him at an Angels-Giants game Saturday in Scottsdale, where Rizzo’s dad brought him some albums for his classic rock collection.
“That’s really considerate,” Maddon said. “That’s the kind of stuff that, if that happens, you know you might’ve done something right.”
Maddon wasn’t a perfect manager, but he did a lot of things right in Chicago and certainly deserved a better fate.
He said he won’t truly feel closure until he’s back managing a game at Wrigley Field, which could happen in 2020 only in a Cubs-Angels World Series. That seems unlikely, so we’ll probably have to treasure the memories of a time unlike any other in Cubs history.
“Nothing to lament,” Maddon said. “It was wonderful. It was life-altering for me and my family to be part of this organization, the way I was treated. … Hopefully I left something for the organization too.”
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