CHICAGO — The steady breeze from four, large portable fans whooshed through the Chicago Cubs’ luxurious new digs, sucking away whatever moisture lingered from the just-shampooed carpets.
“They missed a spot,” laughed reliever Mike Montgomery, sitting at his locker. The left-hander lifted the sole of his shoe to show it was wet. “You can still smell the champagne here.”
On the morning after the Cubs clinched a playoff spot, few members of the team with the best record in baseball had wandered back into the clubhouse ahead of an afternoon start still three hours away. Manager Joe Maddon, though, was already in his office and focused on what mattered next: breaking a century-and-counting World Series hex.
“I see now what everyone was talking about,” said Montgomery, who arrived from Seattle in July as part of a four-player trade. “Joe knows so much about baseball — situational play, what the data calls for, what makes guys tick — but he makes it look easy. So you don’t always see how he works.”
Indeed, Maddon’s fingerprints are all over this team. With the playoff opener looming Friday at Wrigley Field, plenty of the credit for assembling this sudden juggernaut goes to Theo Epstein, the Cubs’ president of baseball operations. He helped assemble the lineup and has added complementary parts like Montgomery, closer Aroldis Chapman and outfielder Jason Heyward in a timely fashion.
But it’s Maddon’s job to fit those pieces together. More impressive still is how he’s made nearly every one of them better.
Take the steady improvement that has second-year star Kris Bryant battling teammate Anthony Rizzo for Most Valuable Player. Or starter Kyle Hendricks’ breakout campaign and Cy Young candidacy.
In Bryant’s case, it involved teaching the much-touted third baseman to cope with expectations. Maddon accomplished that by encouraging Bryant to take a few shifts in the outfield and even at first base, giving the youngster another skill to learn instead of obsessing over every at-bat. In Hendricks’ case, it might have involved a deep data dive alongside pitching coach Chris Bosio, seeing whether the right-hander’s pitch sequence, location or delivery needed tweaking.
But it might have been something as simple as this. A few weeks ago in Pittsburgh, Hendricks saw Maddon heading in his direction in the dugout. Hendricks expected Maddon to question his decision to stop at second base after Chris Coghlan singled behind him.
Instead, Maddon asked him about the mascot at Dartmouth, where Hendricks went to college.
“When you’re known as the Big Green, is that like Gumby?” Maddon asked. “Is he your guy? What does the mascot look like?”
Hendricks smiled at the memory. Nearly every other player on the roster has a similar story to tell.
“I got maybe 10 career at-bats. I couldn’t remember the last time I batted in a game,” Montgomery recalled. “But I got a hit the other night and it was one of the happiest moments of my career. …
“So Joe comes up to me the next day and starts discussing hitting with me and we have this long conversation about it, like I actually know what I’m doing. He probably knows that’s not the case. But now,” Montgomery chuckled, “I’m already thinking, ‘Maybe I’ll get another one.'”
In an interview room just off the new clubhouse, Maddon parked behind a bank of microphones. Instead of the big picture, reporters wanted to know where he went after the party in the clubhouse broke up. In addition to being one of the best managers in baseball, Maddon is one of the most entertaining.
“I did not go out last night,” he said.
“Why not?” came the follow-up question.
“I had nothing,” Maddon said smiling, sliding his elbow along the table and pretending he was about to nap.
Don’t believe it.
This is one guy who always has something up his sleeve.