You Maddon, Joe? New Cubs Manager Can’t be Compared to Past Skippers

Generally lost in the warm fuzzies of the Joe Maddon hiring are less savory thoughts and emotions, many of which spawn from the fact that the Cubs are splitting with Ricky Renteria after one season as skipper. And I get those feelings; they’re totally justified.

Yes, Renteria is still getting paid and yes, he gained some valuable experience that might make him an attractive candidate for the next series of managerial openings that come available. But it’s still okay to feel a little sorry for the guy, even though most of us don’t think twice when a AAAA player is cut to make room for a stud prospect or free agent.

But I want to look now at some of the other presumptions and allegations making the rounds, namely the idea of tampering and the concept that big-name managers don’t always work out for the Cubs.

Actually, I already addressed the first of those a couple days ago, calling Maddon the George Clooney of managers. I understand that Rays fans’ rear ends are feeling a little chapped at this point, what with the David Price trade and the separate exoduses of Andrew Friedman and Joe Maddon, but tampering?

Do people really believe that the Cubs would have needed to put the bug in Maddon’s ear that they’d be interested if he opted out of his deal with Tampa? I suppose it’s too much of a stretch to believe that he saw around him a team that had already accomplished all it could, given limited resources, and simply felt that it was time to move on.

And what’s more, his GM had just left for greener pastures, which, in addition to triggering an opt-out clause, was a pretty clear sign that maybe real grass is indeed greener than the artificial turf at The Trop. It may be hard for some outsiders to grasp, but the Cubs are simply a more attractive option than the Rays at this point. It only made sense for Maddon to leave.

Then again, I can understand harboring a little ill will so close to a split like this. The reasons Cubs fans are so happy to have Maddon are the same Rays fans are so upset to lose him. And jumping to a new team so quickly might indeed make him look like a bit of a trader (sic).

But what I really take issue with is this concept that Maddon-to-the-Cubs is a bad idea because other big-name managers have floundered in the past. As Sahadev Sharma tweeted recently, and I’m paraphrasing a little here, using that logic is no different than saying Kris Bryant won’t work out because Felix Pie and Corey Patterson didn’t.

Standing right at the forefront of this camp is none other than Mike North. And while I typically try to avoid his ramblings, I found myself getting sucked in to the inexorable Grabowskitude of his recent column in The Daily Herald titled, “Big-name managers don’t always work out for Cubs.”

It’s low-hanging fruit, no doubt about it, but I felt compelled to take this thing apart, even if only for my own amusement. If you find this type of sniping boring, please feel free to look the other way, my frents.

Believe me, the fever pitch is already getting euphoric, just like when Dusty Baker came to town. “In Dusty We Trusty” was the mantra, and with Kerry Woods and Mark Prior on the roster, wmy wife and Uncle Joe were ready to buy World Series tickets.

In all honesty, I can probably stop with my rebuttal right here. Little mistakes are going to occur from time to time; that’s inevitable. But the obvious lack of an editor, or even spellcheck, is something I can’t really abide. Also: Kerry Woods? I’m trying to figure out whether this is just plain ignorance or intentional trolling, but I’m leaning toward the former.

When Dusty came here, his arrow was pointing up, but by the time he left in 2006 he had become a scapegoat for losing the National League playoffs in 2003 to the Florida Marlins and was a bitter man.

Then “Sweet Lou” came to town. Even I was caught up in the excitement, and Lou had a couple of very good seasons with the Cubs in 2007-2008, but in 2010 the once mighty Lou quit during the season and his career as a manager was over.

Fair points, both of them. Dusty Baker had left the Giants prior to their days of even year World Series titles, but he had at least gotten them to the Fall Classic. His arrival in Chicago was indeed met with a great deal of fanfare and it was thought that he was the guy to make it happen for the Cubs.

I’ll not get into a discussion of his handling of the pitching staff here, as that’s been hammered into obsolescence over the years. I’d look, rather, to his enabling of veteran players and the “us against the world” attitude he engendered in the locker room. Dusty was definitely a player’s manager, but he also failed to produce any real accountability.

I can’t claim to be intimately familiar with the Giants fanbase and media market, but my at-a-distance observations show me a group that is far more laid-back and forgiving than those who follow and cover the Cubs. Playing and managing in Chicago can really wear on you, and by the end of his tenure, Dusty and his team almost resembled wounded animals that had been cornered, snapping at anyone who happened to reach out.

Lou Piniella was a different case entirely, a man who had built up a reputation for being emotional maelstrom, full of piss and vinegar. But by the time he got to the Cubs in 2007, it seemed as though the vinegar had taken over; Lou was sour, dour and devoid of the power he had once wielded. Power to throw bases, kick dirt on umpires, and get in fights with relievers.

By the time 2010 rolled around, Sweet Lou was little more than a cardboard cutout of his former self, propped up in the dugout to give the illusion that the man was still there. His mother’s failing health provided the justifiable excuse for him to walk away from the Cubs prior to the end of the season, but it was obvious that he had checked out long before.

While both men were vastly different, they were both a part of the big-spending era for the Cubs. They were flashy hood ornaments for big, expensive cars, but they really didn’t serve to advance the goals of the organization. Those men were more like trophies or figureheads, though no one would have thought that at the time.

The pattern started in 1969. I was a vendor at Wrigley Field selling soft drinks and living large (bringing home $25-$30 a game) while I watched Leo Durocher manage the team. His catch phrase was, “Nice guys finish last.” He stayed with the Cubs seven years and his best year was 1969, when he won 92 games but failed to win the division. It left loyal Cubs fans devastated. By the time Leo’s tenure was over, he was embattled and haunted by his team’s failure to win.

I actually agree with Durocher’s assertion and I wrote as much recently, saying that the Cubs are doing all they can to remove the “lovable” label from their perception. But Durocher’s ’69 team was one that was generally past its prime and had little experience with success. What’s more, it was playing in an era with virtually no margin for error.

In 1969, you had only 12 teams in the National League, 6 each in the East and West. Only the two division leaders made the playoffs. No third division. No wild card. As Reese Bobby would say, “if you ain’t first, you’re last,” and that was the unfortunate case for Leo the Lip and his Cubs.

But when we look at the glorious tradition of more than a century of general futility, the three managers North named actually stand out as relative success stories. After all, Dusty’s team in 2003 still represents the Cubs’ only playoff series win since 1908. Sure, the Cubs made the playoffs several times in the interim, but even their trips to the World Series came prior to divisional postseason play.

And then you’ve got Piniella’s teams in 2007 and ’08, which were the first to even reach the playoffs in consecutive seasons since those back-to-back titles exactly 100 years earlier. Sure, they were swept unceremoniously from the postseason proceedings, but just getting to the dance was a pretty big accomplishment where the Cubs are concerned.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that the narrative that big-name managers haven’t worked out for the Cubs is patently false. In fact, given the dearth of trophies in the case in Tom Ricketts’ office, I think it’s fair to say that big-name managers have worked out quite well.

Between them, Dusty and Lou can boast three playoff appearances, which is equal to the combined total of all the skippers over the previous 58 years. Granted even that limited success is somewhat pathetic when compared to teams like the Giants and Cardinals, but this is the Cubs we’re talking about.

I think the real issue here is that those men all carried championship expectations in their time with the Cubs, the weight of which would bow even Atlas’s back. Little-known fill-ins like Mike Quade, Dale Sveum, and Rick Renteria carried burdens as well, but nothing of the sort associated with the big name, and bigger paycheck, of Joe Maddon.

Hiring Maddon is a signal that the Cubs are once again ready to compete, that they’re looking to get back to the days of soul-crushing expectations, both for the fans and the manager. They’re certainly not out of the (Kerry) woods yet, but all the little moves this front office has made are finally starting to bear fruit.

History has shown us that rock-star managers can in fact win with the Cubs, it’s just that none has yet gotten the team to the promised land. Can Joe Maddon be the guy to finally push the Sisyphean boulder up the mountain and over the top?

Good luck, Joe. While I’m excited for you, I’m going to stay calm because I’ve seen this show before.

Say what you will, Northy, but I haven’t seen this show before. This isn’t some lame Hollywood reboot or a box office-mandated sequel that has been hastily slapped together. This Cubs team is a new concept from the bottom up and I can’t wait to see what they’ve got in store for us.

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