As Cubs grapple with the ghost of a title, Joe Maddon departs with his sanity

Tim BrownMLB columnist
Yahoo Sports

Joe Maddon is having a time, isn’t he?

Drinking his wine, driving his cars, having his laughs, hanging with his boys, winning his World Series, living his best life, Joe Maddon leaves Chicago as about the sanest among us.

And when was the last time you could say that about a fired Cubs manager? Heck, a sitting Cubs manager?

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Technically, his contract expired. They'd call it a mutual decision because it is more dignified that way. So, on Sunday, in the final hours of the worst Cubs season of Maddon’s five, president Theo Epstein broke the news — Maddon wouldn’t be re-upped, the Cubs would be looking for a fresh dugout leader, and life on the North Side wouldn’t be quite the same. There was a time that’d be a good thing. Like, for a century.

In some ways, living with yesterday’s championship proved more trying than living with last century’s ghost, if not for the sanguine Maddon than for nearly everyone else. That a championship could be won, and indeed was won, made it real, made it possible, made it expected, and so in the end the guy who averaged 94 regular-season wins is viewed as somehow deficient. Epstein is just guessing, of course, but this is his guess to make, as was Dale Sveum, Rick Renteria and, once, Joe Maddon.

The three seasons post-curse ended with something other than euphoria in the fall air and vomit under the bar stools — well, certainly without euphoria in the fall air — and if it’s time to redirect the franchise then, sure, OK, start with the manager pulling the $6 million salary who wins only once every five years. The Cubs aren’t a great team, but they were good enough as of a couple weeks ago, so putting together another contender in the National League Central shouldn’t take long. Epstein’s pretty adept at these transitions, so it is fair to assume there’ll be capable players on the field and probably a competent man on the top step come next spring.

He won’t be Maddon, which is fine. Fine for the Cubs. Fine, you can be sure, for Maddon. Because, you see, this part — the last 14 years — didn’t have to happen for Maddon, who 14 years ago was a 51-year-old mostly anonymous baseball coach with a welcoming smile and a hair-trigger wit and a funky way of looking at the world. He charmed a franchise called the Tampa Bay Devil Rays into hiring him, which most agreed was deserving and overdue and probably one of those jobs that turns a reasonable dude into the guy who schedules a day to drive a nail through his foot.

Instead, he became this guy (and the Rays became those guys), the guy he always was, and people — players, coaches, general managers, fans, even writers — came to see it is possible to work your butt off and still be a reasonable human being. You can be the boss without being condescending. You can lose and find hope. You can win and recognize that’s about an inch from losing. You can look at the logo on your chest, look at the standings, and see not a corporation but a collection of strong and fragile people, most of them unsure, most of them simply hoping to do the right thing today. Granted, some of them don’t hit or pitch very well. For that, he’d eventually get fired.

CHICAGO, ILLINOIS - SEPTEMBER 21: Manager Joe Maddon #70 of the Chicago Cubs stands in the dugout during the game against the St. Louis Cardinals at Wrigley Field on September 21, 2019 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Nuccio DiNuzzo/Getty Images)
CHICAGO, ILLINOIS - SEPTEMBER 21: Manager Joe Maddon #70 of the Chicago Cubs stands in the dugout during the game against the St. Louis Cardinals at Wrigley Field on September 21, 2019 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Nuccio DiNuzzo/Getty Images)

So, Joe Maddon, at 65, won 1,200-and-some games he wasn’t ever supposed to win, made tens of millions of dollars he wasn’t ever supposed to make, led a parade he wasn’t ever supposed to lead and got fired from a job he wasn’t ever supposed to have. He’ll get over it. Thanks for having me, he’d probably say.

Just Saturday, bearing up under rumors he was serving his final weekend in Chicago and hours from a meeting with Epstein and others, Maddon could not — would not — allow an ounce of apprehension. He told reporters about the stuff that happens in the 21 hours around the game — a friend’s wife has cancer, his own uncle recently died, his grandchildren are growing up — and said, man, it’s baseball, just baseball, god bless it.

“Why would you permit a game to drive you down like that?” he demanded. “I feel very good about the future, very strongly about the future, whether it’s on or off the baseball field.”

And, man, has he had a good time. He lightened and focused and bettered the cultures of three organizations — the Angels weren’t quite the same without him — because, and not in spite of, his curiosity and appreciation for whatever was happening on the other side of those outfield fences. His love for the game. His respect for those good enough to play it. Those organizations also won more baseball games because of him, partly.

He tried not to suck. Maybe third place in the NL Central sucks. Maybe one championship in five years sucks. Probably some folks think so. Apparently the Cubs at the very least think they can do better, and maybe they can. We’ll let you know in another five years. Well, they’ll let you know.

Now Maddon will be off doing something else, drinking his wine, driving his cars, having his laughs, hanging with his boys and, if he wants, leading his new team. There’ll be plenty of opportunity. He is among the best in the game at what he does, which, today, isn’t good enough for the Chicago Cubs.

That’s OK. Joe Maddon will go have himself a time.

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