Joe Maddon taking on challenge bigger than winning with Angels

Tim BrownMLB columnist

This is where the Los Angeles Angels start over, even as the bulldozer takes aim for another run.

Amidst a deepening drug scandal that threatens the very character of the franchise, the Angels on Wednesday hired Joe Maddon — who played, coached and managed for the organization over much of his adult life — to be their next manager, the team announced Wednesday.

What comes next — further investigation by federal authorities and Major League Baseball into the accidental overdose death of pitcher Tyler Skaggs, the team employees who allegedly were aware of and enabled his drug use, the players who may also have been involved, and the lawsuits that seem sure to follow — will come on Maddon’s watch. His job, believed to come with a three-year contract, will be to rebuild long before the final sledgehammer is thrown, and so to field and maintain a competitive baseball team upon a potentially unsettled foundation.

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Thirteen years ago, Maddon, child of the Angels, left the organization to become manager of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. He took that young franchise to a World Series in his third season. In 2016, in the second of five seasons in Chicago, he helped engineer the Cubs’ first World Series championship in more than a century.

Back in Anaheim, he will discover a team that has lost its way, that has one postseason appearance in a decade, that has squandered nine seasons of Mike Trout and that also bears the scars of human loss and its possible role in that tragedy.

Joe Maddon won a World Series with the Cubs in 2016. (AP Photo/Scott Kane)
Joe Maddon won a World Series with the Cubs in 2016. (AP Photo/Scott Kane)

In Tampa, he had taken over a team that only once had finished out of last place. In Chicago, a curse born in 1908. This, today, becomes his most severe challenge, and perhaps the one that is most personal. He wore the Angels’ colors as an A-ball catcher straight out of Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania. He managed low- and mid-minor league Angels teams for seven seasons. He served as a big-league coach under four managers, among them the long-running Mike Scioscia. He was an interim manager when some of that went wrong. He got his first big-league managing job in his early 50s.

So, really, there would be only one man for the job, if he would have them.

The Angels fired manager Brad Ausmus after a single season, their worst in two decades, a season in which Skaggs died in a Dallas hotel room in early July. Free-agent acquisitions from the previous winter — pitchers Matt Harvey, Trevor Cahill and Cody Allen, among others — underperformed. General manager Billy Eppler goes into this winter in the final year of his contract, a period that has netted a reputedly improved farm system and little in the way of American League relevance. The Angels have not had a winning season since 2015.

Eight of baseball’s 30 teams had managerial openings in mid-October. In that climate, and given Maddon’s resumé, the Angels moved quickly. They had considered veteran managers Buck Showalter and John Farrell, among others, but their true target was the folksy and charismatic Maddon, who’d been on the bench when they’d won their only World Series title, in 2002. Who’d grown up an Angel.

He is 65. This job could be his last. For an organization in pain and under scrutiny, that must first seek the depth of the wound before it can begin to heal, that seeks truer courses in nearly all ways, Maddon will stand on the dugout’s top step. He is the right man for it. But he is a small part of the reconstruction, even as the bulldozer revs again.

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