If you happened to spend any time around the Angels a couple decades back, you would have had to go out of your way to find Joe, the minor-league instructor, in a clubhouse or back field you wouldn’t otherwise have reason to be.
Of all the men – young and old – wandering around with fungo bats over their shoulders and stopwatches in their pockets, Joe was different. He talked the game different. He saw the game different. He understood the young men inside the uniforms – underneath the numbers and the scouting reports – better.
In a world of absolutes – and there were few worlds as absolute as baseball – Joe was a different guy. He read real books. He drank real wine, and still loved a domestic beer in a plastic cup. He laughed at the goofy stuff, and had a kind heart, and loved the new statistics that were popping up, and embraced the unknown. Yeah, he was a baseball guy, but he also was a life guy.
So, you had to go find Joe.
Whatta ya seein’? Who do ya like? What’s the deal with this guy? That guy? Where’d you eat last night? See this headline in the Times?
Joe would coil his leg around his fungo bat, like a python around a tree limb, and say, “Body…”
He called some people “Body.” No idea why.
“Body,” he’d say, “I ever tell you about Beanie?”
Beanie is his mom. She was a waitress at this joint up in Hazleton, Pa. His pops was a plumber. They’d lived over the shop.
“Body,” he’d say, “this kid can really play. You gotta check him out.”
He’d nod toward a skinny kid named Salmon.
And then one day he was standing in a hotel lobby, wearing a jacket and tie, an outfit that looked like it was scrounged up in his dorm room. He was going to go meet with the GM of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays about a job. He was nervous, a little stiffer than usual.
“Where you gonna be in a few hours, Body?” he asked. “Might like a beer.”
And so off he went. To St. Petersburg. To the World Series. Into people’s living rooms and their psyches.
On Monday afternoon, inside the Cubby Bear sports bar across the street from Wrigley Field, he pulled on a Chicago Cubs jersey. No. 70, of course. He never did button it. The right collar of his shirt was buried in the jersey, the left side popped out. His white hair had an Einstein-ian quality, which perfectly accented the signature clunky black eyeglasses. When a reporter introduced himself, Joe would answer, “Yo,” friendly like. He laughed. He made jokes. He instructed. He told stories. He welcomed the past century and, as important, the next one. He stood at the end and shouted, “Barkeep anywhere?” and bought a round for house – “Actually, a shot and a beer,” he revised – and it brought to mind reporters being welcomed to his first spring training for the Devil Rays with post-workout Coronas and chips and salsa.
Same guy. Same Joe.
Twenty-five years later, Joe Maddon has not changed, and that’s about the best that can be said about a man, assuming he was decent before. And Joe always has been decent.
He’s in for five years at $5-mil per. He’s in for whatever befalls the Cubs next. He’s in for what would happen in that town if something good were to happen, like a World Series championship. OK, a playoff win. A winning season. Hope? Sustained hope?
“This,” he said Monday afternoon, “is my personal attempt to push myself to another limit.”
It’s not just him. It’s the better part of a city. It’s a history. A crappy history. It’s all the men who’ve come before him, who’ve sat right there and said yeah the next era is coming, the prospects look good, the future looks bright, here we come. The last few guys barely had the words out of their mouths before they were sitting alone at the end of the bar at The Cubby Bear, wondering what the hell just happened.
Along comes Joe.
“I like interesting,” he said. “I like it a lot.”
He’s come to the right place.
A few days back, he’d sat at a Florida panhandle campground with Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer. The sun was setting on ol’ Cousin Eddie, the formidable RV Joe and his wife, Jaye, were navigating west. Jaye ran the beers. They talked philosophies. They talked ball. They talked Cubs. Theo needed a jacket.
Guaranteed, had he had a fungo bat, Joe would have stood beside it, wrapped one leg around it, and stood with his arms folded. That’s the guy he was, the guy he’s always been – the minor-league catcher, the minor-league manager, the scout, the instructor, the coach, the son, the dad, the friend, the man and, then, perhaps, the big-league manager the Cubs had to have.
“I love it,” he said. “The challenge is so outstanding, how could you not want to be in this seat?”
Sounding like he did when he pulled into Tampa for a job most thought would kill his career before it got started, because the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox could never be beat.
“This is a one-in-107-year opportunity for me right now,” he said. “Or one in 108 years, however it’s sitting … in this city, in that ballpark, under these circumstances with that talent.”
And maybe you believe him. Maybe. In spite of all the evidence. In spite of the last hundred-and-some years. In spite of the Piniellas and Bakers and Baylors and Zimmers and Durochers, you can go on seemingly forever, who once said the same stuff and then, admittedly, made you buy your own damn beer.
But, this guy, this Joe, maybe you believe him.
Because, yeah, he’s different. Always has been.
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