In a season that, by the day, whispers ever-more insistently about the glories in its future, the Cubs’ thrilling, walk-off sweep of a top NL contender last week seems a fitting conclusion to Chapter 1. Having logged thirty games of insane .800 ball, the hot start is turning historic and gaining significance by the win. Though difficult to fathom given the way they are playing, the Cubs’ win rate could immediately plummet to a comparatively pedestrian 58 percent the rest of the way and the team would still hit 100 W’s. Somehow, incredibly, the Cubs are outperforming their preseason hype, though the only reasonable product of such buildup should have been disappointment.
Some explanations for their unparalleled early success can be quantified. The Cubs are, more often than not, putting on a clinic in complete baseball. Playing smart, patient, and clean, the numbers through thirty reveal they are, indeed, “great at everything.” But clicking on this level, this early, exuding the confidence, focus, and relentlessness that has players and fans believing every outing is theirs for the taking? That’s where the specialness lies. ‘We are good’ is rapidly becoming ‘we are exceptional.’ The rise is skill-based to be sure, but also fueled by lessons in attitude from their process-is-fearless leader, Joe Maddon.
The four game series against the Nationals seemed weightier than the mere two percent of the season it actually represented. Pitting the Cubs for the first time against elite competition (with all due respect to the Pirates), the effort revealed the strength, depth, and tenacity that will serve them well for the duration. The first month may have felt, at times, like the Dexter Fowler and Jake Arrieta show, but with an unprecedented ejection of Fowler early in Game 1 and the season’s first no decision for Arrieta in Game 4, they did not emerge the supermen of this set. Instead, reviving the 2015 feeling of ‘a different hero every night,’ a long list of Cubs made notable contributions, including some surprising names like Zobrist, Kalish, Cahill, and Baez.
David Ross’s reaction suggested that utilizing a stacked roster and a bench ripe with clutch potential will continue to be key: “There’s a lot of talent in here, and when you have a manager who puts guys in a situation to succeed, I think that’s what he does best… the good teams I’ve been on, that’s how it is. You need 25, 30 guys to be on a winning team, and we’ve been fortunate enough to have some success and guys are coming through for us.” This early collaborative achievement is a good indicator that Maddon’s characteristic clubhouse philosophies have already taken root.
Famous for managing people, not just players, Maddon’s buzz words seem more likely to belong at a synergy-themed corporate retreat than at the ballpark. He promotes shared ownership and accountability as crucial for engagement and team chemistry. On the collaborative effort it took to sweep the Nats, Maddon summarized simply, “Everybody participated. I love when everybody takes a piece of the ownership. It really matters within the clubhouse.”
Also known for a hands-off approach that relies on peer leadership and players inspiring and policing each other in turn, Maddon believes in the power of personality to build unity and bring out the best in everyone. He explained, “I use the term ‘force multiplier’… I’m a big Colin Powell fan. In [his autobiography], he referenced the force multipliers, people that really made the people around them better.” Whether for stand out work ethic, unfailing optimism, or exceptional personal growth, Maddon identifies those who exemplify his process and encourages them to share the wealth.
It’s nothing revolutionary. A carryover from the clubhouse culture Maddon successfully fostered last season, he views it as an important message that must be cultivated each year. The potential impact of these peer leaders is huge. Maddon explained, “They make the coach’s job easier. And there is nothing more effective than peer pressure…nothing more effective than a message coming from a peer.” The difference, perhaps, for 2016 is that Maddon’s lineup of force multipliers seems to be expanding. It’s no longer just about young guys emulating veterans. Through mutual trust and support of the characteristics that breed success, Maddon is developing a tightly knit web of influence, designed to inspire greatness among each other.
Some examples are fairly conspicuous. Joining David Ross and Anthony Rizzo in an almost official leadership capacity is Jake Arrieta, whose lights-out second half and vaunted routine demanded others take notice of his example. Chris Bosio requested he take on an elevated role in the clubhouse late last season, and Arrieta seemed ready to embrace the responsibility, saying, “verbal leadership is extremely important, which I intend to provide and I try to provide for everybody. Regardless of who they are or what they have accomplished, I believe we all can use advice or words of wisdom.”
Those words apparently landed most heavily on Jason Hammel, whose new diet, workout routine, and determination have him exceeding expectations with the fourth best ERA in the league. From Maddon’s perspective, the relationship is exactly what he wants to see happen: “I think that Jake’s had a great influence on Jason to be able to work on that level… Jason’s working very, very diligently right now, too… So right now I think, you know, play follow the leader, and that’s not a bad thing for Hammel to do.”
Another unsurprising leader to emerge is Maddon’s longtime favorite super-utility man, Ben Zobrist. Despite being a new face in the clubhouse this year, Zobrist has been expected to disseminate veteran wisdom, positive vibes and a stellar example from the start. They are qualities Maddon has valued since the two met a decade ago in Tampa Bay. Zobrist’s team-first attitude and focus on winning above personal aspirations left a big impression on Maddon, and he’s hoping it can infect the young Cubs. After a ridiculous stretch of hitting from Zobrist over the weekend, Maddon delightedly deemed him“a good virus… he is this thing that spreads. There’s a residual positive impact just from being around him.”
In more subtle ways, Maddon is also emphasizing certain characteristics of younger players, encouraging them to spread throughout the team. Kris Bryant’s patient approach, significantly reduced strike out rate and improved ability to lay off bad pitches out of the zone this season has Maddon stoked: “Accept your walks, man. When you’re walking, you’re hitting. When guys are doing that, they’ll hit their hardest line drives, their farthest home runs. They’re contributing so much of the offense, and it becomes contagious.” When the reigning Rookie of the Year is constantly looking for ways to improve, those around him take notice.
As a youngster still finding his way, Javier Baez may seem an unlikely candidate for leadership. He has much to learn, but in making the most of his opportunities on both sides of the ball, he also has something to teach. Whether it’s trying to turn three on a sure double play or swinging for the fences when the game is on the line, Maddon is all in on his all-out style of play: “Go for it Javy, because you can do these things. The moment you get guys playing the conservative side of the game and wanting to not make mistakes, you’re never going to win… So we want to err on the side aggressiveness, fortune favors the bold. Those are the kinds of concepts I want our guys to embrace. And he does, that’s how he lives, that’s how he plays the game.”
Even Kyle Schwarber still faces lofty expectations in a Maddon clubhouse. His contributions this season will unfortunately be limited to peer leadership in a cerebral capacity. But he has his own example to set, maintaining focus, staying sharp, and offering insight where needed. “We want to keep his mind right,” explained Bosio. “He’s a smart kid. Being in the clubhouse, he’s going to be able to help some of the other players—veterans or rookies—on all aspects of the game. Those are the expectations we have of him. We’re not going to let him sit in crutches or sit in a chair with a foot up because the guy is out for the season. Our clubhouse doesn’t work like that, the organization doesn’t work like that. We’re going to get him involved with what Kyle will like and what we need.”
Mirroring the Cubs’ mutually supportive style on the field, it seems to be any given leader in the clubhouse. A recipe for chemistry and perseverance that’s hard to crack, the natural result may be the tenacity and versatility that have defined the Cubs’ first chapter. For his part, Maddon is complimenting the player-centered approach with healthy doses of his trademark zany antics. For fun, for pressure-release, yes. But far from pure goofiness, he recently spoke on the strategic baseball value of the escapades: “…it’s not just about dressing up; it’s not about animals. It’s about this bonding experience. It’s about taking risks. It’s about doing things you don’t normally do, which then I think can help you on a baseball field in a tight moment, because your mind is in a different spot regarding not being uptight, primarily. So all the things are interrelated…”
Colin Powell, whose lessons for leadership also include having fun in your command and remaining passionately positive, would approve. It’s no wonder Maddon is a fan. Powell’s wisdom encapsulates what has been happening on the North Side remarkably well: “Perpetual optimism is a force multiplier… I am talking about a gung ho attitude that says ‘we can change things here, we can achieve awesome goals, we can be the best.’ Spare me the grim litany of the ‘realist’; give me the unrealistic aspirations of the optimist any day.” The Cubs are apparently buying it, and, for now, it’s working better than any would have imagined.
Despite having Mr. Positivity himself at the helm, the message has perhaps embedded so deeply in hearts and minds that the students have already become the masters. Before facing off with the Nationals, Maddon had this to say on the radio: “Next one will be Washington. We’re not going to win every night, I’ll promise you that.” Good thing the guys forgot to tune in.
Lead photo courtesy Charles LeClaire—USA Today Sports.