It’s something of a surprise to be reminded that Joe Maddon was the oldest active manager in Major League Baseball at the start of the 2018 season. For one thing, the game is still populated by people like Clint Hurdle and the Pittsburgh Pirates who certainly feel older than Maddon and always seem to be one pitch away from sticking a ball in Anthony Rizzo’s ribs to avenge that one time Three Finger Brown hit Honus Wagner in 1907.
But more to the point, the way Maddon carries himself in public often screams the exact opposite of “senior citizen.” Even at the advanced baseball age of 64, he adamantly refuses to become an Old Man Yells at Cloud-esque wizened elder. Unless, of course, it’s a cloud shaped like Joe West.
I’m kidding, of course. Clouds don’t think people go to baseball games just to see them.
So it was not surprising that when Hurdle went the full Gossage on Javy Báez a couple weeks ago, Maddon issued an impassioned and spirited defense of his stellar second baseman:
“Whenever you want to be hypercritical of somebody, just understand you are revealing yourself and your beliefs more than you’re evaluating somebody—because you have not spent one second in that person’s skin…
“Just like people making decisions on Strop based on wearing his hat. I think most of the time when you hear critical commentary, it’s self-evaluation… It reveals you more than it reveals the person you are talking about.”
That’s pointed stuff—much moreso than the usual “stay out of our house” language typical of baseball manager conflicts. Maddon didn’t shy away from addressing how Hurdle’s “respect the game” condescension toward Báez carries hints of racism. Indeed, he confronted those implications head-on, comparing them to the racist criticism Pedro Strop received for wearing his hat angled to the left and emphasizing how Hurdle hasn’t “spent one second in [Báez’s] skin.”
(Incidentally, if Hurdle did spend a second in Javy’s skin, he might actually learn what it’s like not to give the impression that he’s constantly two seconds away from a massive coronary.)
As if all of that wasn’t enough, Maddon put it even more bluntly:
“If you went to Puerto Rico, [Báez] fits in pretty well. You wouldn’t be all that concerned about how he plays the game or the methods. This is how we view things here. So to me, he plays with a joy.”
This hit on a couple of Maddon’s best qualities as a manager and a person: his intellectual curiosity and desire to learn about cultures other than his own. It’s no coincidence that these are two of the most notable ways in which Maddon publicly rebels against old school baseball conventional wisdom.
And it was no surprise that Maddon defended Báez so vehemently. The beliefs he espoused were the same ones that he practiced with his involvement in founding and overseeing the Hazleton Integration Project—an effort to build a bridge between the entrenched working class population in his eastern Pennsylvania hometown with a newly arrived group of Latin American immigrants. Empathy and curiosity to learn about other cultures might as well be part of the mission statement for Maddon’s non-profit.
Maddon’s Project was born in response to an ordinance that former Hazleton mayor Lou Barletta passed in 2006 to punish anyone who rented or employed undocumented immigrants and made English the town’s official language. The only thing holding Hazelton back from putting “Respect the game” on the town’s official seal was that they just made it illegal to translate it into Latin.
This provided an instance for Maddon to turn his words into action. And as anyone who’s heard a Cubs postgame press conference can attest, that’s a lot of action. The Hazelton Integration Project launched in 2013, transforming a former school into a community center with a focus on social events in an attempt to integrate the town’s native and immigrant populations.
And in explaining what motivated him to launch the Project in the first place, the empathy for others in Maddon’s words echoed his defense of Báez:
“Early on in this process, we went to a gathering of folks on a Sunday after mass at a day care center. Potluck people brought on one table. The adults were sitting at these low tables they had for kids. Talking. Laughing. Drinking a little wine. Kids playing everywhere. And I thought to myself, ‘Oh my God, this is exactly what our house looked like when I was growing up…’
“You get this moment, this exact moment, that replicates what you experienced growing up. And you’re pushing away from it because the people speak a different language or because the kids are ‘dirty;’ all the different things that my parents and grandparents had heard when they first came.”
Again, you can hear the echoes of Maddon’s ideals: putting himself in someone else’s position and really trying to learn about who they are and the environment from which they emerged. By doing so, Maddon realized that the prejudice that Hazelton’s Latinx population faced in their present day environment was similar to that endured by older generations in his family.
So he vowed to do something about it and followed through. The Project has thus far paid off for the community, with over 300 kids taking advantage of the Community Center’s programs each week. It’s the most prominent example of Maddon’s best qualities coming to fruition and making a positive impact on the people who matter most to him.
All of this is tremendously admirable in a leader and a human being. Which makes these episodes somewhat hard to square with other things we know about the Cubs manager. Because as you might remember from the team’s awkward second White House visit in 2017, there’s another aspect of Maddon’s personality that he has shown from time to time and it’s more… complicated.
In discussing the Cubs’ photo op with Donald Trump last year, Maddon explained his reasoning for joining in his team’s visit. And in the process, he sounded like a much different person than the one discussed above:
“Whatever Mr. Ricketts would like me to do, I’m going to do. Mr. Ricketts and the Ricketts family have been good to us. So that is part of it. The other part is whenever you have a chance to go to The White House, I think it’s easy to say ‘yes’ out of respect to the office and the building itself…
“Listen, I like the United States a lot. I like living here a lot. And I like what it represents a lot. So when you get a chance as a citizen to go to The White House, you go. Whether you like the person who is running the country or not, out of respect to the office you go.”
Suddenly you remember that for somebody who tends to be a really cool 64 year old, in the end, Joe Maddon is still a 64 year old.
I assume you don’t need me to tell you how Trump feels about immigrants and Latin American culture. In both words and actions, he makes Clint Hurdle sound like he’s about to break out in a chorus of “Somewhere” from West Side Story.
But when Maddon had a chance to make a public statement of support for the Latino community and further demonstrate his empathy for their culture in the face of attacks from America’s Chief Executive, he curiously cited “respect for the office” instead. And just as puzzlingly, the Cubs’ leader developed a seemingly out-of-character deference to authority.
At the very least, by going along with the White House trip, he missed out on what might could have been one of the greatest days of the 2017 season: visiting the dinosaur museum with Carl Edwards, Jr.
Obviously, there was no requirement for Maddon to put himself out there and turn into a baseball version of Gregg Popovich or Steve Kerr. Both of them have operated under a heavy amount of criticism for being so vocal in their disgust for Trump and his desire to turn bigotry into law. To assume that Maddon would be willing to sign up for that kind of scrutiny—especially in a culture as conservative as baseball’s—was probably expecting too much.
Nonetheless, it’s still fair to point out that while Maddon has been laudably quick to call out racism within the culture of baseball and in his hometown, his lack of desire to do the same on a national level is frustrating and feels like a missed opportunity.
Further complicating matters, Maddon has maintained a childhood friendship with former Hazelton Mayor and current Congressman Barletta, the man whose scapegoating of Latin American immigrants inspired the Hazelton Integration Project in the first place.
In the past year, Barletta has continued his apparent lifelong goal to become what would happen if Sheila Broflovski chose to sing “Blame Mexico,” issuing a fundraising mailer for his Trump-supported Senate campaign claiming that our country is “at war” with “violent criminal aliens” who “kill and victimize Americans.”
I’m going to guess that when Barletta and Maddon got together, at least 98 percent of the conversation revolves around Strop’s hat.
From the evidence at hand, it appears that Maddon is willing to embrace and defend other cultures within the worlds of baseball and his hometown, as these are areas where his words and actions have an outsized effect. But in terms of national politics and its impact on Latin American immigrants to the United States, he does not appear to want to rock the boat with anything that might be interpreted as criticism, especially when he’s not in a situation where his influence is as keenly felt as in baseball.
It’s a puzzling contradiction and there could be several factors behind it. Despite his worldly pretensions, Maddon still emerged from the culture of a Pennsylvania mining town and most likely retains some of the conservative views typical of that area. And as mentioned before, professional baseball as a whole is not exactly renowned for its wokeness.
Perhaps the influence of Cubs ownership also came into play. Maddon’s discussion of the Trump visit repeatedly referred to the wishes to “Mr. Ricketts” and that White House photo op coincided with that brief time in our nation’s history when Todd Ricketts was trying to kiss enough presidential ass to land himself a job as Deputy Commerce Secretary. (Unfortunately, given what we know about Trump’s diet, The White House clearly had no need at that time for someone to dispose of surplus hot dogs).
But maybe the best explanation is one of the simplest: just as in his job as manager, Joe Maddon doesn’t want to be the kind of person who others can easily figure out. If that’s the case, he has succeeded tremendously.
Lead photo courtesy Russell Lansdorf—USA Today Sports