Cubs skipper: Division with three postseason frontrunners is 'only place to be'
By Mike Bauman
ST. LOUIS -- Joe Maddon has found a happy baseball home in the highly competitive confines of the National League Central.
Maddon is speaking of the division in superlatives, and he has his reasons. It's not just the competition, although Maddon, in his first season as manager of the Cubs, says it is the best baseball has to offer.
It's also "the pure baseball," Maddon says, the avid level of fan support throughout the division, the interaction between baseball teams and communities.
And, let's face it, the results are also making Maddon smile. The Cubs took down the division-leading Cardinals, 8-5, Tuesday night. Over the last two nights, Chicago has outscored the Redbirds, 17-5. With Tuesday night's victory, the Cubs, who have a very comfortable lead for the NL's second Wild Card spot, are two games behind Pittsburgh for the top Wild Card berth and 6 1/2 games behind St. Louis.
The top three clubs in the division -- the Cardinals, Pirates and Cubs -- have the three best records in the NL. Chicago's record would lead four of the other five divisions. So the Central is one tough neighborhood.
"When you're in a situation like that, it should help you get better," Maddon said. "You want to be with the best, all the time."
This reminds Maddon of the American League East of the recent past, where his Tampa Bay Rays grew into a World Series team and a perennial contender.
"I loved that, I thought it made the Rays better quicker," Maddon said. "If you want young players to be better quicker, give them some good competition, and if they are good enough to be Major League players, they should ascend more quickly."
But Maddon also likes the NL Central atmosphere, the environment, at least as well as the competition.
"Just think of our division, the cities, the fan bases, the ballparks," Maddon said. "On a nightly basis, the fan support is incredible. From Milwaukee to Chicago, down to St. Louis, over to Pittsburgh, great ballparks, it's normally crowded, the fan bases are totally into their teams."
(Maddon later mentioned Cincinnati in exactly the same vein, so no NL Central venue was short-changed.)
"Think about every other division in baseball," Maddon says. "When it comes down to all of that, just pure baseball, it might be the best, also for that. I mean, I'm experiencing that for the first time.
"Right now, our record, being in third place, is still one of the best. So you've got that competition, which I do love. So you've got all these good things operating within this division. I never really put that together before actually going through it."
Maddon also likes the NL Central logistics. The proximity of the division opponents makes this grouping a relative delight from a travel standpoint.
Maddon, originally from Pennsylvania, had two previous experiences having a home team in the Midwest, both in the Midwest League. He spent his first year as a Minor League player with Quad Cities, and later managed at Peoria. He thoroughly enjoyed those stays.
At the big league level, one advantage of competing in the NL Central is that the role model for excellence is so handy. That obviously makes winning the division more difficult, but it lets you know where you stand as you aspire to greatness. The Cubs are candid about seeing the Cardinals as an organizational goal.
"These guys are having an historically good season," Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer said of the Cardinals. "The pitching has been unbelievable. They do it year in, year out. That's the point we have to get to.
"I like the fact that our guys want to play down here, they want the challenge that it represents. That's our goal, to get to the place where we can look at these guys across the field knowing it'll be year in, year out, when we can go toe to toe."
Maddon can give you chapter and verse on Cardinals history. He was a Cards fan growing up, and he has paid very close attention since.
"Listen, I've always been very respectful of the Cardinal organization, I grew up as a fan," Maddon says. "I know how this thing works for so many years. What they've been doing this year is very special, it's no big surprise with the system they have in place, all very desirable things to have as a baseball organization.
"Looking forward, we'd like to be considered in the same breath and it's something that we're working toward. I think we can do it."
The last two nights in Busch Stadium, yes, it looked like anything was possible for the North Siders. Still, the Cardinals won't be stepping aside voluntarily at any point.
One way or another, the competition in the NL Central is terrific. As Maddon, graduate of the AL East, says: "It's the only place to be, man."
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.