MLB.com Columnist

Richard Justice

Peerless leader: Maddon's style unique, unprecedented

After building winning culture with Rays, creative skipper reaches peak wth Cubs

Peerless leader: Maddon's style unique, unprecedented

Joe Maddon was in charge of the Angels' instructional league program one fall three decades ago when he heard Gene Mauch's gravelly voice behind him.

"I don't know how you're doing it, son," Mauch said. "But you've created a great environment here."

Shop for Cubs World Series champs gear

To this day, Maddon considers it maybe the greatest compliment he has ever received, because Mauch was a legendary tough guy -- taciturn, demanding and frugal with praise. He also had one of the greatest baseball minds ever, someone who'd studied the game from every angle. For Maddon to have caught his eye speaks volumes about where the young instructor's career was headed.

Game Date Matchup Highlights
Gm 1 Oct. 25 CLE 6, CHC 0 video
Gm 2 Oct. 26 CHC 5, CLE 1 video
Gm 3 Oct. 28 CLE 1, CHC 0 video
Gm 4 Oct. 29 CLE 7, CHC 2 video
Gm 5 Oct. 30 CHC 3, CLE 2 video
Gm 6 Nov. 1 CHC 9, CLE 3 video
Gm 7 Nov. 2 CHC 8 CLE, 7 (10) video

We can definitely see that now.

When the Chicago Cubs won the 2016 World Series with an 8-7, 10-inning Game 7 victory over the Cleveland Indians in the wee hours of Thursday morning, Maddon had some sort of final validation for his 40 years in baseball, including 19 as a Minor League manager and instructor.

Maddon is one of the brightest and most complicated men you will ever meet. He's a voracious reader and thinker, someone unafraid to challenge the way business has always been done.

These Cubs did it Maddon's way. His core beliefs try to separate what's important from what's simply habit, and that offers insight into why players love playing for him.

#THIS Cubs win! Cubs win!

For instance, on the first day of Spring Training, Maddon tells his players he has only two rules:

1. Run hard to first base
2. Play defense

Maddon doesn't spend a half hour on dress codes or facial hair. He sees that stuff as a waste of time. Instead, if you strip things down to their bones, good baseball begins right there.

Cubs' resiliency leads to WS win

Another core belief: Less is more.

Maddon believes there's too much batting practice sometimes, too many infield drills, too much work in general. So there are days when he orders his guys to stay away from the ballpark until almost game time, believing that a clearer mind and fresher body will more than offset what is achieved by extra work.

About those goofy-looking outfits the Rays and Cubs have sometimes worn on team flights: There have been disco trips and varsity-letter-jacket trips and cowboy trips. Maddon believes they serve a purpose outside of generating a few laughs, which are important enough on their own. Getting players out of their comfort zone and forcing them to see the world a different way might also benefit their mental preparation and approach.

Several springs ago, the Rays shaved their heads to raise money for pediatric cancer research. One player declined the haircut, instead writing the hospital a check and keeping his hair.

Maddon was not pleased.

"I wish he'd done it," he said. "I think it's important."

Maddon saw it as both a good cause and a team bonding moment as well as another outside-the-comfort-zone experience.

Major League managers have a vastly different job description than they did, say, 20 years ago. Front offices have the capability of providing them with reams of datas suggesting lineups, defensive alignments, pitching matchups and the like. What no amount of data can replace, however, is the human touch, the ability to get players to bury their own ego in the team concept.

That's one reason Maddon loves World Series Most Valuable Player Award winner Ben Zobrist and was thrilled when the Cubs signed him last offseason. Zobrist represents everything Maddon holds dear -- he will play any position, bat anywhere in the lineup and literally do anything that's asked if it impacts winning.

In retrospect, this union between Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein, general manager Jed Hoyer and Maddon seemed destined to happen.

Epstein was one of the first of the young turk general managers who folded analytics into the team's decision-making process. In his world, the manager does not have complete autonomy. Rather, there must be a functioning collaborative relationship between front office and the manager. Epstein's organization has open doors and an exchange of ideas.

Maddon on beating expectations

When Epstein and Hoyer sat down outside Maddon's mobile home and hammered out a deal two years ago, this championship was the thing that united the three of them. By that time, the Cubs were on their way to being great, with Epstein and Hoyer having already accumulated a trove of young talent.

Funny thing is, Maddon's background couldn't be more traditional. He spent all those years in the Minors, and then a dozen seasons on the Angels' Major League staff before getting his big break.

Maddon joined the Rays in 2006, when current Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman was putting together a Tampa Bay staff that would transform the franchise into one of the smartest and most successful in the game. Maddon's father died shortly before it happened, and he keeps his father's cap with him as a reminder of the places he has been and the people he loves most.

Maddon on wearing his dad's hat

Maddon flew his mom, Beanie, into Chicago for the World Series games there, and he still returns to his hometown of Hazleton, Pa., each offseason for an assortment of charitable causes.

Maddon said he's still processing what it means to help deliver a World Series title to a franchise that hadn't had one in 108 years. He says he's proud of that part of the deal, but he will need some time to wrap his mind around it fully.

Now Maddon is in that rarefied place in his industry. He'll take a few days to soak it all up, and then he'll get back in his mobile home and spend a few months driving and thinking before getting back at it next spring.

Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. You can follow him on Twitter @richardjustice. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.