PITTSBURGH – Joe Maddon’s job is an endlessly complex maze of egos and insecurities. His players want to make history and know they will be judged in October. His boss just signed a five-year extension in the neighborhood of $50 million, making Theo Epstein perhaps the highest-paid personnel executive in the game. Reporters covering this team will consider this season a failure if the Cubs don’t win the World Series.
But moments like this are why Maddon has his own $25 million deal, three Manager of the Year awards and the platform to become a multimedia star, liquor-store pitchman and T-shirt tycoon (for charity).
Maddon fired back after star pitcher Jake Arrieta and veteran catcher Miguel Montero questioned the manager’s in-game strategy during Wednesday night’s 8-4 loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates – wondering why rookie Willson Contreras showed up behind the plate at PNC Park in the fifth inning – and overall spring-training philosophy since the Cubs clinched a National League Central title two weeks ago.
“My answer to that is we’re 7-2 in our last nine games,” Maddon said during Thursday’s pregame media session. “I don’t see any kind of real negative patterns right there. They all knew what was going to happen before that game. There were no surprises. And there has been no surprises.”
Except Arrieta had already done his paid weekly radio appearance on WMVP-AM 1000, telling “Waddle and Silvy” this: “Going into the game, I was really unaware we were going to go with a catching change.”
Still think this is entirely a media creation or something beat writers imagined while two established players made unsolicited comments?
The spring-training feel continued as the rain kept pouring down on PNC Park, with Thursday night’s game suspended and ending after five innings in a 1-1 tie. Major League Baseball considered this an official game – its first tie since it happened to the Cincinnati Reds and Houston Astros on June 30, 2005 – and stats will still count after an 83-minute delay.
But there is no need to make it up with the Cubs having already clinched the NL’s No. 1 seed and the Pirates eliminated from wild-card contention. The last time the Cubs finished in a tie – a 2-2 draw with the Montreal Expos on May 28, 1993 at Wrigley Field.
“Anything that changes your routine a little bit is a little frustrating,” said Ben Zobrist, who sat while Munenori Kawasaki started at second base in a Cactus League lineup. “Because this is such a routine-oriented game.
“Obviously, it’s frustrating at times. But I get it. I understand the overall goal of these games is not the same as it’s been the last six months of the year.”
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Arrieta described himself as “a little bitter” on ESPN Radio and also admitted that he “let my emotions get away from me” and could have handled the situation differently. But this has been building, from the awkwardness of three catchers to the six-man rotation concept to starting pitchers getting pulled early to relievers now working on a set schedule and players wanting to stay in a rhythm.
“You probably heard some things last night – I think if they had more time to think about it, they probably would not have said those same things,” Maddon said. “Up until (John Jaso’s three-run homer), I thought (Jake) was throwing the ball really well.
“And with the catching situation, we didn’t change that until they had four runs. So there’s really not a whole lot of credence to that, as far as I’m concerned.
“I don’t think it was attributable to a spring-training attitude as much as the Pirates had a good approach.”
Maddon isn’t going to alter his big-picture outlook after hearing about some of the clubhouse grumbling and manage Games 160, 161 and 162 any differently against the last-place Cincinnati Reds this weekend at Great American Ball Park.
“No, why would I do that?” Maddon said. “I utilized the word ‘spring training’ on several occasions, just to indicate the context regarding getting guys in and out of the game, not from the perspective of not trying to win.
“It’s still going to be scripted. They’re going to get their at-bats. Again, when you talk about recreating a ‘feel,’ that would be individualistic. It’s hard to replicate fighting for a playoff spot if you’ve already clinched it and you’re playing against a team that is not playing for anything either.
“These are all mind games you have to play with yourself in order to replicate what you want.”
Of course, any portraits of frustration and miscommunication will be swept aside by those fun-loving Cubs posting photos on their social-media accounts of the football-jersey-themed road trip to Cincinnati. But this is a real issue for professionals who care about their craft and want to perform on the biggest stage of their lives.
“It’s a different kind of ‘on’ you have to be as a player,” Zobrist said. “That’s just weird for everybody right now to be experiencing that kind of feeling.”
Zobrist – who spent parts of nine seasons with Maddon’s Tampa Bay Rays, knows the manager as well as any player in the clubhouse and won a World Series ring with the Kansas City Royals last year – admitted the Cubs are getting a little stir crazy before their first postseason game at Wrigley Field.
“We’re all looking so forward to next Friday, but that’s over a week away still,” Zobrist said. “So we have to try to stay in the moment, even though our minds want to go in the future.
“That’s the tough thing right now – staying in the moment. It’s even tougher now than it is when you’re in the playoffs and everybody’s talking and there’s a lot of stuff going on off the field. It’s even tougher now, I think, because there’s not enough going on.”