Joe Maddon’s new normal for Cubs: A team people love to hate?

Joe Maddon’s new normal for Cubs: A team people love to hate?

MESA, Ariz. — The Cubs destroyed that “Lovable Loser” image years ago, no longer running the team like a mom-and-pop operation, squeezing the local government here for a brand-new spring-training facility and battling the rooftops, small businesses and City Hall for control of Wrigleyville.

A sleeping-giant franchise made the home-run hires, bringing in a guitar-playing, Ivy League-educated, future Hall of Fame executive to run baseball operations. A groovy, unconventional manager who loves the cameras and hates baseball’s unwritten rules would lead the team.

The players wouldn’t have to act like robots, with Theo Epstein’s culture and Joe Maddon’s attitude allowing them to express their individual personalities, show their emotions and design a Party Room inside Wrigley Field’s state-of-the-art clubhouse.

It’s too early to really feel the backlash — less than 48 hours before the defending World Series champs hold their first full-squad workout in Arizona — but the Cubs can sort of see it coming.

“I don’t know if the word’s ‘hated,’” Maddon said Thursday at the Sloan Park complex. But making a sense of swagger or arrogance part of this team’s identity? That’s Cub.

“It’s all about that,” Maddon said. “Just go back in history. I’ve often talked about the Dodgers when I came up in the minor leagues (with the Angels). Their uniforms were whiter than everybody else’s. They thought they were better than everybody else. And then they went out and they won all the time.

“I hated it, but I liked it at the same time. I think the Yankees have developed that kind of a culture. (With) teams that win — whether you even want to talk about the Patriots in football — it’s part of it.

“It’s not that you feel as though you’re just going to show up and throw your gloves out there and you’re going to win. That’s not the point. You gain this confidence based on winning — and there’s something to be said for knowing how to win.”

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Within the last two seasons, the Cubs have won 200 games, five playoff rounds and the franchise’s first World Series title since 1908. There still seemed to be a level of overexcitement, at times, in dissecting Maddon’s Game 7 decisions. Flashy, stylish players like Javier Baez and Willson Contreras will inevitably upset baseball’s fun police at some point this year.

After appearing all over the late-night talk-show circuit this offseason, this group is also positioned to be the next-generation version of the ’85 Bears in terms of seemingly unlimited marketing potential.

“The target grows bigger and bigger on this team,” pitcher Jake Arrieta said. “Even though people are gunning for us, we expect to win. We intend to see everybody’s best every time we step in between the lines.

“Dealing with pressure, I think, is a good thing. It shows you care. It’s an opportunity for guys to shine in big situations, especially trying to repeat and redo what we did last year. It’s possible. It’s definitely doable with the group we have here.”

Love it or hate it, this is the new normal, the Cubs starring as Major League Baseball’s glamor team.

“It works both ways,” Maddon said. “You’re going to get the group that absolutely jumps on the bandwagon, too. There’s a part of the world that wants to be attached to a winner. By the same token, there’s that group that’s always looking for somebody to fail.

“Regardless of the camp somebody may be in, for me, it’s about us, taking care of what we want to do, how we want to do it daily and creating the culture that we want. And then let people decide where they want to be with that.

“But I know (about) the genuine nature of our guys, the authentic nature of our players and their work ethic. I know we know what we’re all about — and that’s really what matters.”

Cubs Talk Podcast: Patrick Mooney goes one-on-one with Jed Hoyer

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USA TODAY

Cubs Talk Podcast: Patrick Mooney goes one-on-one with Jed Hoyer

On the latest edition of the Cubs Talk Podcast, Kelly Crull and Luke Stuckmeyer talk about the first week of spring training. 

The two discuss ace contracts, leadoff intimidation and give their thoughts on the Sammy Sosa saga. 

Plus CSNChicago.com Cubs Insider Patrick Mooney goes one-on-one with general manager Jed Hoyer. 

Listen to the Cubs Talk Podcast below. 

Cubs eager to see the Jason Heyward relaunch in Cactus League

Cubs eager to see the Jason Heyward relaunch in Cactus League

MESA, Ariz. — Cactus League stats are supposed to be irrelevant, especially for the guy with the biggest contract in franchise history. Jason Heyward already built up a reservoir of goodwill as a former All Star, three-time Gold Glove defender and World Series champion. The intangibles got Heyward $184 million guaranteed, and the Cubs are hoping a new comfort level will lead to a Jon Lester effect in Year 2 of that megadeal.

But Heyward will still be one of the most scrutinized players in Mesa after an offseason overhaul that tried to recapture the rhythm and timing he felt with the 2012 Braves (27 homers) and break some of the bad habits that had slowly crept into his high-maintenance left-handed swing.

"If there's ever any doubt," Heyward said, "then you probably shouldn't be here."

Heyward will be batting leadoff and starting in right field on Saturday afternoon when the Cubs open their exhibition schedule with a split-squad game against the A's at Sloan Park. If Heyward has anything to prove this spring, it's "probably to himself, not to us," general manager Jed Hoyer said, backing a player who does the little things so well and commands respect throughout the clubhouse.

"There's going to be growing pains with making adjustments," Hoyer said. "He'll probably have some good days and some bad days. But I think the most important thing is that he feels comfortable and uses these five weeks to lock in and get ready for the Cardinals."

The Cubs are betting on Heyward's age (27), track record (three seasons where he showed up in the National League MVP voting), understanding of the strike zone (.346 career on-base percentage) and willingness to break down his swing this winter at the team's Arizona complex.

At the same time, Heyward realizes "it's just the offseason" and "a never-ending process in baseball." There are no sweeping conclusions to be made when the opposing starting pitcher showers, talks to the media and leaves the stadium before the game ends.

"I'm not sitting here telling you: 'Oh, I know for sure what's going to happen,'" Heyward said. "I don't know how it's going to go. But I know I did a damn good job of preparing for it."

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Manager Joe Maddon — who gave Heyward nearly 600 plate appearances to figure it out during the regular season (.631 OPS) before turning him into a part-time outfielder in the playoffs (5-for-48) — usually thinks batting practice is overrated or a waste of time. But at 6-foot-5 — and with so much riding on an offensive resurgence — Heyward is hard to miss.

"I can see it's a lot freer and the ball's coming off hotter," Maddon said. "But it's all about game. I'm really eager for him, because everybody just talks about all the work he's done all winter.

"Conversationally with him, I sense or feel like he feels good about it and that he's kind of at a nice peaceful moment with himself. So it will be really fun to watch."

A 103-win season, an American League-style lineup that scored 808 runs, a new appreciation for defensive metrics and a professional attitude helped provide cover for Heyward, who largely escaped the wrath of Cubs fans with little patience for big-ticket free agents.

"Baseball is a game that's going to humble you every day," Heyward said. "You're going to fail more times than you succeed, so it's all about how you handle it, as an individual and as a group. We handled it the best out of anyone last year as a team. And that's why we were able to win the World Series.

"There's always things you feel like you need to work on. You can ask guys who had the best years — there's always something they're trying to improve on and something they don't feel great about at a certain point in time during the year.

"I just happened to have a little bit more breaking down to do. A lot of things allowed me to just kind of pause (and) look forward and not really think about trying to compete and win a game. Let's just get some work done."