By Chris Emma–
CHICAGO (CBS) — More than a decade riding the bus in the minors — from Pacific Northwest through the heart of Texas — serves as the foundation on which manager Joe Maddon relies in leading these inconsistent Cubs.
The easygoing Maddon learned as a minor league manager for six years and roving instructor for seven more that lineup cards don’t just consist of batting averages and run production but more importantly people and personalities. Especially at that level, where development is paramount, a manager must provide a platform for growth each day.
It’s why struggling slugger Kyle Schwarber’s phone rang Friday evening with his manager on the other line. Maddon explained the error of his way batting Schwarber seventh in Friday’s 3-2 win over the Cardinals, one in which Schwarber was removed for a pinch-hitter in the sixth inning. Schwarber didn’t have protection in the lineup and wasn’t going to get a pitch to hit. It was a mistake, Maddon said.
So Maddon told Schwarber that he would bat him ninth in Saturday’s game. The concept offers Schwarber the chance to work through his funk at the plate in a low-pressure slot in the lineup. If he breaks out, the Cubs have that bridge to the lead-off man at the bottom of the order.
“You’re trying to set them up in a spot that they can be successful,” Maddon explained.
Schwarber came through with the go-ahead grand slam Saturday in a win over the Cardinals. Wrigley Field went into a frenzy as the ball exploded off his bat like so many times before. He took a curtain call, and you better believe it felt good.
After his postseason heroics the last two falls, Schwarber is hitting just .165 in 182 plate appearances entering Monday. His on-base percentage is at .293, forcing his way from the lead-off hole to the very bottom of the lineup. Maddon is trying to work Schwarber through his struggles while not giving up on him.
Maddon knows well how to offer that structure for his players to thrive at this level. It’s why a team of rookies won 97 games and reached the NLCS two seasons ago and went on to win the World Series last fall. For all the Cubs’ talent, they don’t win a championship without Maddon’s methods.
Now, as they endure struggles in a young season of ups and downs — the Cubs were 28-27 entering Monday’s meeting with the Marlins — there’s no better place for scuffling young players to be than right here with Maddon and the Cubs. They’re better working and adjusting at this level than Triple-A Iowa. Certainly, it’s better for the confidence of a struggling big leaguer.
For all the Cubs’ accomplishments, they remain so young. Anthony Rizzo, the team’s leader, is 27. Kris Bryant, the reigning NL MVP, is 25. Schwarber is 24 and just played his first April and May in the majors. Addison Russell, an All-Star last season, is 23 and enduring struggles of his own. Ian Happ is 22 and worked his way to the majors.
Youth isn’t wasted on these Cubs, but baseball is supposed to bring struggles. The only way for Schwarber to raise his .165 average is with at-bats in the majors and adjustments along the way. He’s working with Maddon’s belief and looking to improve with hitting coach John Mallee.
Such a support system has been important for Schwarber.
“You’ve just got to stay the course,” Schwarber said after the slam. “You got to know that you’re here for a reason. That’s half the battle, is knowing that you’re a good player. More than half of this game is mental.
“I always try to stay as positive and mentally strong as I can be, because I know how crazy this game is. It can put you at your highest highs, your lowest lows. You just got to be the same person.”
For Schwarber, staying positive is just his nature. He manages to stay upbeat during these difficult days at the ballpark. After striking out four times two weeks ago, he dressed up as “Anchorman” sportscaster Champ Kind — cowboy hat and all.
Maddon has a different sense for Russell, who has an average at .213 entering an off night Monday. He’s now platooning at shortstop with Javier Baez. Maddon is able to recognize when Russell can benefit from a day out of the lineup.
The key is communicating it properly to each individual and catering best to their comfort.
“Whenever you want to do something — even with a veteran, not just a younger guy — give it to them and explain the rationale behind it,” Maddon said. “If nobody else understands it, I’m going to give you a solid reason why I’m doing it.”
Maddon knows development well, and struggles come with that. The Cubs have been fortunate to avoid much of it before this season. There’s no World Series hangover, just a natural process of growth. It’s up to the manager to work his players through their struggles while keeping them confident. Communication is the key.
Those days in Salem, Oregon, and Midland, Texas, provided Maddon with the foundation for his Cubs.