By Tim Baffoe–
(CBS) I was proud of Cubs fans overall this season, and that’s not something I can often claim.
A chunk of the fan base is the fulfillment of various stereotypes that have existed since Wrigley Field was marketed as a party atmosphere while the team was perpetually embarrassing to the point of ignoring. Some are the faction that can dish criticism of other teams and their fans but can’t take it. Many treat the ebbs and flows of the team’s offense like their own will to live.
But entering this season, I had a worry that the new era of Cubs baseball — the post-championship dimension into which we’ve now crossed — would create a sort of complacency in fans. A “Hey, the Cubs didn’t do well, but I’m forever fulfilled by the World Series title” sort of piggishness or a weapon they could amateurishly use for years to come in arguments with White Sox fans a la 2005-’15 should this city not see a World Series for a while.
Instead, for most of the Cubs fan base, the World Series win created a bloodlust that wasn’t sated by one trophy. The summer was full of valid criticisms of the team’s play. There was appropriate anger and encouragement. The sharpest of words seemed to more often than not be directed at manager Joe Maddon.
Which is, of course, totally fine. Maddon isn’t above reproach by any means. His arc so far working on the North Side has been quite interesting, though.
Maddon’s arrival prior to the 2015 season was filled with gushing optimism from him and given right back. He proved an ability to take small-market barely-on-anyone’s-radar Tampa Bay to a World Series and be a perpetual threat in the AL East, and his teams there had 90-plus wins in five seasons between 2008-’14. It was “In Dusty We Trusty” all over again, except this time there was The Plan.
The criticism Maddon received in his first year in town was mostly about confounding the august Chicago sportswriters who didn’t “get” him, which was just a handy vehicle to finding new ways to criticize The Plan that totally was going to no way ever produce a World Series. Cubs executives Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer hiring a guy who brought in a literal petting zoo? It wasn’t as preposterous as a Diet Coke machine malfunctioning in the press area, but it certainly wasn’t safe orthodoxy that wrote the columns themselves. After Maddon, those pieces had a fresher odor of hot dog water.
During the occasional period in 2016 that the Cubs weren’t destroying everything in their path, we were asked to start to think if Maddon’s schtick had grown old (though he’d been the same person in Tampa before here). It hadn’t. At least not in the sense that he went to the World Series.
But that’s where the honeymoon ended for many fans. Maddon’s handling of pitchers in the World Series became the dishes your spouse was leaving unscrubbed in the sink despite several polite suggestions-turned-discussions otherwise. Eyes went from heart emojis to a slow narrowing multiple times.
The Cubs won the damn championship, though. If the end is a win, it always justifies the means. And everyone was happy. Until 2017 started. Then fans brought out the receipts. just letting Maddon know they hadn’t forgotten and weren’t still drunk on victory.
Maddon even had a song written about him and that postseason. It concludes with:
I don’t know that I’m right you don’t know that I’m wrong
I’m just Joe Maddon
Yeah and you’re just Joe Maddon
Wooooo, we’re all Joe Maddon
But when Maddon tinkered with stuff during a 2017 season that was bumpy to say the least, little slack was cut. The fans were mirroring the columnists. Somehow his “act” got the Cubs 92 wins and a third straight National League Championship Series appearance. Maddon’s handling of pitching in the playoffs was again a source of consternation. Ditto his lineups.
The Cubs barely got past the Nationals before being pistol-whipped by a better Dodgers team.
“Anyone who thinks this series is about Joe Maddon or Dave Roberts is really missing the boat,” Epstein told 670 The Score’s Bernstein & Goff Show last week before the Cubs were officially put to bed. “It’s about the players executing and producing. Our whole organization is about the players. And sure, managers have an impact, but it’s largely overstated. The bottom line is when players produce, you get into favorable situations in the game, favorable matchups and you can do a lot of different things. And when we don’t play well, it can put a manager in a tough spot such as when guys in the bullpen, for example, who had really good regular seasons and pitched well down the stretch struggle in the postseason. It’s going to make any manager be in a tough spot.”
Still, Maddon not going to Wade Davis in Game 2 of the NLCS deserved hammering, even if the Cubs showed nothing else to suggest they could win that series. The trust in Maddon, particularly when there is immediacy involved, is pretty well fractured. And this is a man who was in charge of the solidifying of a statement that so many had grown accustomed to believing would be forever fiction — “The Cubs won the World Series.”
Not sure what’s his fault about his team only scoring on home runs against the Dodgers and all but one being of the solo variety. Maddon’s hitters combined for a pathetic .491 OPS despite those homers, and Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant and Willson Contreras together had a .164 batting average in the series.
Davis would later give up a homer to Justin Turner, too, as John Lackey had in the puzzling Game 2.
Managers don’t win games (though they do). They only lose them (but not as much as they get tagged with).
“Yet sabermetrics tells us that most dugout decisions barely have any effect on the outcome of the game,” wrote Neil Paine for FiveThirtyEight in 2014. “Furthermore, if we look at effects on player performance, it’s evident that hardly any manager can distinguish himself from his counterparts. Based on my analysis, 95 percent of all managers are worth somewhere between -2 and +2 wins per 162 games.”
Even Maddon has found that a ring has bought him little a year later with a fan base that’s surprisingly all about what has been done for it lately.
Presumably, being behind the firing of respected pitching coach Chris Bosio coincidentally as Maddon’s pitching coach in Tampa, Jim Hickey, suddenly became available and after Maddon told the media that he expected the entire staff to return won’t help the trust issue nor the shine wearing off his loose, supposedly honest approach to talking baseball.
Then there’s the irony of Maddon himself being hired away from the Rays after he exercised an opt-out clause and sacrificing current White Sox manager Ricky Renteria, who had done nothing to lose his job with the Cubs. That came out of nowhere at the time, but it was cool around here because, well, the Cubs weren’t on the short end of the stick.
Now those same fans aren’t impressed with averaging over 97 wins in Maddon’s three years as Cubs skipper. Maybe it’s being too demanding.
Or maybe it’s something to be proud of.
Tim Baffoe is a columnist for CBSChicago.com. Follow Tim on Twitter @TimBaffoe. The views expressed on this page are those of the author, not CBS Local Chicago or our affiliated television and radio stations.