In a Zen-like move that baffled many in the sports world, Joe Maddon, then the new manager of the Chicago Cubs, enacted a “less is more” philosophy by almost completely eliminating batting practice.
What went against a long-time baseball tradition, caused intense angst among Cub fans and head-scratching among pundits, now is credited with being one of the factors helping the wonderful losers win their first World Series in 108 years.
“For a hundred years of baseball, the belief was if you’re struggling then the answer was to work harder,” says Jesse Roger, who with Bill Chastain, authored "Try Not to Suck: The Exceptional, Extraordinary Baseball Life of Joe Maddon" (Triumph Books, March 2018) with a foreword by Ben Zobrist.
“Being a coach for the Los Angeles Angels and the Tampa Bay Rays shaped him,” says Roger, a television, internet and radio reporter for ESPN since 2009 who was an insider covering the Cubs in 2016. “He saw a lot of things there but couldn’t challenge them.”
Roger and Chastain, who covers the Tampa Bay Rays for MLB.com and so knew Maddon from his days there, write that Maddon started as a Minor League catcher for Los Angeles. After four seasons, he had only 180 times at bat, three home runs and hadn’t advanced further than Class A.
It was time for a change and wanting to get into management, Maddon worked in a variety of positions for the Angels including minor league manager, scout and roving minor league hitting instructor, bench coach and interim manager.
“It was an apprenticeship,” says Roger about his 31 years in Anaheim. “He took what he learned to Tampa Bay where he could put some of that in place. He very much believes in less. If you’re struggling, don’t work more, work less.”
By cutting back, players retain more energy as the long season progresses, giving them an advantage.
“Joe’s surprised that more people aren’t doing this after seeing how successful he’s been,” Roger says.
But though he upended some traditions, Maddon has his superstitions just like most players.
When rain called a temporary halt during Game 7 of the Series with Chicago and Cleveland tied at 7-7, Maddon headed to his office and, spotting his bag, recalled thinking, "it was time for my dad." Grabbing his dad's hat which he kept in the bag, he stuffed it down the back of his pants.
“I said to myself ‘Let’s go,' " he is quoted saying in the book. “I took him back there with me and during the course of the next inning I kept touching it back there.”
The title of Chastain and Roger’s book comes from one of Maddon’s many oft-quoted maxims such as “don’t let the pressure exceed the pressure” or “do simple better.”
“Probably my favorite one in general is, ‘Embrace the target,’ ” Roger says.
“Joe says he’s really a big believer of running towards the fire as opposed to running away. I think that’s a good lesson for all of us.”