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The Cubs are Winning and Keeping Things Light

The Cubs are playing like an unstoppable force right now. And they're doing it while shirking many of the traditions that have been in the game forever.
Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

Walk into the Chicago Cubs' clubhouse before a game, and it's clear that there is no set routine for the best team in baseball. Some guys are there early, waiting to talk to reporters. Others are out on the field. But whatever the Cubs' players choose to do in their pregame routine, they can take solace in the fact that manager Joe Maddon does not care.

"As a veteran guy, I know there's a lot less stress here on the things that don't matter," catcher David Ross said, "so it makes it easier to come to work and take care of what you feel like you need." Sports are full of cliches — live and breathe the game, be the first one in and the last one out, eliminate distractions, and so familiarly on. The Cubs think that's all a bunch of hogwash, and they are putting that belief into action.


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"I won't be there for a 7 o'clock game at 2 o'clock or 1 o'clock in the afternoon," Maddon said at his introductory press conference a year ago. "I promise you I won't. I have a life outside baseball. I don't like sitting in concrete bunkers drinking coffee and watching TV. I'm not into that. The players don't have to be the first one there and the last one to leave to impress me. Not at all. That was nothing to do with winning. Zero."

On that last note, Maddon appears to be right. After taking the Cubs to the National League Championship Series last year, this team is a league-best 27-10, and the favorite to win the World Series. And they're doing it while shirking many of the traditions that have been in the game forever. The most striking on-field example is batting practice. Lot's of people hate it but still do it. Maddon hates it, so he doesn't force it on his players. If they want, they can hit. If not, they don't have to.

"It is (refreshing) because he realizes how that doesn't matter," Ross said. "None of that stuff matters. As long as you come, and how long it takes me to get ready to play is totally different than Anthony Rizzo or Addison Russell. Everybody's different on how they go about their preparation, so the key is to find out who you are and how you prepare yourself to play, what it takes to get yourself ready to play. You can't put a blanket statement over a person and say 'this is what you've got to do.' That's just nonsense."


Baseball is fun again in Chicago. Photo: Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports.

Off the field, Maddon has also done away with some annoying customs. For example, Ross said, players don't need to worry about bringing the right number of suits on road trips. They simply wear whatever they want. "Dress to fly … we know (how to be) professional," reliever Hector Rondon said. "We know how we dress, and like Joe says, 'if you feel sexy, wear it.'"

There's no pressure to make baseball a lifestyle. That's particularly helpful for a young team like the Cubs, with players who have grown up in the grueling structure of travel league baseball.

"In today's game, I feel like a lot of guys feel like they have to do a lot of extra work to kind of show management or coaches that they're working hard, whereas if you come in and get your work done and do what you need to do to be ready to play, and you perform well, that's really all it should be," second-year pitcher Kyle Hendricks said. "Joe tries to make everything as simple as possible, so I think all the extra work, all the extra stuff that maybe isn't so necessary, he tries to cut that out. Which is, I think, nice for a lot of guys."

That relaxed approach should prove doubly important over the course of a long season. Baseball can be a drag after a few months, and Maddon understands that he can't work his players hard every day without wearing them down. This is why he makes a point of mixing things up every couple of weeks.


"He's always bringing stuff in here," Hendricks said. "We had a mariachi band on Cinco de Mayo. There's always something like that. Every once in awhile, we're going to have something fun going on. He's been around it enough, he's managed enough seasons that he knows how long it is, and once we get into some of those dog days, he knows exactly what buttons to push."

Dexter Fowler chose to stay in Chicago because "this is where my heart is." Photo: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports.

Just as he injects his own quirky personality into the clubhouse, Maddon encourages players to do the same. According to Rondon, Maddon has introduced four different shirts this season, including his trademarked "try not to suck" shirt, while Rizzo has submitted one and Ross has submitted two. They range from Maddon's thoughts on life—that one is Do Simple Better—to the Talladega Nights quote "if you ain't first, you're last." Maddon wants good players, as any manager would. But he wants them to be interesting people, too, and not just because he'll be spending the next few months around them.

"I think there are all different words you can use to describe our guys besides being good baseball players," Maddon said.

It helps, obviously, that this attitude has helped make the Cubs more appealing to some very good baseball players. The Cubs have the best young roster in the game, and they didn't lose any key players after a successful 2015 season. They brought back leadoff hitter Dexter Fowler, even though he had a better offer from the Baltimore Orioles because, he said, "this is where my heart is." They also signed away Jason Heyward from the rival St. Louis Cardinals for less money than the Cardinals were offering. The lure of a better work situation made the difference.

"I think the relationships have just been built so well here, and Joe has just given such a good environment to play in," Hendricks said.

A good environment, in itself, isn't going to win games, but it can attract the players to get it done. Just ask Heyward. When he arrived from St. Louis, he said that part of the decision was based on wanting to "grow up with a bunch of guys." But the ultimate goal once he got to Chicago was what you would expect.

"There's no question what they envision with the Cubs," Heyward said. "(That's to) try to win the World Series." That goal is not unique. The unique part is that the Cubs know there's more than one way to do it.