Want to know a secret? I don’t actually hate the Cubs. Sure, I hate “the Cubs” in the abstract. Sure, the Cardinals’ bouts with their longtime rivals mean more to me than the average game. Sure, their fanbase, like every other large group of people in the world, has its obnoxious (and worse) elements. But the Cubs—like, the human beings who play baseball in uniforms that say CUBS on them? They’re objectively pretty fun. Jake Arrieta is a great story. My heart still pines for Jason Heyward. Kris Bryant, he seems nice. With the glaring exception of the newly-acquired Aroldis Chapman, there isn’t a true villain among them.
Not on the field, anyway. Because holy shit do the Cubs have a villain in the dugout, in the hunched, bespectacled form of Joe Maddon, a multi-level marketing executive who wandered into a clubhouse looking for a shoeshine one day and never left. For those of us who have trouble mustering real, visceral contempt for the blue team from Chicago simply out of tribal loyalty to the red team from St. Louis, Joe Maddon is a godsend. I honestly don’t know what I’d do without him.
Maddon’s trademark is a knack for manipulating the press that’s downright virtuosic, at least when compared to the dull disinterest with which most MLB managers approach their media obligations. Years of Cool Dad quotability, tryhard sloganeering and photo-op image management have endeared him to local and national journalists alike, and they’ve rewarded him by gradually mythologizing an unremarkable tactician into some kind of iconoclastic genius and a cringeworthy schlub into some kind of heroic itinerant warrior-monk.
All of this has gone into overdrive since Maddon left the baseball backwater of Tampa Bay for the hype and hoopla that has surrounded the ascendant Cubs for the last couple of years, and it reached its apex in a battle over retaliatory beanballs waged in the media late last season. After the Cardinals plunked Anthony Rizzo as retribution for some chin music to Matt Holliday, Maddon launched into an extended post-game rant about the Cards’ “vigilante” methods. “That’s absolutely insane, ridiculous and wrong,” he said. “I never read this book the Cardinals wrote way back in the day regarding how to play baseball,” he continued. “I don’t know who put out the hit—I don’t know if Tony Soprano was in the dugout,” he continued further. “We’re not gonna put up with that from them or anybody else,” he continued even further. “I’m really disappointed in what the Cardinals did right there.”
So, a couple things. First, retaliation via plunking is indeed stupid and dangerous; in general, Never intentionally do anything to anyone that could literally kill them is a pretty sound principle to live by. Second—and it’s crazy that anyone needs to point this out, but here we are—beanball wars are a baseball-wide problem, and every team engages in them. Every single team, including those managed by enlightened Zen Philosopher-King Joe Maddon, who followed up the above rant by warning that the Cubs “don’t start stuff, but we finish stuff,” and was promptly ejected from the very next game after hitting three Cardinals batters.
Holliday got another pitch up and in last Thursday, and this one fractured his thumb, ending his season (and possibly his Cardinals career) and prompting immediate, widespread condemnation of a beanball war that hadn’t happened yet—and didn’t end up happening at all. That, of course, didn’t stop Maddon, having been asked by the media about the hypothetical retaliation, from saying this, per The Athletic Chicago’s Sahadev Sharma:
That just depends on your philosophy within. How you’ve been raised. What you think is the right way to do things. We all have different parents, so some people react to situations one way and some other [ways] just based on your parenting. For me, truthfully, if that happened to us there’s no reason to, it’s purely an accident. … So it really comes down to parenting.
Sure, it’s self-righteous moralistic concern-trolling about “the right way”—but it’s the zany and minimalist kind, you see.
Maddon has been pulling this shit for years, loudly grandstanding against beanballs while doing exactly what every manager in the game does: appointing himself the sole arbiter of what crosses the line and retaliating when that line is crossed, or tolerating his pitchers doing the same. His Rays teams’ beanball wars with the Red Sox were legendary, and included familiar-sounding rants about his opponents’ “ridiculous, absurd, idiotic, incompetent, cowardly behavior”; once, when David Price plunked David Ortiz over a slow home run trot, Maddon’s attempt to deny any intent was so transparent that even Charles “Three Week War” Krauthammer could see through it. He waged another long-running conflict with the Tigers, with more calculated comments to the media about how he wished Miguel Cabrera “wouldn’t cry so much.”
Crossing over to the National League has afforded Maddon the opportunity to get into similar disputes with a whole new slate of clubs, and he hasn’t wasted it, with both the Pirates and Reds earning the Maddon seal of disapproval this season. But it’s the feuds with the Cardinals where he’s really shined. Maddon’s no genius, but he’s savvy enough to understand the place the Cards occupy in the division and their (wildly overblown) reputation as hidebound traditionalists, and he knew exactly how a carefully deployed comment about “this book the Cardinals wrote way back in the day” would play in the media.
Since then, Maddon’s doubled down on his campaign to project an image of the Cubs as representatives of baseball’s loose, fun, irreverent new school, an exhausting parade of animal tricks and dance parties and theme trips forming a narrative bread-crumb trail that even the densest baseball journalists have been able to stop air-drumming to Springsteen long enough to follow. Predictably, the media has obliged Maddon and the Cubs by portraying them as ideologically aligned with Bryce Harper’s crusade to “Make Baseball Fun Again”; depending on how sensitive your gag reflex is, take a look at this Sun-Times piece from May on “the hippest sexagenarian in the game” and his “happy, dancing, pranking group of sudden achievers,” who represent the side of “bat flips, mimes and evolving attitudes in an American pastime entrenched in its hegemonic, conservative culture.”
Just like Maddon’s anti-beanball stridency, this is pure, unadulterated horseshit. He’s as much a champion of that “conservative culture” as any manager in the game. You don’t even need to go back to his Tampa days (though you could) to find him spouting off about bat flips and pimped home runs and participation-trophy culture-war grievances like Goose Gossage on bath salts. When the Cubs’ Junior Lake celebrated a homer too exuberantly last June, Maddon blasted him for it:
“We don’t do that here,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said afterward to CSN Chicago. “And that will be the last time you see it.” …
“I don’t want us to take the fight there by acting like a punk,” Maddon said. “I don’t want that at all. I want us to take the fight there by playing the game properly and hard and fundamentally sound.
“You know that we’re coming after you – that’s what I want. I don’t want us to take a page out of ‘Major League’ and flamboyantly flip a bat after a long home run. I don’t want that at all. That has nothing to do with us ascending.
“I’d like to use this moment for our minor-league guys – that doesn’t play. For kids watching – that doesn’t play. Don’t do that. That’s not cool. That’s very, very much not cool. If you’re watching the game back home in Chicago tonight, don’t do that if you hit a home run. Don’t do it. It’s not cool.”
And from a few months earlier—in a story that, hilariously, was written by the same Sun-Times scribe responsible for the above fawning about baseball’s “hippest sexagenarian”:
Maddon said he didn’t see whether Castillo lingered to watch his homer – which came in a 10-6 loss. But after asking about the details, Maddon said, “Then we need to talk.”
“It’s act like you’ve done it before and you can do it again,” he said. “The touchdown celebration, all that stuff, pounding your chest after dunking a basketball, all this stuff that’s become part of today’s generation of athletes – whether you agree with it being right or wrong doesn’t matter.
“I would just prefer that our guys would act like they’ve done it before and that they’re going to do it again.”
Maddon’s a con artist, and dopey sportswriters with goldfish-like attention spans are his marks. His reliance on empty signaling—posturing against beanball wars while engaging in them like everybody else, frantically semaphoring F-U-N while throwing Lake and Castillo under the bus—is perfectly suited to a cultural moment in which superficial affiliations figure far more centrally in our judgments than actual material behavior.
With respect to beanballs, bat flips, and everything else, very little separates the Cubs from the Cardinals; both teams have players and coaches that fall on either side of the murky divide between baseball’s old and new schools. But it’s been decided that the red team from St. Louis represents everything wrong with the sport and the blue team from Chicago represents everything right, and facts will be twisted to fit the narrative long before the narrative evolves to match the facts. On some level, Maddon has a huckster’s understanding of all this, and as long as people keep falling for his act, he’s going to keep taking advantage.