Inside the Chicago Cubs' Hiring of Joe Maddon, One of MLB's Best Managers

Scott Miller@@ScottMillerBblNational MLB ColumnistDecember 15, 2014

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SAN DIEGO — From his 20th-floor room here in the Grand Hyatt hotel, from his first winter meetings as the manager of the Chicago Cubs, Joe Maddon's view is breathtakingly spectacular.

Out the window is a gorgeous and expansive panorama of the San Diego Bay, sun sparkling on the water. Down below and to the right is Kansas City Barbeque, the iconic joint that served Tom Cruise and Co. in key scenes in the 1986 blockbuster film Top Gun. And sharpening into focus on the horizon is Jon Lester, the ace free-agent left-hander who the Cubs will sign later this evening.

There is a bottle of wine on the desk, some clothes strewn in an open suitcase on the floor and a couple of comfortable chairs by the window. The story of how Maddon moved from a job interview on a beach in Florida into this room this week includes a 42-foot recreational vehicle named "Cousin Eddie," a few thousand miles of asphalt, years and years of infield dust and, this being 2014, a GPS.

Shortly after the Tampa Bay Rays finished their first losing season since 2007, Maddon and a friend set out in his RV from Tampa to his hometown of Hazleton, Pennsylvania, where his mother, Beanie, 80, still lives and where he runs a couple of charities. The friend was Willie Forte, who leads the B Street Band, a Bruce Springsteen tribute group, based near the Jersey Shore. One thing about Maddon: From classic rock to classic novels to vintage wine, he is a man of varied interests.

He was on the road in southern Virginia when his cell phone buzzed with the news that would set off the chain reaction shaking two organizations to their very core. It was Andrew Friedman, Rays general manager, calling to tell him that he was leaving the club to take a job as the Los Angeles Dodgers' president of baseball operations.

Within 30 minutes of that jolting news, Maddon's cell phone buzzed again. This time, it was Matt Silverman, Rays president, calling to discuss the situation and remind Maddon that, oh, by the way, you do have an opt-out clause in your contract. The Rays were contractually obligated to inform their manager of that in writing.

They emailed it. And that's when things changed.

"When I read it, it made me think differently because it was a two-week window," Maddon, 60, said during a 20-minute conversation with Bleacher Report last Tuesday. "It was a two-week window only. My first thought was, that's great, but to still negotiate with the Rays.

"So I keep driving. I stayed near Savannah that first night. And then I finally make it back to Tampa, and we start talking with the Rays conversationally about staying."

The RV trip had been planned for months. He had visited Hazleton and dropped off his buddy Forte in Belmar, New Jersey, along the way. Now Maddon finished the return trip alone, meeting up with his wife, Jaye, back in Tampa.

"We start talking about money," Maddon says of he and the Rays. "They made an offer, we countered and they came back. This is, like, a week into the thing. I don't want to keep going back and forth because the clock is ticking."

Once notified of the opt-out clause in writing, Maddon had a two-week window to decide whether or not to employ it.

"I thought, 'You have two weeks to become a free agent for the first time in your life. You're an idiot to not try, to not see what happens,’" he said. "And my intent was to do that while still negotiating with the Rays. That was my goal. We got to the point where it became obvious that I thought they did not want to negotiate much more.

"So we opted out, and I thought I'd find out what the rest of the world thought."

Joe and Jaye long had been planning to drive Cousin Eddie from Tampa back to Southern California, where they have a home in Long Beach, stopping in Arizona along the way to visit Joe's children and grandchildren. Cousin Eddie? It's named after Randy Quaid's zany, comical redneck character in the National Lampoon's Vacation movies.

Now, with his professional life suddenly thrown into chaos, Jaye wondered whether they shouldn't stay put in Tampa instead until they figured things out.

"We're still going," Maddon told Jaye.

"Are you sure you want to go with all of this stuff going on?" Jaye asked.

Yes, Joe said. We're staying with the plan.

"Which is the smartest thing I've ever done," he said, the afternoon San Diego sun streaming through the window. "Because if you really want to make a tough decision, subtract all of the emotion.

"An RV, on a freeway, in an RV park where you don't know anybody."

Perfect. Off they went.

Steve Nesius/Associated Press

They were near Pensacola, Florida, when Maddon's agent, Alan Nero, phoned with the news that the Cubs wanted to talk with him, and soon. Nero had notified the 29 other clubs of Maddon's availability after the opt-out.

"Theo [Epstein, Cubs president] said he couldn't talk with me unless he cleared it through the commissioner's office," Nero said. "They did. And then I was talking with 10 different clubs. Not just the Cubs."

Back up in his San Diego hotel room, Maddon said he and Jaye were ready to leave their campsite at Navarre Beach, near Pensacola, at that point.

"I was still a Ray," he said. "But I had opted out. I was nothing, I guess.

"I wanted to go to California. I wanted to see my kids in Arizona. So I wanted to go. But I'm looking at the RV map, the app, and there's really no good place to stay in San Antonio. We were going to try to intersect [with Epstein and Hoyer] on the road. But I looked and said there's no good place.

'So I said, I'm just going to stay here an extra day or two and have them come here. It's a lot easier for me, and it's a lot easier for them. So that's what we did."

Hung up waiting for the job interview, Maddon rode his bike—he's an avid cyclist—watched some football games and talked over the future and what-ifs with Jaye.

"Some good bike rides," he said. "Cooked some dinners. Some nice wine.

"It was actually pretty cool."

Maddon had interviewed with Epstein and Hoyer once before, back before the 2004 season, when Epstein was running the Boston Red Sox. Then, it was at the GM meetings at the Arizona Biltmore in Phoenix. Then, Maddon bought a suit from Men's Wearhouse for the occasion. They spent part of the interview sharing a dinner at Roy's, a popular Hawaiian-Asian fusion restaurant. Terry Francona got the job. Maddon returned to Mike Scioscia's coaching staff in Anaheim.

Now, 11 years later and respected as one of the game's most creative and astute managers, Maddon was parked on a remote beach next to the Gulf of Mexico. He gave directions to Epstein and Hoyer. No suits required this time.

"I gave them a tour of the RV, and we all had a beer," said Maddon, who was wearing shorts, a T-shirt and sneakers for the occasion. "Those big, thick Miller Lite widemouth bottles. We had some chips and salsa. We stood in the middle of the RV and b------t. Maybe for half an hour.

"Then we went outside and, seriously, there's this little microbeach right behind the RV. We had the only beach available in this RV park. It was available to that spot."

This was not your average job interview.

"It was weird," Hoyer said, chuckling. "We flew to Pensacola, drove half an hour, got to this RV park on a tiny beach. The interview was on four beach chairs over three or four hours. It got kind of cold as the sun was going down."

Said Epstein: "I tried to dress appropriately for an RV park and also was trying to stay incognito as I walked through O'Hare Airport [to fly out of Chicago]: old, faded jeans, sneakers, untucked Nike polo shirt and a Bears trucker cap. Jed, I think, had loafers, dressier jeans and a tucked-in polo."

They arrived bearing a $20 bottle of wine purchased from the Publix across the street from the RV Park. Hey, guests don't arrive empty-handed, right?

"The entire meeting had a relaxed, natural vibe, like old friends catching up and hanging out," Epstein said. "No pretenses whatsoever."

"It was very casual, as it should have been," Maddon said. "We're sitting on the beach talking philosophy. The water is right behind them. The sun's setting over my shoulder. You could see that they were tired from traveling. But they were great."

The four of them, Joe and Jaye and the two Cubs executives, sat and talked philosophy. They traded thoughts. They discussed baseball, of course. How to run a team. Jaye mostly listened.

"She hears this stuff from me all the time, so she got the full monty," Maddon said.

Toward 9 p.m., they left the beach for dinner at a Mexican restaurant just down the street. They talked more over dinner, and some more on the way back to Navarre Beach.

"But there were no conclusions drawn," Maddon said.

So Epstein and Hoyer drove back to Pensacola around 10 p.m. and flew home the next morning. Meanwhile, Maddon and his wife motored on, to Beaumont, Texas, then Junction, Texas, then Las Cruces, New Mexico, and, finally, to Mesa, Arizona. They had plenty to discuss. The cell phone buzzed with updates from Nero.

As the Cousin Eddie rolled west, Epstein and Nero were holding face-to-face negotiations in the agent's Octagon offices high up in the Hancock Tower in downtown Chicago. The RV was was somewhere between Junction and Mesa when it became real for Maddon: His life was about to change radically. He was going to become the next manager of the Chicago Cubs.

"Alan calls up and says whaddaya got?" Maddon said. "I'm driving and I say, 'This is what we got.' I told him to call the Cubs back and make sure they want to do this because it's pretty spectacular.

"He didn't even giggle. He didn't get it. Then I hung up and told Jaye, and it was like, you've got to be kidding.

"It was an amazing moment."

M. Spencer Green/Associated Press

Ironically, the first destination for Joe and Jaye was to visit his daughter, Sara, 32, and son, Joey, 29, who each have two kids, with a fifth grandchild due during spring training. Ironic, because they live in Mesa, the spring home of the…Chicago National League Baseball Club. Joe pulled into an RV park near the kids’ houses and the Cubs' ballpark.

"That's where the Cousin Eddie is right now," Maddon says. "He's parked and paid for all through spring training."

All those miles down the road, however, this story does not end happily ever after. At least, not quite yet. For one thing, the Cubs still haven't won a World Series since 1908. For another, Maddon's idyllic relationship with the Rays was shattered by the split, and baseball has consented to Tampa Bay's request to investigate tampering charges against the Cubs.

"That's the only part about all of this that doesn't taste good," Maddon said. "It's unfortunate that it's gotten to this point. I wish it had not. Because I had no idea about any of this stuff. None of it.

"For me, it was kind of like participating in baseball Camelot over the last nine years. What we did, how we did it, the circumstances we did it under. I'm so grateful to everybody there. It's unfortunate. Hopefully time's going to heal that because, for me, those people are aces."

Then there is the mess with Rick Renteria. The man who managed the Cubs just one season was told he would be back for 2015 and then was fired when Maddon became available. Epstein and the Cubs issued a heartfelt, emotional statement in explaining the decision, emphasizing that they had to do what was best for the organization, not what was best for one man.

The fact that Maddon got a five-year, $25 million deal, according to Bleacher Report sources, speaks volumes for the Cubs' faith in him and how they view what is best for the organization.

"The hardest part about this ordeal was having to tell Ricky that we were going to talk to Joe and then ultimately telling him we were making a change," Epstein said. "The tampering charge is what it is. We have nothing to hide, so it doesn't bother us much."

Maddon says he has reached out to Renteria, left him a voice message.

"I did not get a response," he said. "Hopefully, at one point, I'll actually run into him. I called. And there was no response. And I get it. It was a tough moment.

"How do you mentally rectify it? I exercised a right. That's all I did. I had to understand what that meant in order to go on. I did not like the thing with Rick. I did not like leaving the Rays so abruptly. But at the end of the day, I drove an RV from Tampa to Mesa, Arizona.

"While I did that, I drove through Texas. All 900-miles-plus of it. I spent two summers managing the Midland Angels. All those miles that I logged, all the players I was affiliated with, all the time I put in there.

"Then I crossed the border into New Mexico, which I scouted [earlier in his baseball life]. We crossed the border into Arizona, which I scouted. Then I finally pull into the place, Mesa, where I spent 20 years doing spring trainings and more, instructional leagues, and all the time I put in there.

"That ride really helped me mentally validate everything that I had done to that point. And I felt like I had earned it. That was important. So in a lot of perverse ways, that RV trip really, really helped me a lot. Not a little bit."

He will live in Cousin Eddie throughout spring training as he adjusts to his new job and new expectations, a one-of-a-kind manager in one-of-a-kind spring accommodations. It is a 42-foot Winnebago with a 450 turbo diesel, DirecTV (three TVs scattered throughout), a washer and dryer, a dishwasher, a numbered bed and a fireplace.

"I promise you, your hotel room is going to be no more comfortable than my RV," Maddon said, smiling. "And I'm going to tell you, you might prefer my RV. I swear to God, it's really that comfortable. Awnings outside, and if you want to cook outside, a tailgate kind of thing. There's a fridge that's underneath and comes outside.

"It's beautiful."

So, too, is the view here from high atop the Grand Hyatt hotel in one of America's most beautiful cities. By the end of the evening, Lester will agree to sign with the Cubs for six years and $155 million, the buzz will return to Wrigleyville and Maddon will say he feels like he won the baseball lottery.

In so many ways, he absolutely has.