The Joe Maddon Farewell Tour is off to a rocky start and already in danger of being canceled.
When we last left Maddon two weeks ago at Wrigley Field, the Cubs manager left for his offseason vacation on the heels of a 13-inning loss to the Rockies in the National League wild-card game, ending a once-promising season with an audible thud.
The following day, a column speculating on Maddon’s future appeared in The Athletic under the headline: “The Cubs are out. Will Joe Maddon soon follow?”
In it, Ken Rosenthal, a plugged-in, nationally known reporter also employed by Fox Sports and MLB Network, outlined several reasons Cubs President Theo Epstein might be unhappy with Maddon, including the handling of closer Brandon Morrow, the ill-fated Pedro Strop at-bat in the Sept. 13 makeup game in Washington and Maddon’s initial refusal to read Melisa Reidy-Russell’s blog post in which she accused her ex-husband, Cubs shortstop Addison Russell, of emotional and physical abuse.
But in the end, Rosenthal concluded a dismissal wouldn’t happen, theorizing “it’s difficult to imagine the Cubs firing him if their biggest complaint is that Epstein finds him annoying or difficult to work with.”
Maddon left town without a postseason briefing, though Epstein spoke to the media for more than an hour the day after the playoff loss. Epstein didn’t cite the Athletic article while denying friction between himself and Maddon. But while confirming Maddon would return in 2019, Epstein mentioned “some sort of high-profile report this morning that was not accurate.”
“I didn’t read the whole thing,” Epstein said. “But I saw in there that there were some claims that he and I had personal friction. Not true at all. We have a terrific working relationship.”
Still, without an extension heading into the final season of his contract, Maddon would be considered a lame-duck manager throughout the year. Speculation would run rampant.
And who would be next? Is it too soon to bet the house on David Ross?
But Maddon is not worried about the extension, or the speculation, or the possibility of “Grandpa” or another big-name candidate looking over his shoulder, at least according to Maddon’s agent, Alan Nero.
“The reality is Joe is not upset,” Nero said Tuesday. “There’s nothing going on.
“There is nothing wrong. I have all the faith in the world that we’ll get this done when the time is appropriate, when it’s ready.”
The notion that Maddon wouldn’t be around for a few more years might seem preposterous, considering his record and accomplishments since arriving in Chicago with that memorable news conference at the Cubby Bear nearly four years ago.
He has averaged 93 wins per season and made four consecutive postseason appearances, including three NLCSes and, oh yeah, that 2016 championship, the franchise’s first in 108 years.
But Epstein’s recent criticism of Maddon’s revolving lineups and his belief a lame-duck season in 2019 wouldn’t become a distraction suggest an encore for Maddon isn’t the slam dunk one might have presumed.
Nero insisted it was much ado about nothing, blaming the media for creating a false narrative.
“Joe never had a problem with any of this,” he said. “Never. He was very comfortable. He was very relaxed. He wasn’t thinking about it. He wasn’t worried about it. You guys fired everything up.”
By “you guys,” Nero was referring to sportswriters, arguing that life, liberty and the pursuit of clicks has led us to become mindless speculators trying to one-up each other.
That’s a debate for another day. Either way, Nero said talks about an extension will happen, perhaps as early as the upcoming general managers meetings in early November in Carlsbad, Calif.
“There was not a problem between Theo and Joe,” he said. “Joe wasn’t worried about (an extension). Theo wasn’t worried about it. There was plenty of time. We’ve got the offseason. We’ve got the GM meetings. We’ve got the winter meetings. We’ve got spring training.
“He’s got a contract for next year. When the time is right, Theo and I will sit down and talk about it. But there is no issue. … There is no problem between them. Everyone seems to want to write about this, and the only reason there might be any sense of urgency to talk about an extension is because of this (BS).”
Nero predicted this Joe versus Theo narrative would be repeated ad nauseam over the next several months by media looking for something to write about, even if it’s inaccurate.
“He’s got a contract,” Nero repeated, raising his voice. “I think Theo has a lot more on his mind than worrying about whether we should focus on Joe’s contract right now. We actually have 12 months to worry about it.
“But you guys won’t let it go. This will be something that will be discussed once a week for the next 52 weeks, OK? … There will be all speculation, if he had a bad day or if he had a good day — they should (bring him back), they shouldn’t. … I hate it.”
I asked Nero about the trend toward younger, less expensive and more inexperienced managerial hires. Maddon is pretty much a dinosaur in this era, making $6 million while the newbies are getting far less money with way less autonomy.
Nero conceded the trend is real but added: “I don’t think it’s about the money. I really, really don’t, especially with the Cubs. I don’t think the decision would be made on finances.
“The decision would be made based on whether or not they’re going to go through some sort of rebuild. And whether or not Theo and (general manager Jed Hoyer) and (scouting and player development chief Jason McLeod) want to have more control, which up till now has not been their style. They’re not on the field every day making decisions.”
Nero dismissed Epstein’s comment about concerns over Maddon’s lineups, pointing out Epstein reiterated he didn’t want a “yes” man as his manager.
“He also said they have differences of opinions, which is healthy,” Nero said. “What do you want to do, just have somebody who is just going to silently agree with everything you’re going to say and then take the hit? That’s what other teams are doing.”
It’s going to be a long and interesting offseason, and the Cubs have a lot of decisions to make, notably regarding which players to sign, keep or get rid of.
But whether Maddon gets his extension before the 2019 season is one of the bigger decisions they have to make. If he doesn’t, we’ll all wonder whether he has to win it all in 2019 to return in 2020.
Maddon took the Cubs to the promised land and gained Ditka-esque status in Chicago, so any change would be monumental. Of course, we all know how it ended for Ditka.
Near the end of our interview, Nero lamented the plight of the modern-day manager for having to deal with the modern-day media.
“I think the worst job in the world, besides being president of the United States, is being a field manager,” he said with a laugh.
I can hardly wait for 2019.