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Joe Maddon
Photograph: CC/Wikimedia Commons/Arturo Pardavila III

The origins of Joe Maddon's “Try Not to Suck” mantra

Written by
Jay Rand

“He did everything, and he did it right,” Carmine Parlatore shared of her brother Joe Maddon’s youth. “Tell him things once and he absorbs it, and finds different angles to make it work a different way.”

If you’ve ever watched Maddon take command of a ballgame, you’ve seen different. Obvious bunt situation? Rush Anthony Rizzo and have Ben Zobrist not just eventually cover first for a throw, but actually station him on first base taking pickoff throws from the pitcher not named Jon Lester. 

How different was that? So much so that this past summer it was actually deemed an “illegal defense.” So, of course, Joe does the end-around by adorning Zobrist with the oversized first baseman’s glove and newly designated two-bagger Rizzo wears the more Trumpian mitt and plays charging bull.

Option 2 (when you have a freak-of-nature manning second): Rizzo stays planted at first, and Javier Baez rushes the dish Insane Bolt style, flying by the pitcher’s mound as the pitch is being thrown. The end result is a baseball potentially coming the way of Baez’s head at a velocity of 100-plus miles per hour. I guess that’s one way to “embrace the target.” 

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Joe’s younger brother, Mark, however, will tell you that this “mad scientist” act isn’t new to his Chicago days—the result of too many late-night strategy sessions lubricated by Old Style. Recall the Cubs skipper this summer, flipping relievers between left field and the hill, dependent on lefty-righty match-ups?

Said Mark: “When he switched [Pedro] Strop and [Travis] Wood [between the mound and left]? We used to do that in Babe Ruth league! I’ve seen this stuff before. He’s not afraid to try anything. That’s the comfort level, the confidence—he thinks these things through.”

But it’s more than “thinking things through”—it’s borderline reinvention. And from whom does Maddon draw such pioneering strategy? Dad was a plumber; mom worked at the diner. Enter Maddon's former Hazleton (Pennsylvania) High coach Ed Morgan.

“Joe was always listening to [Morgan],” said Joe Gavio, a teammate of Maddon’s on Hazleton’s district championship team in the early ’70s. “That’s where Joe got that ‘Get in their head, think outside the box’ thing; you can’t go by the book.”

“Joe had a really good mind to go with the physical,” echoed Morgan, today retired from his longtime coaching gig. “I was never a fan of ‘The Book.’ Joe has his own book, and I guess I had mine. We are very similar in that respect.” 

How similar? Check this out: You know those “Try Not to Suck” t-shirts adorning pretty much every creep in Starbuck’s reading over your shoulder right now? Watch these dots connect…

“Coach Morgan used to say: ‘Make a player execute, and they execute themselves,’” relayed Gavio.

“If we don’t make the plays we’re supposed to, we’re going to be executed,” Morgan confirmed of preaching to his ballplayers that shoddy defense will cost a club a win. “We’re executing [on offense] by putting the ball in play, and they may execute themselves by committing an error or missing the play.”

In other words—death terminology aside—put the ball in play and pressure the defense to not flub it. And then turn those tables when taking the field: Morgan drilled down on his ball clubs to make those very defensive plays, so as to not give the opponent a chance to capitalize due by mucking it up on “D.” See where this is going, Bueller? Convert that routine play, and you’re more than halfway there. In other words, simply try not to suck. 

Assist, if not origin, to Coach Morgan. 

And quite the assist it has been for Maddon—to the tune of 200 regular-season wins and a World Series appearance in just two years with the Cubs, on the heels of a .517 win percentage and another Fall Classic showing with the small-market, payroll-challenged Tampa Rays.

Maddon’s sister Carmine, one year Joe’s junior, sums it up this way: “His talent got him far, but his sports mind and knowing the game of baseball, especially—that’s what brought him to this level. Not only the ability to play it, but to know it as a science. He is a professor of baseball; he’s calculating in an intellectual way, not in an athletic way. He’s like a scientist—he sees things in a way that the average person wouldn’t.”

His players will vouch. And as Wrigley Field hosts its first World Series games since Orwell introduced us to his Animal Farm, Cubs fans couldn’t be happier that Joe Maddon is operating from a lab on Chicago’s North Side.

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