Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon answers questions during a press...

Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon answers questions during a press conference at Wrigley Field on Nov. 3, 2014 in Chicago. Credit: Getty Images / David Banks

MESA, Ariz.

He began with a jolt of Springsteen that was loud enough to be heard over a jet engine and certainly could be heard through the training complex.

Joe Maddon was making a first impression on a Chicago Cubs team that for five straight seasons had finished last in the National League Central.

Maybe the music was a bit dated (although "Born to Run" could be considered timeless, even classic). Yet for Maddon, a child of the '60s, that wasn't a particular concern.

He was more intent on getting his athletes to pay attention. "Get the blood going," he said.

Management believes if anyone can get the Cubbies going, it is Maddon, with his horn-rim glasses, self-deprecating manner and belief that ballplayers perform best when free from inhibitions.

They play better, he believes, when they are looking straight at the pitcher, or at a hard grounder, rather than figuratively over their shoulders, worrying how they will be judged.

"I want them to be themselves," said Maddon, 61, who definitely is himself. "Don't worry about making mistakes. I preach freedom among the group in regards to playing the game yourself. And I believe when that happens that player finally shows up.

"You might have seen the body for a couple of years, but the brain has not arrived, so when a guy finally feels liberated in a baseball sense -- and I hate to put it this way -- sometimes it's just giving guys permission to screw up."

Maddon, born with the last name Maddonini in Hazleton, Pennsylvania, developed some of his ideas while playing baseball and football at Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania, and others while in the system of the California Angels for 31 years as a minor- league catcher, minor-league manager, scout, roving minor-league hitting instructor and major-league coach.

The Devil Rays hired him in 2006 to manage a franchise that was created in 1998 and finished last in the AL East in seven of its first eight years.

They finished last in Maddon's first two seasons, too, giving them a 645-972 record in those 10 years. In his third year, 2008, his team, now simply known as the Rays, made it to the World Series -- which the Cubs haven't been to since 1945 and haven't won since 1908.

Cubs management hopes Maddon can help change that. In a city where the Bulls' Derrick Rose keeps getting injured and where the Bears' quarterback is the beleaguered Jay Cutler, there are great expectations for the White Sox and the long-downtrodden Cubs.

"We've had some tough seasons," said Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts, wearing a small "14" on his coat lapel to honor the late Ernie Banks. "We had to do things the right way, and that's cost us games."

The decision to grab Maddon, who opted out of his contract with the Rays, and offer him a reported $25 million for five years was somewhat controversial.

Once Maddon became available, Cubs president Theo Epstein saw an opportunity and took it. On Oct. 31, the Cubs fired manager Rick Renteria to make room for Maddon just two weeks after announcing Renteria would be back.

"We saw it as a unique opportunity and faced a clear dilemma: be loyal to Rick or be loyal to the organization," Epstein said in a statement. "In this business of trying to win a world championship for the first time in 107 years, the organization has priority over any one individual."

So, now it's Maddon's bat and ball. "The challenge is so outstanding," he said in November when he was hired, "how could you not want to be in this seat?"

What Ricketts said was what owners usually say, to wit: "We feel this is the year we'll start to show results."

To achieve them, Maddon and his staff have several proposals, which, if not unique, hardly are standard.

"We're thinking of getting a pitching machine that throws smaller baseballs," Maddon said. "I also like to utilize heavy bats, 35, 36 ounces, 34, 35 ounces long, in batting practice. It really promotes the utilization of the hands in the swing, not so much the arms.

"I really thought it helped [Yunel] Escobar when he was struggling a bit," Maddon said of his Rays shortstop. "We put a heavier bat in his hands, he was forced to use his hands more and he had better results."

Maddon says a manager must not restrict conversations with a player to times when he's done something wrong.

"Check in when things are going well," he said, "so when you have to check in when things aren't going so good, the check-ins are expected."

What's expected of Maddon is that he'll turn the Cubs into winners. Maybe even champions.

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