MESA, Ariz. — Joe Maddon believes in time-tested methods and items. His transportation is a ’76 Dodge Tradesman van. His spectacles are horn-rimmed, popularized in the 1960s. And, not unlike most major-league managers, he understands great pitching is the essence of baseball.
As was confirmed in last year’s National League Championship Series by the Mets against Maddon’s Cubs.
The Mets swept Chicago, and on this blue-sky afternoon in the desert with the temperature pushing 75, while Maddon would have preferred to talk about the future, he was trapped into discussing the past and the Mets.
“Their pitching was absolutely fabulous,” Maddon said, a phrase heard often in baseball circles when the Mets are the topic of discussion.
“We were playing really well at the time,” he said. “So were they. It was a combination of incredible pitching and by one hitter being unworldly. He did something just totally out of context.”
“He,” of course, was NLCS MVP Daniel Murphy. In the four games, he went 9-for-17 (.529) with four home runs — one in each game, as if Mets fans need reminding — a double and six RBIs. Going back to the Division Series against the Dodgers, Murphy homered in six consecutive postseason games.
“In a short series like that,” Maddon said about the NLCS, “those two things will be the difference. They didn’t beat us in the regular season [the Cubs were 6-0] and in the playoffs we didn’t beat them.”
Maddon is 62, four years younger than Mets manager Terry Collins. “T.C. and I are good buds from way back,” he said.
If you choose the word rivalry, Maddon doesn’t object. In fact, he is in favor, saying “I think it’s good for baseball when there are good teams in Chicago and New York.”
It’s good for the Cubs, said Maddon, that they signed 34-year-old free agent Ben Zobrist as their second baseman. The talk was the Mets had a good chance for Zobrist, but his link to Maddon, for whom he played at Tampa Bay, the fact that he grew up in Illinois, and a four-year, $56-million contract drew him to the Cubs, where he’ll team with young shortstop Addison Russell.
“He’ll help Addie,” Maddon said. “Not necessarily with technique. He’s just a calming influence. Zo rarely shows emotion in a negative way. He can be thoughtful and mindful, helping when they’re both out of the game. Addie’s going to appreciate playing with Zo.”
Now that the Red Sox have ended their World Series drought, it’s the Cubs, who haven’t won the Series since 1908, in the spotlight.
Maddon said he isn’t affected by expectations — Cubs fans swarmed their Cactus League facility Tuesday — or pressure. But he said he concentrates on the process, not the result.
“I stop at Starbucks, write out the lineup, study the notes and talk to the coaches,” he said.
That worked well in 2015, his first year with the Cubs, until the postseason against the Mets and those pitchers.