MESA, Ariz. — This is familiar territory to Joe Maddon. Not being manager of a World Series champion — “Kind of nice,” he understated — but Arizona, where he spent much of his career as part of the Angels’ organization.
For 30 years he was a part of the Angels, from playing for them in the minors to being a scout and a coach and on occasion an interim manager.
And the Angels from their very creation in 1961 — just like the Cubs, Maddon’s team now — did their training in the desert.
“I get nostalgic coming back here,” Maddon said. “I used to live here. I think about working for Mr. Autry.”
That would be the late Angels owner, Gene Autry, also known as “The Singing Cowboy.’’
“He would throw barbecues for everyone. Jimmie Reese [who spent 78 seasons in professional baseball] was there. That’s where my mind goes. It’s the kind of a place that permits me to understand how I got to this point.”
Which, of course, is atop baseball. Which, of course, is managing a young, well-balanced team that might — might — become the first since the Yankees in 1999-2000 to win consecutive World Series (yes, the Yanks also did it in ’98).
But that’s months away, October. This is March.
“When you get to spring training, it’s like you’ve never coached or managed before,” Maddon mused. “We’ve got to get the stuff that kind of floats in the back of the cranium and bring it to the front.”
Maddon, 63, is a child of the ’60s. He graduated from Lafayette College in 1976, has a goatee that is entirely gray and occasionally drives a flower-power ’76 custom-converted Dodge van. He says things like, “I tend to not muddy waters.”
He’s big on slogans. Last year, it was “Try not to suck.” Countering the decades of Chicago disparagement, this year, after a title, it’s “That’s Cub.”
That’s pride. Atop the home dugout at Sloan Park, the Cubs’ Cactus League headquarters, is painted “2016 World Series Champions.” Fans wear T-shirts, playing off the infamous loser label,“Lovable Winners.”
Not to opponents. Not to the Mets, the Cardinals, the Giants. Not to teams that must face a roster so loaded that — even with former leadoff hitter Dexter Fowler jumping to St. Louis — it arguably is better than it was last season. There’s the National League MVP, Kris Bryant. There’s the NLCS co-MVP, Javier Baez. He shared it with pitcher Jon Lester.
And given that we know pitching wins games, there are Lester, second in the 2016 NL Cy Young Award voting to Max Scherzer of Washington; Kyle Hendricks, third in the voting, and Jake Arrieta, who won the thing in 2015 — the year the Mets swept the Cubs in the NLCS.
Someone asked Maddon, how many managers have a choice for the season opener among men who have been 1-2-3 for the Cy Young? “Not many,” was his less than emphatic answer.
Too far away for Maddon. Others may have announced first-game choices, but not Maddon. “My job is to come here and keep an open mind,” he said. “I’m not even thinking about an Opening Day starter.”
Aroldis Chapman returned to the Yankees. The Cubs picked up veteran reliever Wade Davis.
“You start by winning your division,” Maddon said.
He wouldn’t even mention a possible ending, no matter how familiar the territory.
Joe Maddon is hoping to join Frank Chance (1907-08) as the only Chicago Cubs managers to win two World Series in a row. How he stacks up against his predecessors:
ManagerWS appearancesWS record
Frank Chance 1906, 07, 08, 102-2
Charlie Grimm 1935,38, 450-3