ESPN: Joe Maddon is Zoom-ing in on baseball, cooking and life without sports

May 8, 2020

By Tim Kurkjian | ESPN Senior Writer

Angels manager Joe Maddon is really bad at doing nothing.

 

“I am horrible,” he said. “But I am great at it in the sense that I am horrible at it. I can manufacture things. When it comes to nothing, I just light up. I need errands. I’m at my best when I do errands because I stop and talk to people. That goes back to my hoagie delivery days. I’d deliver hoagies, then go buy coffees, or go to the garage, see the guys. We would talk about anything.”

So with no baseball, no sports, nothing because of the coronavirus pandemic, Maddon is talking to people — not in person and without the hoagies. He uses Zoom, Facebook, Skype and Google. He put a GoPro on his head and filmed a walk through the Angels’ spring training clubhouse for his players to remind them of the messages he wanted ingrained.

Once a week, Maddon and his coaches meet remotely. He has done 12 video chats, including ones with Merrill Lynch employees, students from Eckerd College, students from Harvard, the University of Texas baseball team, the Tampa Baseball Museum, the Miracle League of Arizona and the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. He’s also done a virtual cocktail party with Angels season-ticket holders.

Maddon is living with his wife in Long Beach, California, next to a wildlife preserve and a mile away from where the Queen Mary is docked. A bike trail is 25 feet from his RV, “like in ‘The Terminator,”’ he said.

His house won’t be vacated until May 15, so he can’t move in there. His condo has no air conditioning. So he’s living and working out of his RV, which he recently drove from Arizona to California.

“My van is my office,” he said.

He was going to do a chat in the RV during the drive, but a door malfunction prevented it. Still, imagine this daily scene: a major league manager with 1,252 wins, the man who helped break a 108-year title drought with the Cubs, sitting in his RV with two iPads and a MacBook on his desk, writing, dictating his thoughts into a tape recorder. He’s making plans for ways to connect with people, including doing a video cooking segment, the highlight being the Crock-Pot.

“Mexican,” said Maddon, who owns a restaurant in Tampa, Florida, and used to own one in Chicago, and greatly enjoys talking to his chefs so he can learn more about cooking.

“The green chilies with pork is unbelievable,” he says. “The Mexican casserole, pork with ground chicken, is spectacular.”

This is nothing new for Maddon. Eight years ago, when he managed the Rays, he started Skyping with schools and civic groups and got some of his players involved, including pitcher¬†David Price. Maddon calls it Outer Skype. When he went to the Cubs in 2015, he continued connecting with people through video links. He has done the same since joining the Angels. In January, Rick Vaughn, the executive director of Maddon’s Respect 90 Foundation, contacted the Angels’ community relations department. A plan was put in place for Maddon and some of his players to start speaking to groups in April. But when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, Maddon moved up the schedule to get things going.

Of his plans, Maddon says, “The sky is the limit.” Groups, schools and clubs keep calling for his time and energy. Usually, Maddon says yes — unless he’s swamped.

So why is he doing this?

“I wanted to maintain the momentum of spring training we had going into the season, and I want to keep baseball at the forefront for as many people as I possibly can,” Maddon said. “I didn’t want momentum lost. I There’s a selfish perspective. I needed to keep my mind in order. This is like ground balls and batting practice for me, and staying on task with my message is very important. The most important thing that I wanted to get across was a positive message. I’m not a doctor by any means, and I encourage the social distancing. But there is too much speculation and negativity. And the narrative changes weekly.”

Batting practice and taking ground balls requires at least two people. The coach leading the infield drill, fungo in his hands, is just as important as the infielders.

“Right now has highlighted to all of us how much we are dependent on one another,” Maddon said. “There are times that I really bang on social media, talk badly about it, and the overabundance of technology. But this is one time where technology is really shining. It is permitting us to stay connected in a way that, once we get back to normal methods, is only going to benefit us in greater ways in the future.

“I don’t want to say that absence makes the heart grow fonder, but there’s going to be this real wanting to connect on a more personal level. The methods we are incorporating today are nurturing us. It’s highlighting how important we are to each other. Now it’s going to be, ‘I can’t wait to go have a beer with you, go to a restaurant with you, go to our kid’s ballgame and sit next to you.’ Once we get through this, it’ll be more desirable. We’ll have more respect for one another.”

About 10 years ago, Maddon began encouraging Major League Baseball officials to have its managers, coaches and players be active publicly, speak more, especially to kids. Seven years ago, Maddon spoke, via Skype, to a journalism class in New Jersey. The last question of the 45-minute session came from an eighth-grader sitting in the front row.

“He asked, ‘What is Major League Baseball doing to connect with kids and technology?”’ Maddon said. “That cemented it with me that this is what we should be doing. He represented so many kids of that age group, of that ilk. That’s made me want to do this more.”

Maddon says this outreach “is so simple. It’s about kids.” He says it’s feasible that managers, coaches and players could pick one day per month during the school year, or in the summer, to speak to kids in person or via Skype. If it’s during the season, the players can do it on the road so as not to take away from family time. Maddon says he has little to do at 10 a.m. before road night games, so why not take that time to talk to some kids?

Angels Manager Joe Maddon

Maddon has gathered various groups to talk baseball and raise money for COVID-19 relief.

“If I was a kid,” Maddon said, “and I had a chance to talk to Bob Gibson via Skype for half an hour, I would just sit there and not ask a question. I would be in awe the whole time. You talk about the butterfly effect. The impact when you get to talk to somebody that you’re really into, you really dig, that lasts forever. The impact it could have on kids is hard to measure until you give it a go. I think it can help in promoting our game. Why wouldn’t kids want to check out box scores all of a sudden? Why wouldn’t they want to go out and play ball in the summer after they got a chance to visit with someone they just met?”

Maddon said that an understanding of the fantasy baseball industry should be promoted in schools.

“You could talk about the math and all the different math that is involved in our game right now,” he said. “To keep kids interested, you have to be visual, it has to be technological, and you can actually tie it to a human being, a player, coach, manager or a general manager. It is simple. It’s worth a try. You know you will get something out of it.”

Maddon said he is hoping that bringing people together during this pandemic might actually benefit the game on the field. He has said for years that the increased use of analytics has “taken the art” out of the game by decreasing the human element, touch and feel.

“I don’t want to be misinterpreted,” Maddon said. “I am into information and analytics. But what I’m also into is, I’ve said it a thousand times, the heartbeat, the human being component of this. Experience matters and feel matters, interpersonal relationships matter. The heartbeat matters when you are trying to connect with other people. My message is not about creating an algorithm. When you just go solely on information, you are going on models. Models are skewed. Models are only as good as the information put into them. Who knows how accurate the information going in is, which also can be said in the [baseball] analytic world. How do we know what’s going in there is actually right?”

Angels Manager Joe Maddon

Maddon can’t get on the field with the Angels, but he’s still staying connected and imparting his message. (Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports)

Maddon was an English major at Lafayette. He is a voracious reader. One of his uncles would routinely challenge him on word usage. His vocabulary is remarkable. He uses the word “ameliorate” in a complete sentence. One of his favorite words to use these days is “identity.”

“I don’t think a lot of organizations even know what their identity is now,” he said. “Everyone is working from their identity with numbers and technology. It’s the same sheet of music. It’s like aerodynamics, but when you shave the edges off, you can’t tell a Ford from a Chevy from a Mercedes. It all looks the same. We now have an overall identity industrywide: home runs, walks, strikeouts. Throw as hard as you possibly can. Heavy shifting. Everyone is playing the same game. There is no individuality about the game.”

Maddon was a coach on the 2002 Angels, who won the World Series. Now that he has returned as the Angels’ manager, he has taken to watching the Angels in the 2002 postseason.

“You want to see identity, watch those games,” he said. “You watch the grit on those guys, the team concepts being employed. I’m so proud to be a part of that group. Baserunning. Advancing on balls in the dirt. Two-strike approach. Put the ball in play. Identity.”

In the Angels’ clubhouse in spring training, Maddon is devising what he calls an Identity Wall. The idea came when Angels coach Brian Butterfield was detailing the workout plans with the players for the next day. He used the word “engaged” 10 times. So Maddon went to Tim Buss, who is the Angels’ quality assurance coach, but now Maddon calls him the “vice president of stuff.” Maddon wears a sweatshirt with that title.

“I told Timmy, ‘Go get a can of spray paint, and in your best urban artist style, I want you to write the word “engaged” across the middle of this wall that runs between the clubhouse and the food room,”’ Maddon said. “I wanted the guys to walk by it and see it every day. Every day, they see who we are, written on the wall, urban artist-style. I think in any industry, it’s a great idea if employees put on the wall what really matters to us. What is going to make us successful? What is going to make us different? What is our style, our method of play? Write it on the wall. I call it the Identity Wall. I kind of dig it.”

Maddon is really digging what he’s doing now. He is not making money from all his talks, but he is raising money for charities, which has become harder given that the pandemic has canceled so many fundraisers, such as golf tournaments. Maddon is donating $120,000 for COVID-19 relief. He is also helping his hometown of Hazleton, Pennsylvania, which has been hit hard — especially the Hispanic community — by the virus. The Pennsylvania Department of Health reached out to Maddon, asking for help. He arranged for scripts to be written for Carlos Pena, Tino Martinez, Bernie Williams and¬†Albert Pujols, then they recorded them. They were so well received that John Carney, the governor of Delaware, contacted Maddon this week to see if his state could use them.

Maddon is receiving other rewards, he says.

“My benefit has been mental clarity,” he said. “I’ve been doing this [baseball] since the ’80s. This is the most time I’ve had to myself. You get to decide on a daily basis how you want to get through the day. What is your motivation going to be today? What are you going to accomplish today without being set? Have to be at the ballpark at a certain time. I have to talk to the press at 10:30, etc. I didn’t realize what a slippery slope we live every day.”

Now, without all that structure, there is time to free-form, to be extemporaneous.

“I have ridden my bike 40 consecutive days,” he said. “I have been talking into a tape recorder a lot. It helps me clarify where I’m coming from. I am writing a lot also. I am trying to get deeper into my thoughts than I have in a long time. And I’m hoping when we get back together, we remember lessons learned during this time period. Please take them to heart and don’t let them be just one of those moments that we forget real quickly.”

Nothing is going to stop Joe Maddon from promoting his message — people and the game.

 

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