Spend some time chatting with those who grew up with Joe Maddon and know him best, and one gets the impression that not a ton has changed from his youth. Like, whatever this frequency is on which he operates, it’s been home for a long time. Because as a youngster growing up in Hazleton, he pretty much set himself to that dial and ripped the knob off.
“The best thing about Joe is that nothing’s changed at all,” said Joe Gavio, a teammate of Joe’s on Hazleton’s district championship team in the early 1970s. “He was always a little bit more intellectual. He just didn’t seem like a normal kid — he was always thinking, kind of quirky.”
This “thinking man’s” picture his inner circle paints of the former prep standout reeks way more of Ben Zobrist than Bo Jackson and yet his high school baseball coach doesn’t stutter in proclaiming him tops among all the players he coached in nearly three decades of Hazleton-area high school tutelage.
“He’s the best player we’ve ever had — including kids who made it up to Triple-A,” former Hazleton baseball coach Ed Morgan said of his onetime pupil who topped out at Single-A ball in minor-league ball with the then-California Angels. “A couple kids did very well in college, but if you pick somebody as the best player, I’d tell you Joe knew more about the game than anybody who ever played for me.”
Morgan is fond of telling listeners that Joe could have excelled at any of the nine positions on the diamond, and the coach claims that it was the cerebral distinction that set the current Cubs skipper apart from his peers as a teenager.
“His knowledge was always his greatest strength,” said Morgan, who coached 22 years at Hazleton High School and six years previous to that at Black Creek Township, which later became a part of the Hazleton Area School District.
“In 1971, when we won our fourth district championship, even though he was our best shortstop I pitched him because I knew he could control the game; he had the right mindset, the right temperament. Some kids probably had better stuff that Joe didn’t possess, but Joe could think against the batters and their weaknesses; he knew what to do.”
“If he would have concentrated on basketball, he would’ve been the point guard. He always had command of the game — the game rotated around him.”
That’s worth repeating: The game rotated around him. The guy was a teenager — who says that about a kid who barely has a driver’s license? And yet, variations of this high praise arise repeatedly in conversation with those who know Joe best — usually unsolicited.
“You gotta get between their ears — that’s what he believed,” echoed high school teammate Gavio. “He took care of my brother, a back-up catcher, took him under his wings. And [Joe’s] calmness turned him into a player. That’s what Joe does — he just handles it. He helps them get a feel for the game. It’s what’s between their ears, and Joe gets that. He’s not a rah-rah guy, but he is just so solid.”
And this, from his younger brother.
“In midget football, he’s calling audibles at the line!” raved sibling Mark, almost five years Joe’s junior. “You don’t see young kids that do that. He loved that stuff! But he always was cerebral like that, and that’s what stands out. There were just as good of players — some more talented — but Joe had the mindset to handle it.”
Mark Maddon takes the Peyton Manning-esque comparisons a step further.
“It’s his mind — he’s just really super intelligent. The difference between these young players…you can go to any playground and find great athletes; it’s the guys who can do it on a consistent basis without pressure, and Joe always had that — pressure never bothered him. He was so mentally strong; he absorbs that pressure for them.”
Indeed, as he led the Cubs to their first World Series championship since 1908, Joe Maddon long has been fond of telling his players “Don’t let the pressure exceed the pleasure.” And that’s reflected in his daily exchanges with the media crush that hangs on his every word during this most historic of Fall Classics. After being shut out 6-0 in Game 1 of the Series, the Cubs field boss took to the press conference stage and actually heralded the at-bats of his hitters — the ones who had garnered all of seven base knocks against Indians ace Corey Kluber.
“I’m not disappointed by any means except for the fact that we did not win,” Maddon said of his team’s performance. “I thought we came out ready to play. They pitched well… I know we had 15 punch-outs, I get it, but the quality of the at-bats was not that bad.”
As evidence of such, he cited the wear-and-tear his club put on ALCS MVP relief pitcher Andrew Miller, who labored through two innings of work throwing 46 pitches, giving up two hits and walking two Cubs batters. The point being: Working the Indians hurlers in the manner they do — even in a loss — can come back to play well for the Cubs. And it did — the very next day in Game 2, when the Cubs only put up five runs in a win against the Tribe.
In Game 7, the Cubs fully came to terms with Kluber, chasing him early on their way to the Series-clinching win.
And to former teammate Gavio’s point, Maddon’s optimism even post-loss isn’t “rah-rah, go get ‘em tomorrow, boys” false bravado; Maddon really believes what he professes — and his players believe him.
“[His teammates] liked him so much because the kids bought into his logic,” recalled Morgan of his former player’s mental approach back in high school that today plays in the big leagues. “He would say: ‘I didn’t make a mistake, but the gods weren’t with me. It was the right play — it wasn’t the wrong play.’
“He’ll explain why, the kids buy into that, and there’s no second guessing. He had a great relationship with his players and with me, and he’s also had that with the Cubs and the [Tampa] Rays.”
Indeed, the stage and the glare certainly have increased since Maddon’s day playing at Rex Antinozzi Field. And as the Cubs performed on baseball’s biggest stage for the first time since George Orwell introduced us to an “Animal Farm,” those who have known Joe Maddon since his youthful days in Hazleton couldn’t have been more proud.
“He didn’t make it as a player, but he made it one step further as a manager in the World Series,” said Morgan. “Most of what he’s done I expected. I was praying that he’d make the Angels as a player, but he went one step further as a coach because they saw what I saw: This kid just showed his talent to be a leader, to be more than high athletic prowess; his main forte was his knowledge of the game.
“I like every kind of baseball game,” Morgan continued. “I was born in 1944 and I’m kind of a guru, but it’s a double pleasure for me to watch Joe Maddon’s baseball games. If he never managed another game, he’d always be one of my outstanding pupils. He knows the game.”