It was 1995, and Joe Maddon was a young coach in the majors with the Angels, and at 1 a.m. — after suffering a tough loss — the vision came to him deep inside Anaheim Stadium.
“I wanted to know, what are the major leagues all about,” Maddon said this week. “That’s when I thought about the five levels of being a professional.”
The five levels according to Maddon go like this:
Level 1: “I’m happy to be here.”
Level 2: “Survival, I like this and I want to stay here.”
Level 3: “I belong here, I can do this.”
Level 4: “I want to make as much money as I possibly can.”
Level 5: “All I want to do is win.”
Fast-forward 23 years, those five levels are now a staple in his “Putting the Art Back Into THEE Game” project.
It has been an idea of Maddon’s for years. He has always believed baseball players are artists, the field is their canvas and the glove, bat and ball their brushes. He wanted to incorporate art and the game in a way to inspire players and young fans to view the game in a more creative way — an artistic way.
He pitched his idea as a marketing campaign for Major League Baseball, but when none of the organizations he was part of bought in he decided “I’ll do it on my own.”
The project came to life this offseason one January afternoon in Tampa, Florida, while he was shopping at one of his favorite clothing stores.
At this time, Maddon was reading Leonardo da Vinci’s biography by Walter Isaacson. He recalled details in the book that discussed the Mona Lisa and the revolutionary techniques da Vinci used when creating this masterpiece.
As Maddon walked into the store, Milano Exchange, he immediately noticed a parody of the Mona Lisa by local artist Jason Skeldon.
“That’s it,” Maddon said.
It was his vision brought to life.
Maddon and Skeldon teamed to create pieces that would become the theme of the Cubs’ 2018 season, a way to promote the arts in Chicago and beyond, and to raise money for Maddon’s foundation, Respect 90.
The first creation by the pair was Maddon’s centerpiece of the project — the Mona Lisa.
It is the classic painting with Maddon’s singular spin on it.
“On that particular painting, there’s a lot of little baseball concepts,” Maddon said. “She was about putting the art back into the game.”
The painting features Mona Lisa gripping a beaming yellow baseball bat and wearing eye black. All across the canvas are notes, concepts and symbolic messages in vibrant hues written by Maddon.
The piece sold for $50,000, with all the proceeds going to charity.
The next piece sold was Michelangelo’s David. In Maddon’s version, David is standing on the mound at Wrigley Field with the center-field scoreboard looming in the background.
One more thing, David is wearing a jockstrap.
The piece was auctioned off last week at Anthony Rizzo’s sixth annual Cook-Off for Cancer for $25,000.
Maddon has four more pieces along with the Mona Lisa and David. He has one featuring Uncle Sam, Albert Einstein, Salvador Dali and finally his favorite, the one that features Muhammad Ali and his vision from Anaheim. Within the coming months, he will have eight total as two more pieces are being created.
The next piece to be released will be Mad(don) Magazine, which features a cell phone being blown up because “I just really dislike cell phones,” Maddon said.
Along with the cell phone, Maddon is blowing up 10 negative concepts.
“We’re blowing up apathy, we’re blowing up redundancy, we’re blowing up ‘my bad,’ ” Maddon said. “Basically we are blowing up 10 ideas that have no place in baseball.”
Each painting is scrawled with powerful messages that hold weight on the diamond but possibly even more among the youth Maddon hopes to inspire.
For example, his Uncle Sam piece reads: “We want you to be yourself.”
As the project grows, Maddon’s goals for it mirrors that growth. He has plans to have his pieces online and available for purchase in various forms, with all the proceeds going to his foundation. He wants to sell them on hoodies, as paintings, on posters and he even wants to shrink-wrap cars.
Maddon’s never been shy about his desire for his players to maintain their unique personalities and always be unabashedly themselves. His message is the same for kids in Chicago and across the country.
“To withhold anything about yourself is the worst possible feeling,” Maddon said. “We’ll never know who you are if you choose to do that based on pressures coming from outside.”