I was in the visiting clubhouse at PNC Park last May as the Chicago Cubs began to arrive for their game later that evening. Before games, at least for the period when media is present, major-league clubhouses are typically serene spaces. Players are often seated before their lockers, scrolling through their smart phones or listening to music on the device. There’s conversation, of course, there are players and coaches quietly examining video in the center visiting clubhouses, but there is typically not a frat-house atmosphere.
Then Anthony Rizzo walked in.
Rizzo appeared at the threshold of the locker room itself and boomed “What’s up [expletive]s!” beaming with a smile as he strutted to his corner locker.
The coaches and teammates present smiled and laughed. When I later departed, I walked past the visiting manager’s office, where Joe Maddon sat alone, rock music blaring.
It was not my first encounter with the Cubs’ clubhouse culture. I had briefly inhabited the old, cramped home clubhouse in Wrigley Field at the end of the 2015 season after the Cubs clinched a Wild Card berth. The narrow clubhouse was about the size of a batting cage. There I saw David Ross hand Maddon a bottle of spirits as a gift, and then embrace him. I asked then-rookie Addison Russell about his first conversation with Maddon. He said it was not baseball-related. They discussed some Stephen King novels, as Maddon had learned Russell was a fan of the genre. When Kris Bryant arrived to much fanfare early that season, Maddon didn’t talk to him about handling pressure and expectations, rather Maddon shared his favorite restaurants and places to bicycle in Chicago.
In my limited experience around the Cubs, I thought, This is a different kind of atmosphere: fun, loose, stress-free. This is a team that doesn’t feel overwhelmed by expectations. Sure, it helped that I was witnessing a club when in the midst of a historically good start. And sure, I was making an assumption off a small sample of behavior. But Malcolm Gladwell argued in Blink that human beings are adept at making accurate assessments very quickly.
So these anecdotes bring us to that time Maddon met Clemson football coach Dabo Swinney.
Last April, Swinney was in Chicago for the NFL Draft along with several assistant coaches. Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables suggested they go to Wrigley Field to watch the red-hot Cubs. Swinney – whom I covered for four years as a reporter at the Charleston (S.C.) Post & Courier – called his agent, Mike Brown, to see if he could help him with tickets. Swinney recalled his conversation with Brown for the benefit of the Chicago Sun-Times‘ Steve Greenberg:
“He goes, ‘Well, I know Joe Maddon.’ And I go, ‘Who’s Joe Maddon?’” Swinney said. “He went, ‘He’s the manager.’ I go, ‘That’s a pretty good guy to know.’”
Swinney was invited into the Cubs’ new clubhouse and met with Maddon.
“I walk in there and they’ve got a drum set, they’ve got a disco ball hanging. I’m like, ‘What the heck is this?’ And they’re like, ‘This is the celebration room. Joe likes to celebrate.’ And I thought, I like this guy.
“We talked for a minute and [Maddon said], ‘Hey, man, I watched you guys last year,’ and we kind of had an instant connection. It was really neat. I told him, because I had met his players and been around them, ‘You guys have a great culture. I’m telling you, you’ve got a winning culture here. You’ve got just a good feel in this building. You can smell it.”
Swinney has done much the same at Clemson, the antithesis of Nick Saban.
I bring up these stories because these are two different men, with two very different backgrounds, coaching/managing two very different sports. But they’ve each reached the pinnacle of their respective sports in a similar way. While they lead talented rosters, they are responsible for creating a rare atmosphere for players and staff. It’s difficult to quantify the value of managers, but, I wonder if this is the preferable cultural road map to follow.
In an age where certain coaches and managers run teams with the seriousness and rigor of a military unit, the Cubs had not won in forever – and Clemson had not either – until they started playing loose (and enjoying huge talent influxes). In an age where so many public appearances appear rehearsed, Maddon and Swinney seem authentic.
Maddon and Swinney. (Photo by Kathleen Swinney.)
“Culture” has become a corporate buzz word and I asked Maddon at the close of the 2015 season what exactly he was trying to accomplish through some of his unorthodox practices. What exactly does a productive culture look like and facilitate?
Madden recounted how, as a 31-year-old instructional-league coach in Mesa, Arizona, back in 1985, Angels manager Gene Mauch approached him and praised him for the “atmosphere” he had created. Mauch walked away, and Maddon paused, reflecting on what that compliment entailed.
“(Trust) is much more important than cutoffs and relays, or this manual that you might have to write, all this other minutiae that people want to focus on. It’s not rocket science how to play this game… It’s much more difficult to trust each other.
“If you don’t have (trust), guys are going to agree with you. There’s nothing I hate more than to be agreed with just because of the title or a position. This entire game is so plagiaristic. Everyone just repeats and that was really boring to me.”
The ties go beyond creating similar cultures, the Cubs – and Clemson – found market inefficiencies in assistant coaches, and engaged in two inventive practices involving assistant staffs.
For decades, major-league coaching staffs have looked much the same: gray-haired former players with familiar titles. But in 2014 the Cubs hired two “coordinators,” one on the offensive side and one “run prevention” coordinator. FanGraphs’ own David Laurila wrote about the latter position in December of 2015, and Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated wrote about Tommy Hottovy, baseball’s only known defensive coordinator, again last October:
“Hottovy pitched in 17 major league games in 10 professional seasons before blowing out his shoulder in Cubs spring training camp in ’14. While rehabbing his shoulder that summer, Hottovy, who graduated from Wichita State in ’04 with a degree in business administration and a minor in economics, took a Sabermetrics 101 online course from Boston University… Hottovy is the bridge between the back-office analytical wonks and the on-field staff. He analyzes the vast amounts of numerical and video data as well as charting his own observations.”
Jason Heyward and his on-field teammates are most responsible for the game’s best defense last season, and one of the best defenses in the game’s history – the Cubs’ defensive efficiency (72.8%) was the best since the 1991 White Sox. The Cubs also employed interested positioning.
Maddon said the Cubs strategy is to “catch line drives.”
Said Theo Epstein to SI: “We’re last in the league in shifts because of the way they define it… Believe me, we position for every pitch… We do it through scouting reports and numbers and based on our own observations.”
Remaking and rethinking coaching staffs is one area that has not been disrupted but perhaps the Cubs are on to something in enhancing teaching, communication and acceptance of information.
Perhaps the most innovative thing Swinney accomplished at Clemson is to demonstrate assistant coaches were undervalued.
In 2012, Swinney elected to surround himself with the best assistants he could find and took only 31% of total coaching payroll – the lowest share in major college football – for himself. I dubbed the practice as college football’s Moneyball. Clemson has now played in back-to-back title games, something of a small-market success story in major college football.
They had similar journeys – Swinney walking on at Alabama and Maddon climbing through the Angels’ minor-league system with little pedigree – and have arrived at the top of their sports through some similar practices. They have charisma and are comfortable with who they are. While they are leaders in two very different sports, who never met until one day last April, they might independently be on to something.