Column: Hiring calm, cerebral Joe Maddon as manager was ideal for Angels team in turmoil
A baseball team desperately in need of a baseball story has smartly hired one.
His name is Joe Maddon, and he can’t put on that halo soon enough.
The Angels hired Maddon as their manager Wednesday in a move that should calm a few nerves, restore a little hope, and at least temporarily slow the ugliest of narratives.
A team mired in a drug scandal has brought home a former longtime employee who helped lead them to their only World Series championship.
A team that has been to the playoffs only once in the last 10 years has brought in the guy who managed the Chicago Cubs out of that infamous 108-year title drought.
A team in turmoil has hired the epitome of calm.
Maddon, 65, is cool, eccentric and smart. Maddon embraces cutting-edge analytics, preaches hardball philosophy, and pushes fun.
He turned Chicago’s Wrigley Field into a pregame petting zoo, once even conducting a press conference accompanied by a flamingo named Warren.
“My goal in life was to eventually own a bar named the Pink Flamingo,” Maddon told reporters. “If that ever does happen, Warren’s going to be at the opening night.”
The Angels replace fired manager Brad Ausmus with Joe Maddon, 65, who was a player and coach in the Angels organization from 1975 to 2005.
He once scheduled a pajama party for his team’s flight home from Los Angeles. It just so happened that Jake Arrieta threw a no-hitter against the Dodgers that night, after which he became the first no-hit pitcher in history to conduct postgame interviews while wearing a colorful onesie.
Through all this frivolity, there has been a common theme, and it is winning. Maddon took the previously hapless Tampa Bay Rays to the World Series in 2008. He led the historically hapless Cubs to a World Series championship in 2016. His .540 career winning percentage ranks him 20th all-time among managers who have worked at least 2,000 games.
“He’s going to bring some excitement and hope,” said former Angel bullpen great Troy Percival in an interview with The Times’ Mike DiGiovanna. “He’s taken a dead franchise and brought it to life and a storied franchise that hadn’t won a World Series in 100-something years and won the World Series. I don’t know what else you could ask for.”
Percival played for the Angels’ World Series championship team in 2002, personally witnessing the Maddon magic.
“He knows how to give you confidence, whether it’s as a team or an individual,” said Percival. “He knows how to talk to you. He knows what players need to hear. He understands. He’s a great communicator.”
Maddon knows when to push, but he’s even more celebrated for knowing when to back off. For one week every August, he orders his teams to show up at the ballpark no sooner than three hours before the game in memory of their childhood days when they would just show up and play. He calls it American Legion Week, and his teams have thrived during that time.
Maddon departed the Cubs when his contract ended after this season because his relaxed brand of communication had worn thin. The players stopped responding, and their failure to play a postseason game for the first time in his five-year tenure led to the end of his run.
Maddon has also been criticized for peculiar late-inning bullpen moves. Even the Cubs’ glorious 2016 World Series championship nearly slipped away in Game 7 after Maddon overused closer Aroldis Chapman in Game 6. Yeah, Dodger fans still fuming over Dave Roberts could now have a kindred spirit down the freeway.
Yet Maddon’s most important impact on the Angels will not be as a strategist, but as the new folksy face of their franchise. He shows up in colorful bracelets and unique hair styles, he mixes time-worn wisdom with pop culture references, the writers will endlessly quote him, the players will at least initially embrace him.
Before many games in that 2002 season, Maddon would come out to the dugout early and sit with writers and talk old-fashioned baseball. He became sort of a trusted tour guide to those witnessing Angel history.
Seventeen years later, the Angels are hoping he can do that again as they live through a much sadder and potentially destructive history.
Former Angels pitcher Matt Harvey and current pitchers Andrew Heaney, Trevor Cahill and Noe Ramirez are among the at least six players interviewed by the DEA.
In the wake of last summer’s drug-related death of pitcher Tyler Skaggs, the organization has been a plunged into a spiral of revelations and accusations that could eventually shake the franchise to its core.
Federal agents have interviewed one team employee and at least six former and current Angels players as part of their investigation into Skaggs’ death. ESPN reported that the team employee, media relations director Eric Kay, told federal agents that he supplied Skaggs with opioids and that he abused drugs with the pitcher for several years.
Kay also told agents that two Angel employees — former communications vice president Tim Mead and traveling secretary Tom Taylor — knew of Skaggs’ drug problem before his death.
Mead and Taylor denied Kay’s claims, and the Angels issued a statement saying, “We have never heard that any employee was providing illegal narcotics to any player, or that any player was seeking illegal narcotics.”
If it is verified that anyone in the organization beyond Kay knew about Skaggs’ drug use, the Angels could be subject to severe penalties from Major League Baseball. The entire organization could become a quagmire of firings and finger pointing. There could be federal charges. There almost certainly will be lawsuits. Signing potential free-agent pitcher Gerrit Cole and keeping Mike Trout happy will be the least of their problems.
Maddon will have nothing to do with this, and everything to do with this.
He will be the one deflecting the madness from the players in a clubhouse whose inhabitants could be a couple of starting pitchers away from playoff contention. He will be the one charged with changing the public narrative of an organization in crisis.
Maddon rejoined the Angels because of his longing to return to his Southern California home — he still owns a house in Long Beach — and because of his friendship with owner Arte Moreno. He will convey those simple values in an everyday, everyman approach that the Angels hope will return them to the glory days of 2002.
Joe Maddon could be just the man to make Angels fans remember . . . and forget.
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