A homecoming for Maddon?

2019-09-30 MikeSciosciaJoeMaddon
Joe Maddon (right) was Mike Scioscia’s consigliere in the Angels’ dugout before he became a successful manager himself.

So you think Joe Maddon isn’t the real reason the Cubs imploded down the stretch? What do you think about the man the Angels just cashiered while Maddon is a managerial free agent?

Sure, Los Angeles Times reporter Maria Torres has said Brad Ausmus was safe through the end of 2020 at minimum. And the Chicago Tribune said Maddon returning to the Angels was “unlikely.” But two better known and normally sharp baseball reporters, Buster Olney (ESPN) and Ken Rosenthal (The Athletic) have said a little more strongly that if Maddon became available, Ausmus became a retroactive lame duck.

Even as I sat down to write, the Angels weren’t the only team being tied to Maddon. The safest wager now is that Maddon’s unemployment isn’t liable to last as long the postseason probably will. It’s just a question of who’s going to employ him gainfully again.

Ausmus is the Angels’ first manager of the post-Mike Scioscia era, which ended sadly in three straight losing seasons. Hell of a way for the franchise’s single most successful manager to finish his tenure. But Ausmus started with one arm tied behind his back as it was and finished with his arms amputated, so to say. And he has even less culpability for the Angels’ disappearance than Maddon had for the Cubs’.

It wasn’t Ausmus’s brilliant idea that this year’s Angel starting rotation would be an injury-and-inconsistency infected mess almost from the beginning. Or that the Angel bullpen (their collective 5.10 ERA was the fifth worst in baseball this year) would be their own game morticians. Even working in one of the Show’s most favourable pitchers’ parks as their home park.

It wasn’t Ausmus’s idea to miss Justin Upton in the outfield for most of the year or that the Jonathan Lucroy experiment behind the plate and the Matt Harvey experiment on the mound would implode.

It wasn’t Ausmus’s idea that Albert Pujols—a Hall of Famer in waiting otherwise, but an injury-compromised wreck for most of his Angels life—can still play at mere replacement-level on his best days, now, no matter how earnest he remains, no matter how honest his effort. (For that matter, tell yourself it was Pujols’s idea that his legs and feet should begin a continuing betrayal after just his first Angels season.)

It wasn’t Ausmus’s idea that the morale winds got knocked completely out of the Angels’ sails when Tyler Skaggs was found dead in a Texas hotel room to begin their final road series before the All-Star break. Skaggs’s death shocked all baseball but nobody really knows just how deeply it cut into the Angels’s psyches. The Angels were a game under .500 at the All-Star break but 22 below it in the second half.

If you can consider it good news, Skaggs’s death brought Mike Trout forward as a team leader who leads with far more than just what he does in the field and at the plate. (He was striking firmly for his third American League Most Valuable Player award before his foot nerve issue forced him to season-ending surgery in early September. The Astros’ Alex Bregman could very easily win this year’s award if Trout doesn’t.)

But what good is leadership on a team that still isn’t really worthy of its own and baseball’s continuing greatest all-around player? Trout remained Trout and then some even after Skaggs’s death. Ended prematurely, his season was still a season for the books: he still led the majors in on-base percentage and OPS+ and the American League in slugging, OPS, and intentional walks.

The Angels otherwise? That magnificent combined no-hit blowout of the Mariners in their first home game after losing Skaggs was maybe the season’s most spiritually transcendent game—and maybe their last real gasp. Their clubhouse may have held together but they just weren’t a good team on the field. And it’s no more Trout’s fault than it is Ausmus’s.

Ausmus may not be one of the game’s better tactical or strategic managers but neither has he really made the kind of brain-twisters that may yet put paid to men like Mickey Callaway, Gabe Kapler, and maybe even a couple of postseason entrants whose futures probably depend on how far their teams go toward the Promised Land this time.

But Ausmus is now history with the Angels and Maddon has history with them. He took the bridge briefly in 1999 after Terry Collins walked rather than deal any longer with a clubhouse he helped blow up himself, when he was younger, more foolish, and more like a walking exposed nerve. He led those Angels to a 19-10 finish before handing Scioscia the bridge and becoming Scioscia’s consigliere on the bench.

He served long and well as Scioscia’s bench coach. He earned the respect and affection of owner Arte Moreno while he was at it. And now that he’s a free agent, the Angels—as MLB Trade Rumours so delicately phrases it—are “contemplating” Ausmus’s job status.

Rick Renteria, call your office. The Cubs “contemplated” your job status once upon a time as Maddon became available, too. You know how that worked out, amirite? Sure you might be content on the south side of Chicago helping to bring the White Sox back to the land of the living, but that’s not the same thing as you knowing the Cubs were on the threshold of postseason revival and conquest.

And the Angels aren’t considered the only prospective suitors for Maddon’s hand in managerial marriage.

The perpetually rebuilding Padres pinked Andy Green with eight games left this season and they’re thought to have eyes for Maddon now. The Mets and the Phillies are thought to be pondering execution orders for Mickey Callaway and Gabe Kapler, respectively. Don’t think Maddon isn’t in their dugout wet dreams now. (For that matter, don’t think all three teams aren’t pondering further alterations in the front offices, either.)

The Pirates dumped Clint Hurdle somewhat unceremoniously on the final day, letting bench coach Tom Prince have the bridge for a season-ending 3-1 loss to the Reds. The man who skippered the Pirates back to competitiveness for awhile watched his 2019 edition earn a reputation for headhunting, his front office swap out assets for liabilities on field and in the clubhouse, his clubhouse turn into a toxic mess, and himself almost helpless to stop the mass suicide.

(Early last year, when the Nationals were thought to have clubhouse trouble, former manager Dusty Baker observed, “Jayson Werth. That’s who they miss in that clubhouse.” The Pirates could probably say, “Andrew McCutchen. That’s who we miss in this clubhouse.” Just as the Cubs can say, “David Ross. That’s who we miss in this clubhouse.”)

Maddon may be in the Pirates’ periscope sights, too. But then, maybe not. Maddon isn’t the whiplash type. Like legendary Navy fleet admiral Chester Nimitz, Maddon’s command style is reason, not reaming. This collection of Pirates probably needs something more blunt in the dugout. And maybe something a lot more broad-sighted in the front office.

It must be humbling for Maddon, who’s not exactly bereft of modesty, to realise he’s one of those men who inspires others to dump their incumbents when he shows even a hint of actual or pending availability. But for growing members of the club becoming known as Men Fired (Or Likely To Be) That Joe Maddon Be Hired, it must be a little sobering.

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