The Maddoning crowd

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Shown here during his years as Mike Scioscia’s consigliere, Joe Maddon returns to the Angels as their new manager—right in the middle of a further storm over Tyler Skaggs’s death.

Rarely have warnings about being careful what you wish for proven this prescient. If Joe Maddon really wished to return to the Angels he served three decades plus, and as their manager, yet, he couldn’t have picked a worse time to get his wish.

Amidst the thrills of the two League Championship Series a bomb exploded a couple of days ago. There was more to Angel pitcher Tyler Skaggs’s shocking death in Texas before the All-Star break than just an accidental overdose. Too much more.

Now Maddon will take the Angels’ bridge. It may have been a done deal from the moment the Angels pinked first year manager Brad Ausmus, which just so happened to be almost the precise moment in which Maddon learned he wouldn’t be returning as the Cubs’ manager once his contract expired at season’s end.

And if it was bad enough the Angels just had a second straight losing season and a third in four, despite having the best all-around baseball player on the planet, even that was nothing compared to the firestorm now erupting around Skaggs’s death.

“When stuff comes out, you want to know if it’s true,” said Mike Trout when autopsy results made public in early September showed how Skaggs died. “Obviously, if I knew I would definitely have said something or did something.”

Nobody has any reason to disbelieve Trout. But he may not like what transpires further. Especially after signing the gigabucks contract extension making him an Angel for life before spring training ended.

This is what we know so far: Skaggs, the likeable pitcher who was a clubhouse and fan favourite, was an opioid addict. For just how long seems unknown just yet. Also unknown for dead last certain at this writing is what manner of pain led Skaggs to the stuff in the first place. His family hired a Texas legal wolf to get to the bottom of it all. The digging is getting very disturbing.

What we also know so far is that the Angels’ communications director, Eric Kay, himself an opioid addict, knew about Skaggs’s issue with the drugs, procured them for the pitcher, and often used them with him. Kay has also told agents with the federal Drug Enforcement Administration that five more Angels, so far unnamed, use opioids and that there were other team officials aware of Skaggs’s issue with them.

The Angels deny such knowledge. And Kay issued a statement this past weekend concurrent to his denial that he provided the actual pills that provoked Skaggs to overdose accidentally and asphyxiate in his sleep in a Texas hotel room in early July:

I felt and continue to feel that it is time for everyone to stand up and take responsibility for their respective roles in this. Nothing anyone does will ever provide closure for the Skaggs family. I can’t, the Angels can’t, and the courts can’t, regardless of what happens there. But at least I can help them “know”‘ instead of “wonder.” My hope is that there is some peace in that for them.

But four Angels past and incumbent—pitchers Trevor Cahill, Matt Harvey, Andrew Heaney, and Noe Ramirez—have been interviewed and questioned by federal agents. NBC Sports says those four aren’t suspects, just witnesses. So far.

And ESPN’s T.J. Quinn says the Angels may face heavy sanctions from baseball’s government if it’s proven any team officials knew about Skaggs’s problem but didn’t speak up to the commissioner’s office about him using substances banned by baseball. The sanctions could include up to a $2 million fine against the Angels and the officials in question banned from baseball for life if proven.

An Angel spokeswoman, Marie Garvey, issued a statement on Tuesday in which she said the team had no knowledge that Kay provided Skaggs opioids:

We have never heard that any employee was providing illegal narcotics to any player, or that any player was seeking narcotics from him. The current and former employees that are being accused of knowing this behavior have categorically denied that assertion. The Angels maintain a strict, zero tolerance policy regarding the illicit use of drugs for both players and staff. Every one of our players must also abide by the MLB joint drug agreement.

There could be a reason why any Angels officials who did know about Skaggs’s problem, if they did know, were loath to speak up and out. A few years ago, then-Angels outfielder Josh Hamilton—a recovering substance abuser whose Angels seasons were throttled by injuries—had a relapse while watching a Super Bowl. Hamilton didn’t flinch. He reported it to the team and to baseball’s government immediately. That’d teach him.

It wasn’t enough then for Angels owner Arte Moreno. Never mind that Hamilton could have tried to run and hide but didn’t. For his forthrightness Hamilton was run out of town on the proverbial rail, right back to the Rangers from whence he’d come, with Moreno paying Hamilton’s entire salary just to be rid of him.

Adding insult to injury: Hamilton’s forthrightness didn’t impress then-manager Mike Scioscia one degree, Scioscia all but demanding that Hamilton owed the Angels a public apology, if not a perp walk. All Hamilton did was his absolute duty under baseball’s drug agreement when he relapsed. And his reward for doing his duty and shooting straight was orders to be out of town before sundown.

If you think that didn’t scare the living you-know-what out of anyone else working for the Angels, I have a fully-operating California bullet train to sell you for a song. Maybe a short medley. The scared may have included Kay and his boss/mentor Tim Mead, now running the Hall of Fame, but then the Angels’ vice president for communications.

We know that Kay’s mother, Sandra, claims her son told Mead about Skaggs’s opioid issues a few years prior to Skaggs’s death. We know Mead once visited Kay in the hospital with Kay’s mother present, and that Kay checked into a rehab program this past July. (Coincidence? Convenience?) We know Sandra Kay claims to have talked to Mead about Skaggs’s drug issue and that Mead denies the conversation.

“Keep in mind,” says Jessica DeLine, a writer for the SB Nation blog Halos Heaven, “opioid abuse often begins after surgeries, when the drug may be prescribed to the patient. Per the Mayo Clinic, opioids are highly addictive and your risk of addiction is increased after taking the drug for just a few days.”

Skaggs underwent Tommy John surgery in 2014, during his first Angels season after two with the Diamondbacks, and missed the entire 2015 season recuperating and rehabbing from it. It’s entirely possible that things happened for him just as the Mayo Clinic describes: he may have been prescribed one or another opioid (oxycodone and fetanyl were found in his system after his death) after the surgery and he got hooked.

In 2017, Skaggs spent 98 days on the disabled list with a strained oblique; in 2018, he spent three months on the DL with hip adductor muscle issues. If he wasn’t prescribed any opiate after his Tommy John surgery, who’s to say the pain of those injuries instead didn’t lead him to opiates’ doors?

“Someone is lying here,” DeLine writes, “and it’s either Tim Mead . . . or Sandy Kay. What would be the reasons either of them would lie? Sandy’s benefit would perhaps be to shift blame away from her son and onto the Angels. Mead’s reasons should be rather obvious.”

Skaggs’s death shocked baseball. The Angels were thoroughly waylaid by it. They went public with their grief. The Rangers in Texas allowed them to postpone the opening game of their pre-break series out of respect and even laid Skaggs’s number 45 on the back of their home mound, in the Angels’ uniform font style, out of further respect.

The Angels took two of three from the Rangers, lost two of three to the Astros, then returned home after the break to host the Mariners. What they did to open that series shocked baseball even further.

Wearing Skaggs jerseys and numbers one and all in tribute, pitchers Taylor Cole and Felix Pena combined to pitch a no-hit, 13-0 blowout against the Mariners in which Trout himself, emergent as a team leader over his friend’s death, opened the carnage with a two-run homer in the bottom of the first. When the game ended, the players left their jerseys on the mound surrounding Skaggs’s number 45 as a final tribute.

The news of opioids in Skaggs’s system the night he died came forth not long after that game. Now the possibility of the Angels administration sleeping at the switch while their pitcher battled such an addiction, and one of their P.R. people looks to have abetted him, stains their familiar logo halo.

That’s what Maddon is walking into right off the bat after signing a reported three-year contract to manage the team for whom he served as Scioscia’s longtime (and 2002 World Series-winning) consigliere on the bench before starting his own mostly successful managing career.

And Maddon has his own unfortunate small history of being caught with his pants down over comparable troubles. He looked almost entirely clueless in his responses when Cubs shortstop Addison Russell was exposed as a domestic abuser by Russell’s former wife last fall. Nobody with brains suggests Maddon condones domestic violence, but his tepid response at first, upon Russell’s exposure, was a terrible look for the man who shepherded the Cubs to their first World Series win (2016) in over a century.

Now Maddon has to think about more than just bringing a club together under a new bridge commander and thinking about percentages and execution on the field. He has to think about the potentials around disturbing revelations that may or may not prove to have been true involving the death of a popular pitcher and its continuing effects on his new players.

He may even have to think about the ramifications if it should turn out that any Angel players, other than the four current or former pitchers interviewed by federal agents, knew Skaggs had a serious addiction problem and did or said nothing to intercede before it was too late. Especially if the Manfred administration comes to appear more interested in making players do a Pittsburgh drug trials-like perp walk than in making real moves to solve a too-real, too-dangerous issue.

And those will still be nothing compared to the additional anger and grief Skaggs’s widow and family will suffer.

A homecoming for Maddon?

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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.

Maddon era ends with a Cubs whimper

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Joe Maddon watches from the Busch Stadium visitors’ dugout on his final day as the Cubs’ skipper.

What was long enough presumed was made official Sunday. The Joe Maddon era in Chicago ended with the Cubs’ regular season finale, and a 9-0 loss to the National League Central-clinching Cardinals while they were at it.

The final decision came Friday, apparently, despite the Cubs taking one from the Cardinals to start the weekend, when Maddon and president Theo Epstein met over a bottle of wine, and Epstein affirmed there’d be no contract renewal.

And it may not be quite as simple as saying that, if only the Cubs could have played just  last weekend the way they handled the Cardinals the first two games this weekend, Maddon might have survived.

Getting swept by the Cardinals in the Cubs’ final season set at Wrigley Field last weekend merely finished breaking their backs for the year. They still had another week and weekend to play and, until they hit St. Louis Friday night, the Cubs still looked and played broken—and against the Pirates, yet.

But the plain truth is that the Cubs were broken long before last weekend. And the breakage wasn’t Maddon’s fault entirely or exclusively. Maybe ESPN’s Jesse Rogers said it best after Sunday’s news broke: “Maddon’s dismissal from the Cubs boils down to one sentence: He wasn’t able to outmanage the mistakes the front office saddled him with.”

That happens only too often and not exclusively with the Cubs. But it feels magnified anyway because the Cubs delivered in 2016 what was long presumed impossible. And enough people in Cub Country and elsewhere really thought it was the opening salvo for a dynasty-to-be.

The dynasty that isn’t hit their wall in their own venerable playpen at the end last year. They slip-slid into a National League Central tiebreaker with the Brewers and lost that game. Then settled for the NL wild card game against the Rockies and lost that one, too. Scoring a grand total of two runs in both games, 22 innings worth of baseball.

The Maddon era qualifies cumulatively as a raging success, but its finish qualifies as a raging flop. For two straight seasons Maddon presided over a team that didn’t achieve what their talent demanded. He wasn’t necessarily in a great position to continue the earlier success, but he wasn’t necessarily able any longer to call his team to account before trouble spots became chronic.

Enemy teams came to salivate, not shiver, at the prospect of Cubs on the bases—they led the National League in baserunning outs this year. The other guys had only to put the bat on the ball and often as not save their prayers—this year’s Cubs were the league’s most error-prone defense.

“When you make a lot of errors in the field, when you make a lot of errors in the baserunning, that’s momentum,” pitcher Cole Hamels told Rogers. “That’s an area that could get corrected. There’s still a lot of players in here that are still learning.”

Hamels could have been talking about accountability, too. This year’s Cubs seemed to lose that. Maddon’s isn’t an in-your-face style of leadership, but as Rogers notes it’s believed that even when he did call players in to account for their mishaps, mistakes, and misses, “he didn’t address matters strongly enough . . . or the message didn’t get through.”

It’s not easy being as well respected as Maddon is for keeping his sanity when everything and everyone else around you has search parties out trolling to retrieve theirs. Neither is it easy to discover your remarkably sane and becalmed manner in keeping your clubhouse on message and on task no longer keeps it either.

“[P]eople — players, coaches, general managers, fans, even writers — came to see it is possible to work your butt off and still be a reasonable human being,” wrote Yahoo! Sports‘s Tim Brown. “You can be the boss without being condescending. You can lose and find hope. You can win and recognize that’s about an inch from losing.”

You can even manage the Cubs out of the wilderness, back to the Promised Land for the first time since the Roosevelt Administration (Theodore’s), and keep them in contention for the two seasons to follow, and still keep your marble (singular) when everything around you dissipates.

Which is probably the best reason while Maddon may not remain unemployed for very long. The rumour radar seems to be trained on the Mets, the Phillies, and the Padres as prospective new employers. The Padres job is open since Andy Green was pinked last week; the Mets and Phillies jobs may be opening very shortly.

A rumoured-enough possible Maddon successor is David Ross, whose clubhouse leadership and work as Miguel Montero’s co-backup behind the plate was invaluable to that 2016 World Series conquest. Ross retired after that Series. Don’t think for a moment that the Cubs didn’t miss him in the clubhouse from that point forward.

That was another problem after the ’16 triumph. The Cubs’ most tangible clubhouse leadership came by way of imports from other teams: Ross, Miguel Montero, John Lackey, Jon Lester, Jason Heyward. Their homegrown core led by example enough mostly but didn’t develop, or didn’t feel comfortable developing, more direct and over influence.

Ross retired after the World Series conquest. And Montero blew his leadership cred when he a) complained publicly about losing ’16 postseason playing time to Willson Contreras and Ross behind the plate; and, b) blamed Jake Arrieta publicly for the June 2017 day the Nationals ran wild on the bases (seven attempts, seven thefts) against Montero’s arm.

The latter got Montero run out of town post haste. Lackey retired after the 2017 season. Lester really started showing his age this season. Heyward is still a plus defender but a minus hitter.

But nobody expected Albert Almora, Jr. to stop hitting, or David Bote to become a defensive liability, or Hamels to be injured, or Contreras and Kyle Schwarber running the bases like trucks with flat tires, or Kyle Hendricks developing a seeming allergy to winning on the road. (At home in ’19: 2.05 ERA; .206 batting average against; 0.87 walks/hits per inning pitched. On the road in ’19: 5.02 ERA; .290 BAA; .141 WHIP.)

Hendricks himself reflected a major Cub dilemna this year. At Wrigley Field, if you don’t count that final weekend’s implosion, the Cubs played like a world champion in the making. On the road, they played like the 1962 Mets without the laughs. They dealt with key injuries, of course, and in abundance enough—but so did the Yankees and the Astros, and those two were deep enough to keep on winning.

Which is why Epstein himself may have some splainin’ to do. He didn’t exactly retool the retooling-needy bullpen with solid bulls. He depleted the farm to win the ’16 Series and beyond. The Cubs haven’t drafted a single major league-quality pitcher under the Ricketts/Epstein regime; the scouts haven’t mined deeper for jewels. Their 2018 round one pick, Nico Hoerner, proved a pleasant surprise. His September callup turned into a presence in the Cubs’ 2020 scheme, almost unexpectedly.

More than just the manager may be different next year. Hamels is about to test the free agency market. So does trade deadline acquisition Nicholas Castellanos, whose torrid play after joining the Cubs was too far from enough to help. So does relief pitcher Steve Cishek.

Aging utility man Ben Zobrist—whose season was disrupted by a harsh divorce, harsh enough to prompt his leaving the team to tend his children through it—may or may not retire. And there may (underline that, gang) be trade winds blowing around Almora, Kris Bryant, Jose Quintana, and the should-have-been-purged Addison Russell, whose too-much-proven domestic violence embarrassed everyone around the Cubs.

Maybe, too, Epstein overshot when he said last winter he wouldn’t even think about extending Maddon (if at all) until after this season was done. If it made Maddon too lame a duck maybe that extended to the players. Nobody likes that coming unemployment is a given for the boss you happen to love.

So why not send that boss out with a bang instead of a whimper? If the Cubs couldn’t stay the course to the postseason, the least they could have done was finish what they started and try forcing the Cardinals into an NL Central tiebreaker.

No such luck. Cardinals pitcher Jack Flaherty could have thrown from a sitting position, maybe even in a deep leather sofa Sunday afternoon. The Cardinals buried the Cubs, 9-0. It seemed almost like a mercy killing. And even a Cub win wouldn’t have forced the tiebreaker, after all: the Rockies beat the Brewers in thirteen in Coors Field. On a walkoff wild pitch.

But it might have shown a little pride.

Things in Busch Stadium began quietly enough and within reason with an RBI single by Paul Goldschmidt and a run-scoring Area Code 6-4-3 dialed by Marcel Ozuna in the first. The quiet lasted just long enough for Dexter Fowler—another element in the Cubs’ 2016 triumph allowed to leave—to hit one into the left field seats with Flaherty himself aboard on a base hit in the second.

And the Cardinals didn’t wait for the Cubs to regroup in the third, either. Ozuna singled home Goldschmidt and, after Yadier Molina walked, Matt Carpenter sent one over the right center field fence. Then Goldschmidt continued the party with a one-out bomb in the fourth.

It got so bad that Maddon sent Zobrist out to pitch the eighth. But Maddon wasn’t trying to be cute, even if there’ll be those sourpusses who decide he’d just surrendered completely without even a whiff of a fight back. He really did want to give a little gift to his 2016 World Series MVP, a personal favourite from their days together in Tampa Bay.

Zobrist walked Fowler to lead off but got a prompt line out to right center from Tommy Edman before walking Goldschmidt. He got a pop out to second baseman (and former Cardinal) Daniel Descalso. Then, he struck Molina out on 2-2 for the side. Molina couldn’t resist a sly grin as he lingered a moment in the batter’s box. Zobrist enjoyed the moment thoroughly. (He can also brag, wink wink, about a 0.00 lifetime ERA if he wants.)

It was a pleasant gesture and a pleasant way to accept the gift. God and His servant Jolly Cholly Grimm only knew how often the Cubs’ regular relievers got torched with men on and two outs during the season. Maybe Zobrist’s unlikely ability to wiggle into and out of trouble gives the front office a hint about fixing that bullpen. Among other things.

Wrigley agonistes

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Joe Maddon (left) and Anthony Rizzo after the Cubs’ Sunday loss.

“Adversity,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon pronounced before they played their first home game this season, “is good for the soul, brother.” Did Maddon and the Cubs absolutely have to make it a self-fulfilling prophecy?

You want adversity? This year’s Cubs laid it on themselves good and thick. This weekend and this month. Right down to the moment Maddon decided it was a good idea with a 2-1 lead to send a gallant but past his single-game sell-by date Yu Darvish out to pitch the top of the ninth Sunday afternoon.

He probably did it because when everything else was said and done Brother Joe couldn’t or wouldn’t trust practically his whole bullpen as far as he could throw any home run pitch surrendered by Cardiac Kimbrel this weekend without the benefit of the ball flying off the end of someone else’s bat.

But pinch hitter Jose Martinez led off hitting a 1-0 cutter to the back of center field that just did elude a diving Albert Almora, Jr. for a triple. Former Cub Dexter Fowler sent pinch-runner Tyler O’Neill home promptly with a sacrifice fly. Then Tommy Edman singled to right, Paul Goldschmidt doubled him home, and then Maddon reached for Pedro Strop, who followed a prompt walk with two swinging strikeouts.

And the Cubs had nothing left against even a less-than-his-old-self Andrew Miller in the bottom of the ninth beyond Jason Heyward’s two-out single. The home side of their 2019 ended in four whimpers. Obviously, ending 118 years worth of adversity three years ago just wasn’t good enough for the soul, brother.

“If you just play back the tape,” Maddon said after Sunday’s game, “it’s almost unbelievable that it turned out this way.” The problem is that it’s only too believable. On a weekend when the Cubs needed to play like their 2016 selves in the worst way possible, they played like their 1909-2015 selves—in the worst ways possible.

The Cardinals, though, had just enough left. “There was a time when we could have mailed it in,” said shortstop Paul DeJong after Saturday night’s survival. “But we kept pushing. We’re at a point in the year where we smell blood and we’re trying to take what’s ours.”

Thus did the Cardinals clinch at least a postseason trip. Their magic number for a division clinch is two. The Cubs’ tragic number for even wild card elimination is five. They may get to regroup against what’s left of the Pirates for three in PNC Park, but guess who they end the regular season against and where next weekend?

Does Kris Bryant still think St. Louis is a boring town? I’ve never been there but I know this much about their Cardinals: They have been and they are a good many things. Boring isn’t one of them. Even the best baseball fans on earth, which is the reputation Cardinal fans do have, won’t be able to resist letting the Cubs have it but good next weekend.

The problem is, the Cubs are many things except boring, too, but their kind of excitement did the Cardinals the biggest favour of their month and, just maybe, their season. And if you want to talk about karma, be reminded that Bryant had to leave Sunday’s game after spraining his ankle trying to beat a third inning-ending double play.

Now it’s almost impossible to believe the Cubs began the four-game set against the Cardinals with a clean shot at overthrowing the NL Central leaders. And all four losses were by a single run, making for the longest streak of one-run losses (five) the Cubs have had since 1947, the last time they’d lost four straight one-run games.

How much it would have kept the Cubs’ almost-dissipated postseason hopes alive can’t be known now, but in a season during which he’s been second guessed frequently enough one more won’t kill Maddon.

If he wasn’t even going to think about Kimbrel Sunday, and he probably would have been executed on the spot if he did, why didn’t he give Darvish a pat on the fanny and thanks for a job done well above and beyond the call, and send Strop out to open the top of the ninth?

It’s not that that was the single decision above all that sank the Cubs this year. They were done in by a combination of factors, especially their terrible road results. Yet if Strop had a season to forget for the most part his September’s been plenty strong. He has only one earned run surrendered in six and a third innings’ September work, including five strikeouts now in two and a third innings against the Cardinals this weekend.

But the Cardinals had their own issues. They looked pitiful enough at the All-Star break, their shutdown closer Jordan Hicks went down to Tommy John surgery in June, and even the best fans on earth couldn’t resist the itch to demand president John Mozeliak’s head on the proverbial plate.

Then they picked themselves up, dusted themselves off, and went 44-23 after the break so far, against the Cubs’ post-break 35-30. Mozeliak is presumed safe from the guillotine. The Cardinals don’t necessarily see adversity as good for the soul so much as they see it means time to see what they’re really made of. It looks like they’re made of a lot stronger stuff than even their own fans thought.

Some Cub heads may roll soon enough. A few of those heads may remain Chicago icons for their parts in the 2016 conquest, but a team whose fans too long lamented, “This year is next year,” isn’t really in the mood to go forward saying, “Ahhhh, wait till three years ago.”

Maddon wasn’t offered a contract extension and he’s liable to finish the season as another ex-Cub manager, never mind the one who finally led them to their first World Series conquest since the Roosevelt Administration. (Theodore’s.)

President Theo Epstein’s most recent signings weighed against the net results this year could have him placed on probation, figuratively speaking. This year’s Cubs “were done as soon as ‘urgency’ and ‘October starts in March’ became the alternatives to actually fixing a lineup the front office said ‘broke’ and a bullpen that was an obvious weak link coming out of spring training,” wrote Chicago Sun-Times columnist Rick Morrissey Saturday.

Strop plus trade deadline find Nicholas Castellanos, Cole Hamels, Steve Cishek, and others face free agency this winter. Ben Zobrist—whose season was disrupted sadly by his difficult divorce, which prompted him to leave the team for a spell to tend his children through it—may or may not retire after it’s over.

And Chicago Tribune columnist Paul Sullivan thinks aloud that, if Epstein’s recent talk about days of reckoning can be believed, it’s not impossible that Bryant, Almora, Jose Quintana, and the should-have-been-purged Addison Russell (it wasn’t a great look when the Cubs stood by him despite his too-much-proven domestic violence) will find new uniforms to wear next year.

Adversity may be good for the soul, but not everybody turns it into postseason possibilities. The Yankees and the Astros underwent a lot more adversity this year, but now the Yankees have an American League East clinch, the Astros have a postseason berth clinched at minimum, and those two are battling to see who finishes with baseball’s best record on the season.

This year’s Cubs were a good, not great team, as Morrissey notes. Maybe Maddon should get a re-consideration considering the Cubs managed to get to within a fortnight of securing just the second wild card at all. Maybe. Maybe not.

But Maddon didn’t help his cause or his case Sunday afternoon. The much-maligned, oft-struggling Darvish has been the Cubs’ best pitcher in this year’s second half: a .194 batting average against him; a .605 opposition OPS; a 2.70 ERA; a 0.81 walks/hits per inning pitched rate. He gave the Cubs everything he had Sunday until Maddon asked him for what wasn’t left. And failed to see Darvish’s tank on fumes.

Maybe Epstein should get just a little more than mere probation especially since the promised player development machine over the last eight years has been a broken promise except for Bryant, Kyle Schwarber, David Bote, and this stretch drive’s pleasant-surprise emergency call-up Nico Hoerner. As Morrissey reminds, not one homegrown Cub has thrown a postseason pitch or stuck around for more than a full season.

If adversity’s good for the soul, it should be better for a top down rethinking. There won’t be any more baseball at Wrigley Field this year, barring divine intervention. The angels have only so much kindness to spread around.

Could Ross take the Cubs’ bridge?

2019-09-22 AnthonyRizzoDavidRoss

Keeping Anthony Rizzo (left) steadied in Game Seven of the 2016 World Series is probably only one reason David Ross (right) may be seen as managerial material—and closer to a shot at it than he thinks.

When the Cubs delivered the long unthinkable almost three years ago, about-to-retire veteran catcher David Ross couldn’t be found when the celebration moved to the clubhouse. He’d ducked into the visitors’ weight room in Cleveland’s Progressive Field to repose with his wife and his two children.

A reporter found Ross anyway. And, asked the man known affectionately as Grandpa Rossy whether having been big enough in the Cubs’ century-plus-overdue return to the Promised Land had him re-thinking his intended retirement. “Oh, God, no,” Ross replied. “How can I top this? If I come back, it’ll be to get my [World Series] ring and maybe yell at [Anthony] Rizzo from the seats.”

The storybook Cub season gave Ross his happy ending. As for how he could possibly top that, the former catcher who’s worked since 2017 as an ESPN colour analyst may get his answer, perhaps sooner than he thinks. Perhaps as soon as this off season. If not sooner.

With the Cubs’ continuing collapse ramping up speculation that manager Joe Maddon won’t be offered a new deal to stay with the team he shepherded to that Series triumph and kept in contention since, the list of prospective successors has come to include Ross himself.

September began with the Cubs having a grip on the second National League wild card. A critical four-game set against the National League Central-leading Cardinals in Wrigley Field began with the Cubs a measly three games behind them with an excellent shot at overthrowing them for the division lead. There went that idea.

That series is on the threshold of ending with the Cardinals taking the first three at minimum and the Cubs taking in the possibility that any postseason hope they had this time around is all but over. All three were one-run losses. Two out of three were lost in the ninth inning. Saturday night especially.

After the Cubs had four deficit comebacks they handed an 8-7 lead to Craig Kimbrel. The same Kimbrel who owned one of the game’s most dominant relief resumes before he made closing postseason games for last year’s World Series-winning Red Sox exercises in cardiac crash cart alerts. The Kimbrel who only thought he was going to shoot the moon in free agency last winter anyway, and ended up shooting barely past the antennae atop Willis Tower when he finally signed a three-season deal with the Cubs in June.

The same Kimbrel who returned from the injured list (knee) Thursday and surrendered Matt Carpenter’s tenth-inning bomb that proved the winning run. Saturday night Kimbrel saw and raised. With a lot of help from Cardinals catcher/leader Yadier Molina and shortstop Paul DeJong.

Saturday night he opened against Molina, starting Molina with a climbing four-seam fastball. And, watching it fly into the left field bleachers. Then DeJong checked in at the plate. Kimbrel opened with another four-seamer that didn’t climb quite so high. DeJong had an easier time sending that one over the center field wall. And the Cubs had no answer in the bottom after Kris Bryant opened with a walk off Carlos Martinez.

Thus the first time they’ve lost four straight one-run games since 1947. Overtake the Redbirds for the Central? Second wild card? Not when they’re skidding while the Brewers are on a 13-2 run that began with sweeping the Cubs the weekend of September 6. It put the Brewers three behind St. Louis in the Central and three up on the Cubs for the second wild card.

This is one hell of a way to play the final regular season series at the Confines. Not even Rizzo’s unexpectedly early return from an ankle sprain Thursday—or his opposite field home run in the bottom of the third—proved inspiration enough. And Maddon wasn’t even aware Rizzo would be ready for duty until he heard it from president Theo Epstein after a pre-game press confab.

Which suggests to a lot of observers that Maddon’s days on the Cubs’ bridge really are numbered. No matter that he’s led them on their most successful run since the years of Frank Chance; or, that he kept them in contention, somehow, some way, despite this year’s battle between the injured list and the bullpen over who could do more to sink the Cubs deeper.

And Ross’s name was thrown forth as a prospective successor by none other than USA Today‘s Bob Nightengale, in a column whose headline began by noting not one major league manager was executed yet—four days before Padres skipper Andy Green got pinked after a grotesque 9-0 loss to the Diamondbacks Friday night. “The biggest surprise in Chicago this winter,” Nightengale wrote, “will be if David Ross is not named their next manager by Thanksgiving.”

The Cubs have been preparing Ross, who helped lead them to the 2016 World Series championship and four consecutive division titles, to the heir apparent, and although bench coach Mark Loretta can’t be completely ruled out, they believe Ross will be the perfect fit.

Epstein himself added to the sense of Maddon’s impending non-renewal, never mind that he can be faulted almost as easily for some of this year’s issues by way of a couple of signings here and a dubiously-retooled bullpen there, for openers. “Honestly, we’ve been essentially a .500 team for months now,’’ he’s quoted as having told the Cubs’ flagship radio station. “If you go back twelve, thirteen months, it’s just been marked by underachievement and uninspired play.”

If Grandpa Rossy’s tires are being kicked as a Maddon successor, the “uninspired” portion of Epstein’s comment looms a little more profoundly.

Ross was a journeyman major league catcher respected for his knowledge of the game, his handling of pitchers (some of whom made him their personal catcher, including Jon Lester with the 2013 World Series-winning Red Sox as well as the 2016 Cubs), and his mentoring of younger players. He’d been one of the Cubs’ clubhouse leaders in his two seasons there, and among the more audible whispers coming from the Cubs’ arterials has been how much his leadership has been missed in the Cubs’ clubhouse since his retirement.

The latter came into very close focus during that 2016 Series. When Ross had one horrible moment in the bottom of the fifth, throwing Cleveland’s Jason Kipnis’s squibbler away and into the seats, opening a door for the Indians to shrink the Cub lead to 5-3. And, when he atoned for it in the top of the sixth, hitting a 2-2 service from spent Indians bullpen star Andrew Miller into the left center field bleachers.

Because the television cameras soon enough panned close enough up to Ross and Rizzo at the dugout railing, where Rizzo gripped the rail almost like he was clinging to dear life onto a skyscraper’s fortieth-floor ledge. “I can’t control myself right now,” Rizzo said. “I’m trying my best.”

After Rizzo admitted he was an “emotional wreck,” Ross replied, “Well, it’s it’s only going to get worse. Just continue to breathe. That’s all you can do, buddy. It’s only gonna get worse . . . Wait until the ninth with this three-run lead.” At the Cubs’ championship rally Rizzo’s voice almost cracked a few times while he credited Ross with teaching him how to be a winner.

A lot of speculation has had former Yankee manager (and one-time Cub catcher) Joe Girardi succeeding Maddon if Maddon isn’t offered a new deal. But Girardi’s Yankee exit came under the same circumstances that might block a new Maddon deal. His young Yankee team still underachieved. He, too, lost touch with his front office and clubhouse. And he, too, had a recent run of head-scratchers.

None more head-scratching than his failure to call for a review at once on a hit batsman ruling for Indians outfielder Lonnie Chisenhall with two out in the bottom of the sixth, Game Two, 2017 American League division series. Every television replay showed the pitch hitting the knob of Chisenhall’s bat. A Yankee review would have meant strike three.

Girardi fiddled and got burned. Now the Indians had the bases loaded. And the next batter, Francisco Lindor, hit one off the right field foul pole near the second deck. Turning a potential blowout into a one-run deficit. The Yankees would survive to be pushed home by the eventual World Series-winning Astros in that American League Championship Series, but Girardi’s non-review call still stung.

Reaching for Ross would be the Cubs’ way of gambling as the Yankees did hiring Aaron Boone to succeed Girardi, with a similar lack of managing experience. How has that worked out for the Yankees? Boone’s managed them to back-to-back 100+ win seasons and a division title this year plus a second straight trip to the postseason. Despite leading baseball in the injured list.

He’s not exactly a strategical genius but if managing is 70 percent or more keeping your players on task regardless of onslaughts such as injuries, Boone should be a Manager of the Year candidate. By the Baseball Writers Association of America and the American Red Cross.

When Ross retired, there was speculation enough that managing might be in his future. All other things considered, it might not be that great a shock, even if it might send Cub Country to protracted spasms of joy, if that future proves to be this offseason, if not a little sooner. And if there’s speculation about him taking a team’s bridge, Grandpa Rossy isn’t exactly in a big hurry to shy away from it. He recently admitted as much to FanSided: yes, he’s got the itch to manage.

“That has definitely crossed my mind, with all the rumors that fly around,” he told FanSided‘s Mark Carman last week, referring indirectly to the Cub speculation, though he also said he wasn’t in that big a hurry to see Maddon’s days on the bridge expire. But Ross is still “flattered” by the thought that people think he’s managerial material.

Former catchers are often the first thoughts teams have when it comes time to name a fresh manager. With good enough reason: their game knowledge is often a given, and historically they win often enough.

Four former catchers now managing have division, pennant, and/or World Series rings on their resumes: Maddon, Bruce Bochy, A.J. Hinch, and Ned Yost. Bochy’s retiring from the Giants after this season; Yost is often rumoured departing Kansas City after this season, too. Their predecessors in triumph include Connie Mack, Al Lopez, Ralph Houk, Yogi Berra, Gil Hodges (who converted to first base early in his playing career), Johnny Oates, Joe Torre, Mike Scioscia, and Girardi.

Put Ross on the bridge of the right team and he could join that company. Whether the Cubs prove the right team, however, may not be entirely within his control.

“It’s a huge honor . . . People think that you’re the best guy to run an organization . . . [but it’s] one of those things that it’s gonna have to be the right opportunity to come back,” he continued. Especially if it’s one of the teams for whom he played.

“I’ll tell you, my heart definitely itches to get into the dugout at times and to be part of something special that I’ve been a part of before, so there’s a push/pull for sure,” he said. “It’s gonna have to be a unique opportunity to pull me away from my family and the sacrifices you make to be in the major leagues.”

The Cubs have been accused of many things in their history. Lacking uniqueness isn’t always one of them.