Chicago Cubs skipper Joe Maddon did not sound like a guy whose team had just gotten clobbered in its first World Series game in 71 years by a score of 6-0 Tuesday night. "I liked our at-bats overall against Miller," Maddon said of the Cleveland Indians' dominant reliever during a postgame interview. Then: "I'm not upset whatsoever. Like I said, they pitched really well tonight."
And: "I have no concerns. I thought we were ready to play. Our guys looked really good. They were great in the dugout today. It's the first game. I'm fine, we're fine."
Maddon's postgame interview was a stream of unyielding positivity, zen-like calm and rosy confidence. He praised the other team's pitching. He acknowledged his own team's shortcomings in a factual rather than critical manner. He refused to express feelings of defeat. "I'm not disappointed by any means except for the fact that we did not win," he said.
It was also classic Maddon, known as much for his upbeat style as he is for his unconventional approach to managing his team -- the roster shuffling, the themed road trips, the quirky stunts. After a Game 2 loss in last year's National League Championship Series put the Cubs down two games, he said "I have a real strong belief system in our guys ... you can't dwell on things like that."
After a strong start to this season turned to a string of mid-May losses, Maddon remained positive despite a disappointing loss in St. Louis. "We worked good at-bats, we played really well in the field, we ran the bases well, and we lost the game," Maddon said at the time. "That's what I saw." And following two shutout losses in this year's pennant race, Maddon still kept his cool. "I can't get over the top and take a trip to negative town now just because we've had two bad days," he said.
Again and again, Maddon's optimism is cited as one of the defining ways he leads his team -- one that has both upsides and downsides. "What typifies Maddon most of all is a rah-rah positivity, driven by an appreciation for how difficult this child's game is to play at the highest level," a Chicago Reader profile declared. "The lenses in his iconic horn rimmed glasses are always rose-colored," ESPN's Steve Wulf wrote in a 2013 feature, when Maddon was managing the Tampa Bay Rays. In another 2013 profile, the Rays' executive vice president of baseball operations called him "a serial optimist. That can be his worst quality, too. Joe is almost too loyal. He has patience with guys that maybe we should move on from."
That optimist's approach has not only won him plaudits from baseball pundits, but from those who see lessons for managers beyond baseball's fields. Crain's Chicago Business cited how he "pumps the lineup with struggling hitters," a way to show them he believes in their talent. A management professor at Northwestern University told Chicago Magazine "What Maddon wants to do is create a culture that rewards players for good work but doesn’t limit their inventiveness and individuality."
How Maddon's positivity plays as the World Series shakes out remains to be seen. Too much optimism in the face of defeat can end up looking like overconfidence. It can seem mismatched with the urgency needed when the stakes are highest, especially for a manager who's been called a "half hipster-shrink."
But for Maddon's players, it's a wise choice over the alternative. All too often, sports leaders seem to think their audience in postgame interviews are the people in front of them: The reporters looking for a close-up, critical analysis of what went wrong in a losing game -- and how they intend to fix it. Maddon, meanwhile, seems to be putting his players first, knowing they too will hear his words and hear his confidence. Phrases like "It's the first game. I'm fine, we're fine," seem directly spoken to them.
Baseball is a game of failure. One where hitting just three out of 10 pitches can make you a star. In that world, propping players up makes more sense than cutting them down. Reassurance can be a better strategy than public criticism.
That's especially true when your team is not only among the youngest and most hyped teams ever to play the game -- but facing the pressure of becoming the first Cubs team to win a World Series title since the Ford Model T was first introduced. Maddon's calm, confident positivity could go a long way with his players if he can sustain it. As he said, it's only the first game.