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The Cubs Way

Trey Reely | October 2018


    I rarely watch baseball, which is really kind of sad. I just can’t pay attention that long. I am not sure why; maybe it’s an infection caught from millennials whose attention spans are allegedly shorter than that of a goldfish, or maybe it is a deep-seated resentment that my professional baseball career was cut short when I was placed on waivers by my fourth-grade baseball team. However, there are years when a team will catch my fancy as the World Series nears, and I watch a few games. Such was the case with the Chicago Cubs during the 2016 season. How could I not? They had not won a World Series in 108 years – that is longer than some of the English teachers at my school have been teaching.
    To celebrate their World Series triumph, I ordered a Cubs championship t-shirt. I am not claiming to be a genuine fan; it just seemed like the appropriate thing to do for such a long-awaited event, kind of like the end of the last ice age. Plus, it might help me win a quiz show someday if I am wearing it when the question is asked. My Cubs fever lingered for just a few months, but was revived a few weeks ago when I read the book The Cubs Way: The Zen of Building the Best Team in Baseball. Ironically, it took me longer to read the book than I actually spent watching the Cubs during the World Series.
    I read the book because I was curious how general manager and phenom Theo Epstein could turn around a hapless franchise with such a long history of frustration. I found out that one key to success, along with many other smart personnel moves, was Epstein’s hiring of an unconventional manager, Joe Maddon. The Cubs Way includes a list of Maddon’s 13 core principles of managing but I will only mention five of them, with some brief takeaways.

Make a personal connection.
    Maddon says that a manager’s first inclination is to impart information, but he resists that, making his first priority getting to know players through informal conversations, asking questions about their interests and personal lives. This lays the groundwork for everything else that he does because it builds trust, a trust based on the belief that the players are more than just a cog in the wheel. If the conversations get more difficult over time concerning playing time and such, he is brutally honest when he needs to be. If he tells them the truth, they may be upset with him for a week or two, but if he lies, they will hate him forever.
    Takeaway: Take your mind off the work at hand at least once a day and ask a student a question about his life that requires more than a “fine” or a nod of the head for an answer.

There is only one team rule.
    “Respect 90” is the message Maddon painted on the grass of practice fields in his first spring training with the Cubs. The 90 refers to the number of feet between the bases. He believes that if a player respects those feet enough to run hard all of the time, good things flow from such an attitude. It’s an emphasis on doing all of the seemingly small things right, like pitchers working on fielding bunts and backing up bases.
    Takeaway: Do not let fundamentals slide, whether working with the whole group or with individuals. Insist that players practice fundamentals – playing or marching – at the start of each practice session.

Freedom is empowering.
    “Respect 90” is the only rule Maddon has. He believes rules inhibit people from reaching their potential and restrict creativity. When you attempt to create a contrived version of somebody before permitting that person to show you who they are, you preemptively set restrictions and lose out on a tremendous opportunity to find out how good someone actually is. Maddon works hard to understand why a player is doing what he’s doing  and doesn’t believe his way of doing things is the only correct one.
    Takeaway: Although band, and particularly marching band, requires a strong degree of conforming, there is plenty of room for students to be themselves. Directors tend to want to create bands in their image, and this will happen to a certain extent without even trying, but it is important to ensure that students know that their opinions matter and are welcomed.

Do not have a fine system.
    Surprisingly, Maddon has no formal fine system for violating principles of the game he thinks are important, like hustling or not missing signs. His bench coach will sometimes fine a player, but often money does not change hands. The culture is such that the players admit when they mess up and take responsibility for correcting it.
    Takeaway: Your program may require quite a few rules to begin with, but work toward having fewer rules and a culture where expectations are high and accepted by everyone involved. Strong student leaders can take much of the load off of you in this regard.

Never hold a team meeting in your home clubhouse.
    Maddon believes that almost all team meetings are unnecessary. They are often a reaction to such negative events as poor play or too many losses, and that negativity lingers too long when a team is constantly meeting about problems. He believes that the more he talks, the more the players tune him out and are less likely to take him seriously. The Cubs only had three team meetings and won the World Series. There is a lesson in there somewhere for many school principals.
    He prefers the interactions and meetings to be between the players themselves. As for his interaction, he prefers to praise publicly and criticize privately.
    Takeaway: Spend most of your rehearsal time playing, not talking. Address problems individually or in small groups as much as possible. Do not preach to the choir.

    The last few years have been good for hapless sports franchises. I have shirts from the Cleveland Cavaliers (2016) and Houston Astros (2017) now. However, although I am a backslidden Dallas Cowboys fan, so buying a Philadelphia Eagles jersey (2018 Super Bowl) is not a step I am yet willing to take. On the other hand, I would read a book about the Eagles if it looked like it would help me build a better band.