Joe Maddon is final piece to Cubs’ puzzle

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Many sports aficionados and pundits make bold predictions all the time. When they are right, they make sure everyone knows it. They are a bit more subdued when they are wrong.

Here is a bold semi-guarantee: the Chicago Cubs will be playing in the World Series within 2-4 years, if not sooner. While I am not prepared to guaranteae a World Championship, the little bears will bring some joy to Chicago’s northside in short order.

Cub fans and detractors have heard the sad statistics before. After all, World War II had ended only a month before the Cubbies last participated in the World Series.

They last won it all in 1908. Who could have imagined “wait till next year” would turn out to be wait till next century? Here’s why the Cubs are on their way, according to this non-Cubs fan.

First, the Chicago Tribune got out of the baseball business when they sold the team to the Omaha-based Ricketts family (they of the TD Ameritrade fortune). The Ricketts clan said all the right things about a commitment to winning. One of their first acts was to seek a better spring training facility than their aging headquarters in Mesa, Ariz.

Cubs’ Chairman Tom Ricketts engaged with Naples, Fla., businessmen about possibly moving there. The Cubs met with Gov. Charlie Crist and his senior economic adviser, Dale Brill, about the possibility. During the meeting, Ricketts said winning begins in spring training and the Cubs wanted the best for their players.

Perhaps the Cubs were playing Florida, as some of us suspected, in search of a better deal in Arizona. If so, it worked. They have a superb new facility located between the cactus plants.

The next big move was to bring in someone to run the baseball operations. The selection of Theo Epstein gave the Cubs not only a smart young mind, but someone who performed the second-biggest baseball management miracle possible.

Epstein took over a Boston Red Sox organization that had not won a World Series since 1918. At 28, he was the youngest person ever hired as a general manager.

He built a team with solid scouting, smart drafts, good trades, some key free agent signings and hiring the right manager in Terry Francona. In 2004, the term World Champion Boston Red Sox was used for the first time in 86 years.

When Epstein took over the Cubs operation late in 2011, Ricketts expected Epstein to follow the same blue print. The player acquisition and development has gone according to plan.

The final piece of the Chicago puzzle is not a pleasant subject for Tampa Bay. Joe Maddon’s departure from the Rays to the Cubs was hard to take.

We all know Maddon is an outstanding manager of people. His motivational skills and sometimes unconventional tactics endear him to his players. His knack for getting them to relax and have fun has led to productive players.

A story often told from Maddon’s days with the Rays was the cross-country flight where he declared “pajama day.” The sight of a bunch of millionaires wearing pajamas on an airplane had to be one for the ages.

“I had a onesie on,” said former Rays’ star pitcher David Price. “That is hands down the most comfortable flight I’ve ever been on.”

While on a recent five-game Cub losing streak, Maddon brought in a magician to lighten up the atmosphere. They won the next game.

Maddon and Epstein are clearly on the same page, even when there are disagreements. That is a formula for success.

Losing Maddon to Chicago may not hurt as bad as the Lightning loss to the Chicago Blackhawks in the Stanley Cup Finals, but it was a big setback. With the injuries and other problems hitting the Rays this year, there is not much more Maddon could have done that Kevin Cash is not already doing.

Maddon was obviously convinced that with the corral of talent assembled by Epstein, the Cubs have what it takes. When they establish a culture of winning to compete with that of the St. Louis Cardinals, they will take the next step.

Get used to the Chicago Cubs playing baseball in October.

Bob Sparks is President of Ramos and Sparks Group, a Tallahassee-based business and political consulting firm. During his career, he has directed media relations and managed events for professional baseball, served as chief spokesperson for the Republican Party of Florida as well as the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the Attorney General of Florida. After serving as Executive Deputy Chief of Staff for Governor Charlie Crist, he returned to the private sector working with clients including the Republican National Committee and political candidates in Japan. He lives in Tallahassee with his wife, Sue and can be reached at Bob@ramos-sparks.com.