NEW YORK (Reuters) - Joe Maddon likes to think outside the box about how to bring a baseball team together and treat his players.
And after leading the young Chicago Cubs to the 2015 playoffs, the National League Manager of the Year is aiming higher and dreaming of recruiting others to join his magical mystery tour.
In his first season with the Cubs, a team full of youthful potential and a history of failure dating back more than 100 years, they won 97 games, got to the 2015 National League Championship Series and are now scooping up postseason awards.
“The spotlight is shining on Wrigley Field,” Maddon said on a conference call after receiving his third career Manager of the Year honors one day after his third baseman, Kris Bryant, won the Rookie of the Year award.
On Wednesday, Jake Arrieta is one of three finalists for the Cy Young Award as the National League’s top pitcher.
“You just like to think that will attract other people to want to be there,” said Maddon. “Obviously, a huge attraction is that we have not won a World Series in over a hundred years.
“I think there’s a lot of competitive nature in ... major league players, ones that would want to be a member of that first group that did that.”
Maddon likes to create a relaxed atmosphere but at the same time is dead serious about baseball.
“The most rewarding part was the way we came together as a group,” he said. “It’s not easy to walk into the situation not knowing anyone and extracting the kind of year that we did.”
Maddon dipped into some old tricks from his tenure as skipper of the Tampa Bay Rays, who he lifted from American League door mats to a trip to the 2008 World Series.
He brought in a magician to entertain the team and on another occasion had a petting zoo set up in Wrigley Field’s outfield corner complete with a sloth, a penguin, a snow leopard and a pink flamingo for the players and their families.
After a four-game losing streak, he organized a pyjama party for the players and families to break up the tension.
“Get the players to bond together, keep them relaxed,” he said. “But let them know you mean business.”
One crucial call Maddon made was to shift three-time All-Star Starlin Castro from shortstop to second base to make room for rookie Addison Russell.
“Starlin was a star. He handled it superbly,” Maddon said. “Looking at me, listening to me. Not pushing back and not getting angry. And knowing, I think, in his heart, that it was the right thing to do.”
The Cubbies finished the season with eight straight wins and dismissed the Cardinals before falling to the Mets in the playoffs.
“Ninety-seven wins. Not a bad recruiting situation to be in,” said Maddon, whose franchise has not reached the World Series in 70 years and not won one since 1908.
“Ninety-seven wins. We want to get beyond the NLCS. We want to get to the next level next year.”
Editing by Nick Mulvenney