Review by Budd Bailey
Time has a funny way of changing the perspective on a book.
Case in point: “The Book of Joe.”
We start with the names on the book. Joe Maddon certainly ranks as one of the most interesting people to be involved in the sport in the past few years. After playing briefly in the minor leagues, Maddon became something of a baseball lifer. He managed in the minor leagues and became something of a roving coach and administrator. Joe always was picking up knowledge about the game along the way. If he ever got the chance, he was going to do things his way – which was a little different from the conventional wisdom in such matters.
Maddon took a job with the lowly Tampa Bay Rays, who never knew what it was like to win in their history. Soon, under Maddon, they won. In fact, they won often, even if their payroll was just a small fraction of the big-market teams that sometimes tend to dominate the baseball standings. No, they didn’t win the World Series during Maddon’s time there, but they reached it once – which was a tremendous achievement under the circumstances.
Then Maddon moved on to the Chicago Cubs as a manager, and that was a team that knew something about not winning the World Series. It had been more than a century since the Cubs won a title, but Maddon helped push them across the finish line in the fabled 2016 season. For that, Joe certainly won’t have to buy an adult beverage for the rest of his life.
That proved to be a hard act to follow, and by 2019 Maddon and the Cubs management weren’t seeing eye to eye all the time. Sometimes you’re only as good as last week’s game. The two sides went their separate ways at the end of the season, which felt a little sad for all concerned.
That brings us back to “The Book of Joe.” He teamed up with Tom Verducci, the baseball writer for Sports Illustrated who is about as good as it gets in that business. Verducci had written a fine book on the end of the Cubs’ curse after the 2016 season. Having the two of them work together is a pretty good start to a baseball book, and the finished product works out reasonably well. There is a catch in all of this, but we’ll get to that in a minute.
We go through a variety of areas for discussion here in no particularly order. For starters, it’s not a typical autobiography. Yes, Maddon goes over his life in baseball – but it’s more of a review of some of the lessons he learned than anything else. It’s a good chance for him to credit some of the mentors and role models that he had along the way. As you might expect, that leads into some discussions about leadership techniques. While that’s sometimes a tough subject for Joe and Jill Fan to understand, Maddon at least is willing to explain what went into his personal techniques in that area.
Other areas are covered too. There are some fascinating facts about the game itself. For example, at one point, Joe goes over some of the little “tells” about some the great Yankee teams in the late 1990s – how manager Joe Torre made a certain gesture when he wanted a play run, for example. Maybe that’s partly why the Angels (Maddon’s employers at the time) played New York so tough in that era. Maddon even reviews all of the cars he’s owned over the years, and how he came to obtain them. OK, his book.
There also is plenty of comment about how managing has changed since he took his first full-time job in 2006. Managers had a lot more autonomy back then, and he could press all sorts of buttons without complaint from the front office … as long as the team did well of course. By the end of his run with the Cubs, the dynamic had changed. The analytics revolution had empowered other staff members to “suggest” that the game be played in a certain way. Maddon probably was out of the “if ain’t broke, don’t fix it” school in such matters. In fact, you probably could argue that this subject is covered a bit redundantly in the book. But by the end of 2019, Joe was sick of fighting the Cubs on such matters and moved on.
That’s where the story ends, and that’s fine. The odd part is that Maddon went back to the Angels and became their manager starting with the 2020 season. His tenure there was an odd one, marked by Covid-19 and a lot of losing. Even Maddon could get the pieces to work together for long. After a great start in 2022, the Angels went on a 12-game losing streak, and Maddon paid the price when he was fired.
After reading this book, it’s easy to wonder what Maddon’s opinions on that entire episode might be. Is he so disgusted that he wants to get out of the business? Would he taken another job under the way baseball is managed?
We’ll have to guess about such things, maybe until another book is written. In the meantime, “The Book of Joe” has plenty of information about an original thinker in baseball circles. This is not a book for baseball begineers. But those who like the idea of having a long dinner with Maddon will find plenty to chew on here.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)