ANAHEIM, Calif. — Joe Maddon recalled the time he told Mark Langston, seated in the front row on Thursday afternoon at Maddon’s introduction as manager of the Los Angeles Angels, that he was going to someday make No. 70 famous.
He harkened back to a night in 1975, at the Drury Plaza Broadway Hotel in Wichita, Kansas, when he signed his first professional contract for $0, with a bottle of Chivas Regal in one hand and a pen in the other. He talked about traveling to the minor leagues for the first time, and the bright yellow puddle-jumper plane he rode alongside Dickie Thon and the bomber leather jacket he left at the Hertz counter of John Wayne Airport.
There was that time he and Bob Clear, a longtime bullpen coach for the Angels, spent half an hour passionately arguing about the positioning of Mark McGwire’s hands on the front page of the Arizona Republic. And that other time, in Boise, Idaho, when he stayed up late to hit endless fly balls to a teenage Garret Anderson under stadium lights.
That was Maddon’s opening statement.
It lasted 20 minutes.
Maddon has returned to the Angels organization that shaped the first three decades of his baseball life, and he has already laid out the principles that will guide him through what could be the final stop in a Hall of Fame career. He wants to strike the proper balance between what he considers the “data versus art” that defines the modern game. He wants to reconnect “wholly” with former Angels greats, wants the team to carve out a discernible identity, wants to foster trust, wants to establish a consistent message throughout the organization and wants to bring back some of the elements that seem archaic in this era, like infield practice and sacrifice bunts.
Maddon’s news conference was attended by several Angels luminaries such as Bobby Grich, Rod Carew and Tim Salmon. A handful of current players, including Albert Pujols and Shohei Ohtani, were also there. It was a celebrated occasion, but the months ahead will be marked by extraordinary challenges.
The Angels are coming off four consecutive losing seasons and haven’t won a postseason game in 10 years. Maddon is now at the center of a franchise with a lacking roster and an indistinct hierarchy, with a turbulent legal investigation hanging overhead. The Angels, specifically owner Arte Moreno, believe Maddon is the perfect man to guide the franchise through what might be the darkest time in its history.
Three key tasks await him:
1. Remain above the fray
Maddon said that Tyler Skaggs and the potential fallout from his death were not mentioned during the interview process. The Angels never brought it up, he said, and he never asked. Maddon wanted to get the job first, and then, once he became entrenched in the inner circle, “ask the right questions.”
It was not a deterrent to taking the job.
“I’ve never run away from situations in the past,” Maddon said, “and that will never be the deciding factor in not doing this.”
An autopsy revealed that Skaggs died of an overdose after mixing opioids with alcohol on the night of July 1. And in the wake of that, a public-relations employee, Eric Kay, told federal investigators he provided oxycodone to Skaggs and abused it with him for years. Kay, on paid leave while in outpatient treatment for substance abuse, added that two other team employees knew about Skaggs’ use and also provided the names of five other players believed to be consuming opioids while with the Angels.
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration is involved, Major League Baseball has promised to launch its own investigation, and Skaggs’ family has retained the services of noted attorney Rusty Hardin. This will probably drag out. It could get uglier, the Angels could face sanctions, and in the midst of it all, Maddon must be the public face who somehow maintains baseball as the focus.
Maddon also said he wanted to aid in “the healing process.”
2. Work in concert with the GM
Angels general manager Billy Eppler flew to Tampa, Florida, a few days ago to spend some one-on-one time with Maddon. They dined at his Italian bistro, Ava, and spoke again the following morning.
“We are definitely working from the same sheet of music,” Maddon said, “and we shall continue to do that.”
Maddon signed a three-year deal worth $12 million and has plans to manage beyond that. Eppler is entering the final season of his four-year contract and seemingly had the rug pulled out from under him. The decision to fire Brad Ausmus and hire Maddon appears to have been made above Eppler’s head, but now he must mesh with the new manager.
As an executive for the New York Yankees, Eppler had a lot of exposure to Maddon when he managed the division-rival Tampa Bay Rays. Eppler recalled being impressed by the way Maddon “transformed a mindset and developed a culture that allowed his players to be the best versions of themselves.” During the interview process, Eppler said, the two harped on the importance of “being vulnerable with each other” and remaining honest.
Maddon has a lot of ideas, some of which might not jibe with Eppler’s initial plans for this organization.
Eppler has to be OK with that.
“I grew up in a pretty adverse environment in New York, had a lot of training,” he said. “I understand that you focus on what you can control, focus on doing your job, focus on putting the strongest team that you can on the field, and let everything happen as it comes. That’s kind of second nature for me. It’s business as usual on my end.”
3. Lure free agents
The Angels made runs at Patrick Corbin, J.A. Happ and David Robertson last offseason, but missed on all three. Instead, they signed Matt Harvey, Trevor Cahill and Cody Allen, a trio that combined for a 6.41 ERA.
Moreno made one important revelation Thursday.
“The payroll,” he said, “will go up next year.”
The Angels’ opening-day payroll has been at an average of about $164 million each of the past four years, but that number will be higher now. Moreno wouldn’t divulge specifics, but he is cognizant of reality: The Angels need at least two high-end starting pitchers if they have any hope of competing with the Houston Astros in the American League West, and free agency is their best chance of attaining them.
Gerrit Cole, the current Astros ace who grew up rooting for the Angels, will be a prime target. Zack Wheeler, Hyun-Jin Ryu, Madison Bumgarner and, if he opts out of his contract, Stephen Strasburg might also be in the mix.
And Maddon, the Angels hope, can make the difference as a recruiter.
“I believe Joe is gonna be really helpful,” Moreno said. “People know how he coaches, and Joe is great with people.”
The Cubs were able to sign Yu Darvish, Jon Lester and Jason Heyward to lucrative long-term contracts in recent years, and Maddon has always been enthusiastic about helping front offices recruit. The key, he said, is “just being honest. See if these guys really want to come here. Players talk. Players will talk to the guys I’ve had in the past and they will draw conclusions regardless of anything else. They’ll draw their conclusions based on peer contact, and I’m wide open to that.”