- - Tuesday, December 13, 2016

ANALYSIS/OPINION

Baseball’s rock star was in town last week for the baseball winter meetings, and stopped by a youth baseball event at Gallaudet University.

Kids and adults alike flocked to him, asking for autographs and photos, and hung on his every word.

No, I’m not talking about Bryce Harper, who didn’t have the District in his datebook last week — not even for his team’s winter festival for fans.

Joe Maddon came to spread the gospel of baseball, and, having led the Chicago Cubs to their first World Series championship since 1908, people can’t get enough of the 62-year-old skipper.

He is an unlikely rock star, toiling in the coal mines of baseball, the minor leagues, for decades and then as a major league coach for 11 seasons. He was the guy on the bench, sitting next to the manager.

At the age of 52, people outside the industry started noticing Joe Maddon. He was the guy with the thick black glasses who was the latest victim managing the lowly Tampa Bay Devil Rays.

Except Maddon was different. He had different ideas, and different results, leading the Rays to 90-plus win seasons and the American League pennant in 2008. Heck, the franchise even did away with the “Devil” in their name while Maddon was there.

He went from off Broadway to the big stage when he became manager of the Cubs in 2015, and won it all this season. Now he is in demand — heady stuff for a guy from Hazleton, Pa., a former coal mining and mob town that has seen better days, though it is enjoying a revival of sorts, in part because it can claim Joe Maddon as one of their own.

It’s not just that he is the manager of the Chicago Cubs. It’s his style — the cerebral working-class hero, who will gladly share his bold ideas with you over a shot and a beer.

Like the bold idea he shared with me last week — not sitting on a bar stool, but at baseball’s Play Ball event, surrounded by kids from 7 to 13 from various youth baseball and softball organizations. The event featured Maddon, alongside Nationals manager Dusty Baker, sharing thoughts about youth baseball with the young players, their parents and the Positive Coaching Alliance.

The Play Ball initiative is part of the effort by Major League Baseball and USA Baseball to get kids more interested and involved in the game.

Maddon has an intriguing idea to do just that.

“I’d like to see fantasy baseball in schools and make it part of math class,” Maddon told me. “If you brought fantasy baseball into school and brought in technology such as Skyping, for example. End of January, beginning of February, I would Skype a classroom here and talk about team construction. Theo Epstein does it a day or two later.

“It leads to a draft day for this group, the kids get together and put together a team. Incorpora†te it as part of math class with sabermetrics on a daily basis.

“At the end of the day you see how your team has done and during the course of the season you keep up,” he said. “It keeps you involved during the summer and then when you come back, you are set up with a playoff run.

“If you sat down and try to construct a method to incorporate fantasy baseball in schools, it would attract kids that aren’t necessarily baseball fans but who would be interested in the game, understanding strategy, maybe the time of the game isn’t so bothersome anymore. You learn about matchups, shifts, because you are the owner of a fantasy baseball team that you run and set up your lineup daily.”

A generation of sabermetric geeks coming through the school systems may not be something I would look forward to. But I think Maddon may be onto something here — at least an idea worth exploring, and where better to do in than in the D.C. schools?

The logistics are certainly complicated, and questions will come up about incorporating other fantasy sports, such as football, in the curriculum.

But, as baseball explores ways to engage a new generation of fans, the place to do it may be the classroom and not the ball field.

“I think there are legs there, I really do,” Maddon said. “To incorporate it as part of education, the numbers in baseball are so fascinating, make it part of math class, I think it would be a great first step.

“I’ve put it out there before, but no one has listened.”

They might listen now, Joe. After leading the Cubs to their first title since 1908, you’re baseball’s rock star, a younger version of Mick Jagger, a street fightin’ man.

• Thom Loverro hosts his weekly podcast “Cigars & Curveballs” Wednesdays available on iTunes and Google Play.


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