Sweating in the blazing bleachers at Sox Park with PV and friends on a scorching Independence Day, my feverish mind wandered.  As formerly dormant Tigers’ bats pummelled Reynaldo Lopez en route to an easy 11-5 victory over the White Sox, I  begin to contemplate which seat was hotter: the liquifying aluminum bench my ass was fusing into or the seat embattled Cubs manager Joe Maddon currently finds himself on?

To say the 2019 Chicago Cubs have been vexing is an understatement. Inconsistent play on both sides of the ball with boneheaded baserunning, mental gaffes on defense, lazy at-bats, and even poor strategy from the dugout has given the fans, the media, and even the front office reason to openly question the direction of the team.

The collective cacophony of panicked fans and pouncing pundits seemed to reach a crescendo when Cubs president Theo Epstein felt compelled to add his weighty voice to the maelstrom Wednesday.  Epstein went on the radio to air his frustrations and send a message to his underachieving players and coaching staff.

“Joe has a unique challenge because it’s his fifth year with this team and he’s remarkably consistent,” Epstein said. “But we all contribute to the environment, including the manager. So when players aren’t responding to the environment, I think sometimes you have to sort of do the impossible, which is try to find a new approach and new ways to reach guys while also maintaining one of your greatest strengths, which is your consistency and your ability to be the same guy whether things are going well or going poorly.”

Epstein went on to use words like “sloppy,” “disgust,” and “unacceptable” in a thinly-veiled threat to both Maddon and the players.

“And if this stretch of bad play continues, then certainly … a ton of change is in order.”

But Epstein’s diatribe didn’t appear to make much of an impact as the Cubs lost their third in a row to the Pirates with a ninth-inning collapse that featured most of the maladies Epstein lamented just hours earlier in one of their worst losses of the season.

Despite trailing the Brewers by just one game for first place in the NL Central, the season felt like it was hinging on Thursday’s series finale in Pittsburgh. On the Fourth of July,  the club found themselves 21-28 over their last 49 games and seemed to be on a slow death march, dragging their own rotting entrails into an abyss reminiscent of the forebodingly ominous and brilliant funeral dirge by Soundgarden of the same name.

Perhaps sensing his time may be running short and desperate to find the mythical “spark” to ignite his listless ballclub, Maddon took extreme umbrage with the Pirates and their manager Clint Hurdle whose well-documented headhunting tactics manifested themselves once again when Javy Baez got his tower buzzed by not one, but two more high-and-tight ones from Jordan Lyles in the top of the 4th.

Joe completely lost his shit in a frothing, expletive-ridden eruption that could only be held at bay by the immense mass of the gelatinous blob known as umpire Joe West. Maddon attempted to go after Hurdle, even executing a spin move in a futile attempt to escape West’s girth as an amused Kris Bryant and Willson Contreras eventually had to join in the attempt to restrain the 65-year old poet/warlord.

The Cubs responded with an offensive explosion rarely seen over recent weeks and went on to close out a convincing 11-3 win. Whether the victory could be chalked up to Maddon’s effusive display or have any long-term effect is debatable, but his uncharacteristic outburst was definitely noted by players like Contreras.

“We needed that. We took his fire,” said Contreras. “Seeing Joe doing that, that means a lot to us. This is the first time that I’ve seen Joe that mad. I just told him, ‘Hey, we have your back and we’re going to win this game.’”

This weekend’s two-game series vs. the rival White Sox will take on even greater intensity than usual as it seems to come at a crossroads for the Cubs. While a series win over the 41-43 Sox would hardly be worth mentioning, it would come at a critical juncture as the Cubs head into the All-Star break. Conversely, a split or sweep by the Sox could lead directly to the nuclear options Theo hinted at not so subtlely.

Whether genuine or contrived, when reflecting on the 2019 Cubs, Maddon’s blow up will be looked at as either the turning point or the beginning of the end.

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