CHICAGO (AP) — Whether there was a mime leading warmups, a 1970s van blasting disco music or Chicago Cubs mingling with real cubs this spring, Joe Maddon was in top form long before the season's first pitch.
If everything falls into place, the man who brought a magician to the clubhouse last year just might pull off the ultimate trick.
Manage the Cubs to a championship? It's no longshot these days.
Maddon's second season began with huge expectations after 97 wins in 2015 and a march to the NLCS that fueled hopes among long-suffering fans that a championship drought dating to 1908 is in its final stages. It figures to be a charged atmosphere at Wrigley Field on Monday when the Cubs host Cincinnati in their home opener. And it could be that way all season on Chicago's North Side.
"We haven't won a World Series in more than a century, so there's nothing to get complacent or cocky about," Maddon said. "Bring that all on the table, talk about it, say it up front and then we'll go from there."
While Maddon and the Cubs look forward, childhood friend Willie Forte could not help but look back.
Long before Maddon turned Wrigley Field into a miniature zoo with animals or had his team wear onesies on a trip home last season, long before the mime and the real cubs and the retro van, there was a Dodge. An eight-track. And, for Forte, a life-changing moment.
They were in Maddon's Dodge one night in the early 1970s when Maddon popped in an 8-track and told his buddy: "I think this guy is gonna be the biggest guy ever. I think he's gonna be a huge, huge star."
It was "The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle," and yes, Bruce Springsteen did rather well for himself. Forte, a keyboardist, started The B Street Band, a successful cover act.
Maddon did all right, too.
He spent more than three decades in the Angels organization as a player, coach and scout. He was on manager Mike Scioscia's staff during the 2002 championship season before leaving to manage Tampa Bay after the 2005 season.
"His insights were terrific," Scioscia said. "I realized that very early. He was a guy that I definitely wanted to pick his brain and talk baseball with him."
Forte saw the leadership and vision, not to mention a strong arm, when they were growing up in Hazelton, Pennsylvania, a onetime mining town built by immigrants.
He remembers Maddon throwing a football 40 yards and blowing everyone else away at a punt, pass and kick competition when they were 9 years old and the two striking a friendship not long after that while playing for the State Trooper Eagles youth team.
There was that time when they were about 12 or 13 and got caught with their hands in the cookie jar by their coaches during a trip to Pittsburgh. The team was staying at a school cafeteria, and the orders were clear: Don't raid the kitchen. That was all the incentive Forte, Maddon and another teammate needed to chow down.
They stuffed themselves on the next day's meals, then tried to run away when the coaches returned. The three were forced to eat the leftovers, and while Forte and the other player became ill, Maddon — calm as always — quietly consumed the equivalent of another lunch or dinner.
That's how Maddon was, rarely rattled, even in high school when he was the quarterback and captain of the offense.
"Joe's father Joseph was an incredible man," said Forte, a 5-foot-4 guard and linebacker. "Humble. Never had a mean bone in his body. Never raised his voice. Just a perfect guy. Some of Joe's personality that he's unflappable comes from his father. As much as you ribbed him, you could never get him to go one degree higher."
About the only thing he questioned back then was his friend's taste in music, which was why he was skeptical when Maddon popped in that Springsteen eight-track. While Forte listened to Hendrix, he said, Maddon was into the Carpenters.
"Joe springing that Springsteen thing on me really shaped the rest of my life," Forte said.
He has performed all over the country, even at Rays exhibition games when Maddon was the manager. He has formed friendships with members of the E Street Band and would love to introduce his friend to Springsteen.
"I think Bruce would love to sit down and talk to Joe Maddon," said Vini "Mad Dog" Lopez, the original E Street Band drummer and a friend of Forte and Maddon. "I think if Bruce and Joe got to sit down, they would both be enamored by each other."
Maddon made a big impression on Lopez when they met at a Rays-Yankees game in Tampa Bay not long after the E Street Band's induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2014. And it wasn't just because Maddon had "Greetings From Asbury Park, New Jersey" and "The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle" — the two albums Lopez played on — hanging on the wall in his office.
"He's so nice, you know?" Lopez said. "The way he does his thing is mindboggling to me. He's in charge of so much and he knows it all. ... It just blows my mind."
Forte thinks about how far he and his friend have come, from a childhood with little money and a love of sports, and he remembers the shock when Maddon — then a catcher in the Angels' system — told him his future was in coaching.
Forte recalls he was on tour in the Midwest and they were having dinner in the Quad Cities area.
"He said: 'I think I found something I'm better at and that I could be really, really good at. I think I could be a really good coach to young kids. I think I could go up to be a really good manager,'" Forte said.