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October 13, 2008

On the Beat

Joe Maddon, Wisdomist

by John Perrotto

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BOSTON-Scott Kazmir describes Joe Maddon with a word rarely used in conjunction with a major league manager. "He's cool, a real cool guy," Kazmir said of Maddon, the manager who has helped transform the Rays franchise from laughingstock to playoff team. "He just really fits in here. We have a young team and he's like a young guy. He is someone you feel comfortable with. He's just cool."

Indeed, cool might be the best word to describe the 54-year-old Maddon. While most managers usually get caught up in the stress of the postseason and practically seclude themselves, the friendly Maddon stops to say hello to seemingly everyone in the ballpark, from top Major League Baseball officials to the people who sweep up the stadium. He is also an engaging and well-read man who can talk on any number of subjects. He was using computers to chart information and organize practice schedules as far back as the early 1990s, long before the digital age came to baseball in full force.

Maddon also has a bit of a Zen-like quality to him, vaguely reminiscent of NBA coaching legend Phil Jackson. Maddon freely quotes philosophers, authors, poets, and noted sports psychologist Harvey Dorfman, and he rides a bicycle every day before games to clear his mind; he has a favorite bike route in each AL city. "I'm not really a conventional 'wisdomist,' if that's a word," Maddon said with a smile Sunday while meeting with the media during an off day in the ALCS. So, it is apt that an unusual word would be used to describe Maddon, the man with the black-rimmed glasses that evoke Buddy Holly, but while Maddon may not look and act the part, there is no mistaking that he is a baseball man first and foremost.

Maddon has spent his entire adult life in professional ball since signing with the Angels as an undrafted free agent in 1976 following his graduating from Lafayette College, where he gave up a promising football career as a quarterback to concentrate on baseball. He hit .267 and was considered a good defensive catcher, but never got past A-ball in four minor league seasons. Maddon accepted the Angels' offer of a scouting job following his release in spring training in 1980, and he followed that with seven years as a minor league manager, seven seasons as the minor league hitting coach, and then 12 years as a major league coach-all coming with the Angels. He had two stints as the major league interim manager before getting his chance to be a full-time skipper in the majors when the Rays hired him in 2005 after Lou Piniella negotiated a deal to leave with one year left on his contract. "Once I realized I wasn't going to make it as a player, getting to the major leagues as a coach or a manager became my goal," Maddon said. "I enjoy the game, it's a great game, and I enjoy being around the players and teaching and watching them get better. I enjoyed all my years with the Angels very much, and there was always a part of me who wanted to manage in the major leagues to see if the things I had learned over the years, and the ideas I believed in, would work at this level. I think just about anybody who spends a long time in the game as a minor league manager or a major league coach wonders if he could do this job."

The Rays were starting over when Maddon arrived, as Stuart Sternberg had bought the team from Vince Naimoli and installed a fresh-faced management team headed by president Matthew Silverman and executive vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman. Hiring Maddon, who had never managed in the major leagues before, fit in perfectly with the Rays' new approach, but the Rays hedged their bets by giving him just a two-year contract rather than the standard three-year deal that most managers receive in their first jobs. Maddon took over a franchise that had not had a winning season in its first eight years of existence after joining the AL as an expansion team in 1998, a team that had lost at least 91 games every year. The Rays promptly went 61-101 in Maddon's first season, then 66-96 last year, but they showed enough improvement that management exercised the two option years in his contract in September.

The Rays' faith was rewarded as they made a stunning reversal this season, going 97-65 to win the AL East and then beat the White Sox in the American League Division Series to make the ALCS. "I knew the potential was here to win because a commitment had been made to do things the right way," Maddon said. "However, it became obvious very quickly that the culture needed to be changed very badly. Oftentimes, changing the culture of any organization is the most difficult task of all."

While Maddon is far from a tough guy, he began the process of changing the culture by altering the atmosphere around the Rays. His first step was to demand accountability. "Looking at it from the other dugout over the years, it always seemed to me that Tampa Bay was a place where potential major league players came to kind of hang out and say they were in the big leagues," Maddon said. "Nobody seemed all that concerned about winning. I felt the mindset had to change. You couldn't have guys who were just happy to be here. You have to have players who want to win, or you're going to be perpetually stuck in neutral."

Now the Rays finally have the clutch unstuck, and their players aren't shy in giving credit to Maddon. He was the guy who pushed for Friedman to sign a pair of veterans in closer Troy Percival and designated hitter Cliff Floyd, whose contributions have been made as much in the clubhouse as on the field. "We really needed those two guys, and they've made a big difference," Rays center fielder B.J. Upton said. "It's never been a question of the young guys on this team wanted to win. It was a matter of having someone who could show us how to do it. Percy and Cliff took over this clubhouse from the first day of spring training, showed us what is and isn't acceptable when you are a major leaguer."

Floyd downplays his contributions by deflecting the credit to Maddon. "Joe is the guy who sets the tone for the whole team," Floyd said. "He is just such a relaxed and positive guy, and he allows each person in our clubhouse to hold himself accountable. If I ever become a manger, I hope I manage just like him. He trusts us to police ourselves. If there's one bad apple, the other 24 guys get on the guy and it gets straightened out. Joe is just so even-keel and such an honest person. There is no phoniness about him. What you see is what you get, and any manager who carries himself like that is going to have a lot of credibility with his players."

Maddon knows no other way; while he is a bit of a renaissance man, he is truly a blue-collar guy at heart. Maddon was born and raised in Hazleton, Pennsylvania, in the northeast portion of the state. His grandfathers were immigrant coal miners, Italian on his father's side, Polish on his mother's. His late father was a plumber, and his 75-year-old mother still works as a waitress at the lunch counter that her brother owns in downtown Hazleton. "When you're from a place like Hazleton, it keeps you grounded for life," Maddon said. "I like to treat the people the way I want to be treated. Philosophically, it's about being yourself. When you try to be pretentious or be something you're not, it shows through very quickly. Most people can spot a phony."

There is nothing phony about Maddon. A prime example came in late June, when the Rays were visiting the Pirates for an interleague series at PNC Park. Maddon had watched an ESPN report about John Challis, a baseball player at Freedom High School, located 25 minutes northwest of Pittsburgh, who finished his senior season despite being terminally ill with cancer. Maddon invited Challis to address the Rays and was so touched by the 18-year-old, who eventually died in August, that he has a tribute to the youngster hanging on one of the walls in his office at Tropicana Field. Contained in a shadowbox is the Rays' number 11 jersey that equipment manager Chris Westmoreland made for Challis, along with a signed baseball and dollar bill from the teen. The dollar was the fine Challis had to pay Maddon for referring to the Rays as the Devil Rays, which was the franchise's official name until this season. The Rays assess a one dollar fine, in fun, to anyone who says Devil Rays, with the money going to charity.

Maddon has even designed a t-shirt he is selling to raise money for the foundation that Challis established in the months preceding his death that aids children and young adults stricken with cancer. The t-shirts are inscribed with what has become one of the manager's favorite sayings in this amazing season: "All Aboard Maddon's Bus. There's a Different Bus Driver Every Night." (All proceeds from the sale of the T-shirts benefit the Courage For Life Foundation and can be purchased at their website.)

"This means so much to me," Maddon said last week as he showed the display to a visitor the day before the ALCS opened. "Hopefully, I'll call this office mine for a long time, but when the day comes that they ask me to leave, this is going with me. I'm going to cherish this for the rest of my life. When you meet someone with the courage of that young man, it is just a great reminder of what's important in life. What we do in professional baseball means a lot to so many people and it is our business, so I never take it lightly. However, there is also more to life than baseball, and I think it's healthy to keep that in perspective."

John Perrotto is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see John's other articles. You can contact John by clicking here

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