Remembering the success of Joe Maddon

by Gary Shelton on July 4, 2017 · 0 comments

in general

Tuesday, 4 a.m.

The first time I met Joe Maddon, I tried to brace him for failure. Boy, was I wrong about him.

A bunch of writers were gathered around Joe, then the new manager of the Rays, a job undertaking that had made strong men look mentally weak. The Rays, in those days, had always been a franchise of bad ownership and bad general managing. Who knew that this would be any different?

And so, after his first press conference, after the first time we were exposed to the sunshine and rainbows that coursed through Maddon's head, I slipped him a note. “Beware of teeth,” it said. “This monster eats all.”

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Maddon shrugged. Stay tuned, he suggested. This time, his players had swords. Things are going to be different.

Ah, but I didn't believe him. Not at first. The Rays had been managed by Lou Piniella, and I thought the world of feisty Lou, who had actually had a year with the Rays in which he finished in fourth place instead of the cellar. Except for games when he had been an interim manager, Joe had almost managerial resume. He was just a guy who believed that he could slay the beast. I had my doubts. I think all of us did. Heck, how could you not?

But the Rays were about to make a turnaround. With new general manager Andrew Friedman, the team tried to flood its minor leagues with arms. First, though, Joe had to clean up the clubhouse. It was a heavy job. The players who didn't buy in had a vulgar nickname for Maddon in those early days. In his first season, Maddon lost 101 games. In his second, he lost 96.

It was after Maddon's first season that I wrote a column that said, pretty much, that “in 2006, we found out that Maddon was a nice guy. In 2007, I suggested, we would find out he was the right guy.”

For some reason, that rubbed Maddon wrong. He called me into his office, and he read me the riot act. “You wanted to see me angry? This is what it looks like.” And he yelled for a very long time. I shrugged. “Glad you have it in you,” I said, “but you might notice that I don't work for you.” Joe was irate, he later told me, because he had put so much work into getting the clubhouse right, and he was concerned the column would set the team back. But he calmed down, eventually, and we talked. I saw where he was coming from; I hope he saw where I was.

In his third season, however, Maddon proved his point. He went from 66 wins to 97. A lot of us kept waiting for a bridge season, a season in which the Rays would flirt with .500 for the first time. It never came. This team started to believe in Joe, and it got better. It pitched well, it played great defense, and it had athletes (Carl Crawford, B.J. Upton) all over the field.

And the monster? It was dead in the road.

It is easy to remember those days today. The Rays are about to run into Joe Maddon's Cubs in one of the fun series of the summer.

Yes, in the old days, Joe was right about his team's turnaround. Heck, in those days, Joe was always right. He wasn't the same cut of cloth as most managers. He didn't just think outside the box. He practiced the high dive from atop it. He walked Josh Hamilton once with the bases loaded. He filled his lineup with switch-hitters once, but he made them bat right-handed against a right-handed knuckleballer because of “swing planes.” He had penguins in the clubhouse. Snakes, too.

And along the way, I grew to appreciate Maddon more than I have any other managers ever. Pitch counts and all, daily lineups and the like, he knew his team. He built its success.

He was a bright guy, a guy who could talk to you about the music of Bruce Springsteen and the novels of Pat Conroy and his love of the Arizona Cardinals football team. He could talk baseball, too, about how the uncovering of steroids actually helped small-market teams. He'd talk about the sound the ball made off the bat of Upton.

Always, Joe was in a good mood. He saw possibilities. He believed. And he made you believe, too.

Gradually, he turned around a franchise. In six seasons, the Rays made the playoffs four times. No one else before or since has gotten the Rays to the post-season.

He was into muscle cars. He liked the Cyrkle, a band from Lafayette, his old college. He liked to dress his team in funky outfits for road games. He referred to runs as “points.” He said that “9 = 8,” and he had the players nodding. What he meant was that nine players could be one of the eight playoff teams.

Let's be honest. In the time he was here, Joe wasn't always the most popular guy in town. A baseball manager rarely is. Joe's daily lineups drove fans crazy. They called him “Merlot Joe,” a charged he defended by pointing out that he liked beer, too. Fans accused him of plateauing; because of it, I once asked Joe if fans were weary of winning 90-something games a year without a World Series. Given the buzz from the community, I thought it was a fair question. But Joe brought it up this preseason; it must have rankled him. I have no problem with that. I suspect he doesn't, either. A columnist and a manger are supposed to get on each other's nerves some.

(Full disclosure here: I was criticized often for my defense of Maddon. You can still find an internet blog deriding me for it, even though the writer admits he didn't read the local papers or hear the local radio shows, which kind of strikes me as announcing (and embracing) his  lack of knowledge. But that's fair, too. I'm not the only guy who gets to criticize.)

The radio shows were particularly unkind to Joe in those days.  The thing is, fan criticism never bothered Joe. He had confidence in his own knowledge.

I did a column back in 2010 where I laid every criticism at Joe's feet, from his perceived lack of knowledge to pitch counts to lineups. He answered every question calmly.

"Honestly? I think it's kind of funny," Maddon said of the criticism. "I really do think it's humorous. Frankly, these people don't know what they're talking about. I would never go into a person's place of business where I've never been and feel comfortable in telling them how to do their jobs. Most of the critics, even the average fans, have no idea what it's like to work a major-league clubhouse. It's not at all what they think it is.

"All the things we do, all the things we might try, whether it's lineups or plays or pitching, are really well thought out."

Even his pregame was well thought out. I was one of the worst culprits, sitting through Joe's well-attended press gatherings, then asking a private question or two about whatever subject I was working on. He was always accommodating, even when we disagreed. He would calmly explain his position, and then he'd shrug and say “you can disagree, obviously.”

There was a substance to Joe, a sincerity. His optimism wasn't an act. In the worst slumps, he felt his team was on the verge of running over several wins in a row.

Maddon was a dream to cover, in other words. He was optimistic without apology. He was opinionated with conviction. He was refreshing without pause.

And he won.

For the Rays, his were the best years ever.

For a columnist, too. It was fun, Joe. It really was.

Except for the snake.

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