The glory years: Joe reflects on Rays’ success

by Gary Shelton on September 20, 2017 · 0 comments

in general, Tampa Bay Rays

Maddon checks out his lineup./JEFFREY S. KING

Maddon checks out his lineup./JEFFREY S. KING

Wednesday, 4 a.m.

The rest of us are getting grayer. Joe Maddon's hair is getting darker.

The old energy was there again Tuesday as Maddon walked through the corridors of Tropicana Field. His step was quick, and his speech was fast, and his smile came in a hurry. He was the same old Joe, one again trodding on the fake grass.

And you wonder:

What if he had never left? Would the Rays still have their old energy, too?

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Maddon visited the old neighborhood Tuesday./JEFFREY S. KING

Maddon visited the old neighborhood Tuesday./JEFFREY S. KING

What if Maddon didn't have that hidden escape clause in his contract? What if he rode out the departure of Andrew Friedman? What if he was still bringing snakes, penguins and bands into the clubhouse? What if his road trips still involved dressing in the dark?

Would the Rays be better? Significantly better?

Full disclosure here: I like Joe a lot. I think he's a great communicator, and he's wonderful at absorbing criticism aimed at his players. He runs a clubhouse as well as anyone. He's been named the Manager of the Year twice for a reason.

Yes, the Rays would be better.

No, they still wouldn't be a powerhouse.

Oh, it would be livelier. There would probably be live buffalo around Wilson Ramos' locker. He would have gotten around to ducks, racehorses and koala bears.

But would they have significantly more wins?

Three things to keep in mind: If you remember, Joe had a 77-85 record his last year in Tampa Bay. By the end, David Price was gone. Ben Zobrist, too. Friedman. This was not a team that seemed to be on the upswing. Then there is this: Becuase of limited substitution, a major league manager probably has as little impact as any coach-manager in pro sports. You can't center a game plan on giving a guy 25 at-bats. And three: His bullpen still would have been run by Jim Hickey, who runs it now.

Frankly, it's hard to see the 2015 Rays being much better with Maddon. Maybe last year's team would have won a few more than 68. Maybe this year's team could have won a few more than 73. Hey, a penguin's got to be worth something, right?

(The wild card is that none of us know which players that Maddon might have pushed for in a trade. But Maddon was never huge on trades. The Rays' farm system was too good in those days.)

But, pretty much, I don't see the post-season for the Rays in the last three years if Maddon was still here, either.

A man ponders things like this when encountering his own past. Joe and I had hundreds of conversations, and only some were about baseball. We talked Springsteen and Pat Conroy and the Arizona Cardinals. We talked about the Cyrcle and steriods and Elijah Dukes. We talked about his love of different lineups and swing planes and B.J. Upton. We didn't always agree, but Joe was always agreeable.

That's the thing about Tampa Bay. Guys come back. John Tortorella did. Tony Dungy did. Lovie Smith and Steve Spurrier. And now Joe.

It was good to see Joe again. He remains linked to whatever good days this team has had. All those banners? They might as well be his curtains.

“Pretty awesome,” Maddon said. “That was always my favorite part, the banner-hanging days. There was all that great work we had put together. So many talented people coming together at one time, like the perfect baseball storm. It was pretty special how it all came together at one time.”

It wasn't bad, was it? If you remember, Maddon inherited a nightmare of a clubhouse where certain players scoffed at what he was trying to do. Looking back, changing the culture of that locker room was the hardest thing he did.

“You can't win unless you do that,” Maddon said.

Maddon still lives here. He loves the Lightning. He loves the Bucs. And, yeah, he'd like to see a new baseball stadium.

“I think you have a much better chance,” Maddon said. “It has to be on the other side of the pond. It just has to be. I'm just being honest. You need a baseball atmosphere. You don't need things hanging down from the ceiling. You don't need an erector set."

In case you're wondering, Maddon also likes Rays' manager Kevin Cash, a former player of his.

"I like the team here now," Maddon said. "I'm a big Kevin fan. I like the coaches, I like the players. He's a very likeable guy, a bright guy. He has a really good mind, a great sense of humor. He has a great opportunity to grow into this game."

In all, there wasn't much bad for him to remember.

“That was a fast nine years and I have nothing but warm fuzzies about it," Maddon said.

Was there one moment that everything clicked for those Rays?

“This might sound nuts, but it was Danny Wheeler,” Maddon said. “When we brought Danny in, our bullpen was a mess. We had a bunch of kids who had no idea. Danny showed the kids how to do it. James Shields changed the work ethic of the pitching. There was Cliff Floyd, Eric Henske, Troy Percival. Their methods and their message and it all started with Danny.”

No. Really, it all started with Joe, that ex-minor league catcher, that wine-drinker, that tinkerer of lineups, that penguin-herder.

Good to see you again, guy.

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