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Sportsman

My Sportsman: Joe Maddon

Sports Illustrated will announce its choice for Sportsman of the Year on Dec. 2. Here's one of the nominations for that honor by an SI writer. For more essays, click here.

Joe Maddon isn't your typical monosyllabic manager who considers the double-switch to be deep thought. Joe the Manager is a man of letters and culture who uses words such as proclivity, ameliorate, amorphous, denigrate, egregious and -- the hands-down all-timer -- transmogrified. (Confession: I had to look up that last one).

Maddon can sometimes be hard to understand, to be sure. Like when he told his youthful Tampa Bay Rays during spring training, "Nine equals eight.'' At first the mostly 20-something players thought it was new math gone bad. But Maddon explained to them that it takes nine players working together for nine innings to ultimately become one of eight playoff teams. And at that point, the Rays, who had only known ignominy, must have said to themselves, "What, these nine?''

The team formerly known as the Devil Rays had never before won more than 70 games. But this year it won 97 and the American League pennant, so Maddon actually slightly undersold what it could accomplish. Joe the Manager's Rays, who had won a league-worst 66 games in 2007, became the unlikeliest World Series entrants since the Amazin' '69 Mets, maybe ever.

Along the way Maddon won the admiration of everyone he came into contact with, impressing management, media, players and fans alike. For leading his Rays to achieve what only he thought they could do, he is my choice for Sportsman of the Year.

The kid they called Joey where he grew up in unpretentious, conservative Hazleton, Pa., not too far from Philly, is still Joey to them. Maddon now lives in Brea, Calif., and works in St. Petersburg, Fla., but he's still a Pennsylvanian at heart. Which is how he came to engage a beer-drinking Phillies fan at the World Series, telling the man, "Where's the Schmidt's? At least some Rolling Rock. Don't be going with Coors Light. It's so unfashionable for a Philly dude.''

To fans all over the country, Maddon is a most accommodating and kind spokesman. He never misses a chance to greet someone on the road, whether they hail from Hazleton or elsewhere. Maddon has grown from his days in Pennsylvania, blending a little California into his style. He enjoys wine drinking and bike riding, and years ago he became maybe the first coach to embrace computers.

Joe the Manager has a huge heart. He saw a piece on TV in June about John Challis, a young man in Pittsburgh with terminal cancer who had developed a slogan: Courage + belief = life. Maddon was touched by the kid's courage. The Rays were going to Pittsburgh the next week, and the Rays manager invited Challis to a game and spent more than an hour with him and his family. They stayed in touch until Challis passed away in August at the age of 18. Maddon still communicates with Challis' father and has helped with fundraising efforts for the family. He has a large, framed memorial of Challis in his office.

Maddon thinks everything out. The one time he reamed out the Rays he did so on the road, in Kansas City, because he didn't want to "soil'' their clubhouse, as he put it, and he did it after a win because he wanted to hold the young team's attention. Maddon is about the most unfailingly enthusiastic manager. He doesn't just call Matt Garza a "horse,'' like other managers would. Garza is, instead a "stallion.'' Precision is Joe's game.

"Joe puts an emphasis on treating the players like adults," Rays owner Stuart Sternberg said. "He was and is willing to take the big picture into account.''

Joe the Manager loves life, and he loves music. He's often citing or playing the Rolling Stones, his favorite, but his tastes are eclectic, ranging from the Four Tops to Springsteen to Pavarotti.

Maddon was famous for his thick-rimmed glasses before Sarah Palin ever hit the scene. He doesn't have the lavish wardrobe of the former VP candidate, but he surely knows that Africa is a continent. He got married again just last Saturday, and with Eurail pass in hand, set out to see the world.

Joe the Manager is a Renaissance man from down-to-earth roots. But what separated him this season was success that outstripped everyone's expectations by, oh, about 1,000 percent. Only he expected anything close. Maddon's "nine equals eight" saying actually had a double meaning, the other being that the Rays were going to improve nine games via hitting, nine via defense and nine via pitching.

It turns out, they improved a crazy 28 games, one more than Maddon laid out for them. Nobody's perfect. But this year he was damn close.

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