Joe Maddon Has a Vision

In the company of Tampa Bay's progressive, contrarian skipper, there's always the chance of witnessing something you've never seen before—like, say, the Rays in the playoffs
October 05, 2008

AS FASHION fraternities go, the horn-rimmed hall of fame is pretty impressive. Buddy Holly. Barry Goldwater. Woody Allen. Tina Fey. Clark Kent. Wild Thing Vaughn. They're all giants in their fields, visionaries with faulty vision, and they all reached the top with their eyes framed in thick, black plastic. ¬∂ Baseball managers are underrepresented in the horn-rimmed hall, because 1) few of them have worn the unsubtle spectacles and 2) even fewer have been described with the adjectives (geeky, hipster, iconoclastic) often attached to those who like their eyeglasses black and bold. But it's time for Buddy, Barry and Woody to make room for the Tampa Bay Rays' Joe Maddon. He too is at the top of his profession, having just guided a franchise that had never had a winning record in 10 seasons—never won more than 70 games, for crissakes!—to a division title in the cutthroat American League East. Maddon has presided over a historic turnaround (the 2008 Rays are only the second team in major league history to win 95 games one season after losing 95) that makes him a lock to be AL Manager of the Year.

Maddon's eyewear is the real deal too. He sports a sleek, 21st-century take on classic horn-rims, a funky pair of Hugo Boss specs that appear to have been swiped from Elvis Costello's nightstand. His fiancée, Jaye Sousoures, picked them out for him four years ago. She simply thought they looked good on him, but they have since added to Maddon's aura as, in the words of Rays outfielder Rocco Baldelli, "a pretty cool cat." (The front office caught on right away, handing out 15,000 replica pairs on Joe Maddon Retro Glasses Night in his first season with Tampa Bay.)

His multidimensional personality does the same. Maddon is a voracious reader who keeps a wine rack in his Tropicana Field office, bikes five to 10 miles most days and can hold forth on a seemingly endless array of topics: James Michener novels, gardening, self-help psychology and the best cycling routes in every American League city, for starters. On an off night in New York City before a crucial September series against the Yankees, Maddon planned not an evening of tinkering with lineups or poring over scouting reports, but of rocking out at a show by the B Street Band, a Springsteen cover band fronted by an old friend from high school. And he keeps things light enough that his team, the sixth youngest in the majors this season, sometimes forgets that the silver-haired man on the top step of the dugout is 54. Name another manager who has gotten a Mohawk after a game, as Maddon did last month when his players were getting shorn in a show of team unity. "He has the personality of a teenager," says 24-year-old rotation ace Scott Kazmir. "He fits in well with us."

Hip isn't the only horn-rimmed trait Maddon has covered. He may not be a nerd, but he has egghead tendencies. Two decades ago, when computers were rarer in clubhouses than Pavarotti cassettes, he was toting a laptop and preaching the importance of on-base percentage and statistical analysis as a minor league hitting instructor for the Angels. He can go retro on you too. Though consistently positive with his players and one who rarely raises his voice, Maddon twice benched star-in-the-making 24-year-old centerfielder B.J. Upton last month for not hustling, stating forcefully that the lack of effort was disrespectful to the game.

A nonconformist? Maddon has little regard for baseball's managerial book, and he has the bases-loaded intentional walk (the one he had issued to the Rangers' Josh Hamilton in August was the first in the AL in 107 years), four-man outfields (he sometimes uses the softball alignment against sluggers like the Red Sox' David Ortiz) and unique hitting tips (he told his switch-hitters to bat righthanded against Yankees righty Mike Mussina) to prove it. "I get so annoyed when you get around a lot of baseball people and basically all they can do is regurgitate previous thoughts," Maddon says. "They don't think of anything original. Tell me a better way."

With all due respect to the Republican presidential ticket, your best chance to see a maverick in action this fall may be to follow the Rays, who will open their American League Division Series on Thursday at Tropicana Field. As if a postseason game at the Trop wouldn't be novelty enough. "We've done some unorthodox things around here," says Tampa Bay reliever Trever Miller. "Now we get into situations where we're all like, How's Joe going to handle this one? We might see something we've never seen before."

SOON AFTER he was hired in the fall of 2005, Maddon papered the Rays' clubhouse with inspirational quotes from an eclectic collection of thinkers, including UCLA icon John Wooden ("Discipline yourself so no one else has to"), former Fed chief Alan Greenspan ("Rules cannot take the place of character") and The Myth of Sisyphus author Albert Camus ("Integrity has no need of rules"). Camus was an apt choice: When Maddon replaced managerial heavyweight Lou Piniella, who jumped ship with a year left on his contract, he seemed to be taking on a Sisyphean task. "There was no trust, no specific plan," says Maddon. "It had all the symptoms of being a bad organization."

Maddon was hired by the new front-office triumvirate—president Matt Silverman, executive vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman and senior VP of baseball ops Gerry Hunsicker—to be the polar opposite of Piniella, someone with the patience and willingness to teach young players. Maddon certainly had that; he spent 31 years in the Angels organization as, among other things, a player, scout, roving hitting instructor, minor league manager and major league bench coach. He also impressed the Tampa Bay brass as open-minded and progressive, someone who would embrace the 31-year-old Friedman's devotion to complex statistical analysis. Even in the 21st century, finding a dugout boss who thinks that way isn't easy. "There are some pretty prominent managers who are closed-minded," says Hunsicker, the Astros' G.M. from 1996 through 2004. "I won't mention any names, and some of them are among my better friends, but I just don't agree with that narrow-mindedness. I think we all have to change with the times."

Maddon isn't a sabermetrician and doesn't have Baseball Prospectus bookmarked, but he knows his way around a stat printout and is adept at the keyboard. In the late 1980s, while he was working as a roving hitting instructor and minor league field coordinator for the Angels, he traveled with an unwieldy Panasonic word processor so he could pound out typewritten schedules and notes for players. (He's an obsessive organizer, and the thought of handwritten notices in clubhouses horrified him.) By '90 he had traded in the Panasonic for a bulky 386 laptop, a machine that produced exquisite daily agendas. More important, it also opened his mind to the nascent universe of statistical analysis. Spray charts, batter-versus-pitcher matchups, charts of managerial tendencies—at the time Maddon was one of the few in the game paying attention to them.

Maddon also began charting stats he invented for Angels minor leaguers such as "jug runs" (runs that go for the other team's jugular and pad a small late-inning lead to put a game out of reach) and kept count of plays that sustain rallies but don't show up in box scores: runners going first to third, two-out RBIs, hitters who hustle to beat out the back end of potential double plays. They were stats, but not in the sabermetric sense. To Maddon they were quantifiable motivational tools, a way to get players to buy into a deceptively old school offensive philosophy based on situational hitting rather than prayers for three-run homers. Maddon took grief from players and other coaches for being tethered to his computer, but his calculations were little more than new-age methods of teaching timeworn baseball truisms.

Maddon brought his jug runs and spray charts and pesky offensive message to Tampa Bay, and the result this year is a team that plays like an East Coast version of the Angels. Tampa Bay led the American League in stolen bases, grounded into the fewest double plays and had the second most walks, behind Boston. "Joe's brilliance is that he knows what needs to be tinkered with and which deep-rooted fundamentals to leave alone," says Angels manager Mike Scioscia, who had Maddon as his bench coach from 2000 through '05. "He's unique because of his ability to be progressive and traditional."

JOE MADDON was supposed to be a football player. Born and raised in Hazleton, a Pennsylvania coal town 95 miles northwest of Philadelphia, he was a decent basketball player and a standout shortstop and pitcher at Hazleton High. But it was as a quarterback that he set pulses racing. He was known as Broad Street Joe, a reference to one of Hazleton's main drags; his teammates also called him Monsignor because, no matter how much they egged him on, they couldn't get him to curse. Broad Street Joe was recruited by Princeton and Penn and received a letter from Roger Staubach trying to lure him to Navy. But in 1973 he accepted a football scholarship from a college closer to home, Lafayette College in Easton, Pa., and became an economics major.

Hazleton was and still is a tight-knit, blue-collar melting pot, a provincial place that once sent more kids into the mines than out into the world. The son of an Italian father, Joe (who shortened the family name from Maddoninni), and a Polish mother, Albina, Maddon grew up in an apartment over his dad's plumbing shop on a block that teemed with aunts, uncles and cousins. It was a Rockwellian upbringing in its own way, steeped in the importance of family, respect for others and the value of hard work. Maddon, who moved west some 30 years ago, returns to Hazleton to visit family and friends for a week every Christmas. Joe Sr. passed away in 2002, six months before the Angels won the World Series with Maddon as bench coach. But Albina—everyone calls her Beanie—still lives in that apartment and works as a waitress and cook at the Third Base Luncheonette, where she has been behind the counter for 50 years.

As a sophomore at Lafayette, Maddon was penciled in at starting quarterback, but he quit the team before the season to concentrate on baseball. He had become a catcher, and in 1975, after his junior season, he left school to sign with the Angels as a minor league free agent. It didn't take long for his big league dreams to fizzle: In four seasons he failed to rise higher than Class A, batting .267 with five home runs in a total of 170 games. But Maddon made an impression on coaches and teammates in other ways. He had a sharp mind for the game—probably, he says, because baseball never came to him as instinctively as football and therefore required more study and interest in teaching methods. He was outgoing and laid-back and genuine, the kind of guy who connected with anyone and everyone. And he was such a good cook that his teammates held auctions for the rights to share an apartment with him. Says Peter Ciccarelli, the general manager of the Class A Salinas (Calif.) Angels, when Maddon was there in '77 and '78, "I told anyone who would listen, This guy can't play, but he's going to be a manager some day."

The Angels released Maddon in 1979, but the following year they offered him a scouting job, launching his long climb up the organizational ladder. He finally made the majors in '94, when he became bullpen coach under manager Buck Rodgers. By the early 2000s he was a franchise institution, part of the furniture at the Big A, but his mind was wandering. He interviewed for the Red Sox managing job in '03 and impressed general manager Theo Epstein, but was passed over for Terry Francona. When the Rays' job opened two years later, Maddon jumped at it. "I needed this job to get my thinking out ahead of me again," he says. "When you're in one job for too long you become comfortable. And I don't like being comfortable."

HOW MUCH impact does a manager truly have on his team? Even those who hire and fire them aren't sure. "How much credit a manager should get has always been a mystery to me," says Hunsicker. "But I can honestly say that Joe has had a bigger impact on this team than any manager I've been associated with."

As the losses mounted during his first two seasons in Tampa Bay (the Rays lost 101 games in 2006 and 96 the next year), Maddon concentrated on remaking the clubhouse culture, getting players to buy into the idea that the Trop could be home to a winning team and getting rid of those who didn't. But this year, on the first day of spring training, he told his team he thought they were good enough to make the playoffs—that, as pitching coach Jim Hickey puts it, "the scholarship program was over, and it was time to be accountable and productive."

Maddon can impose such expectations without being overbearing because he's so upbeat and positive. He's a devoted spouter of self-help aphorisms ("Attitude is a decision!") and screener of inspirational T-shirts; this year's model is emblazoned with the bizarre equation 9=8, a reminder coined by Maddon this spring that nine players working together could bring home one of the majors' eight postseason spots. And unlike the fiery Piniella, Maddon is a Zen breeze in the clubhouse. With his Renaissance man personality comes a suggestion that baseball, while important, is not a life-or-death affair, an attitude that helped keep a young team loose in the heat of its first pennant race. "He doesn't ram things down your throat," says Kazmir. "He's always communicating, always teaching, but he's very easygoing. "He just keeps preaching that we should believe in ourselves. He's not like any other manager I've had."

Maddon, a dedicated oenophile, unwinds after every game with a nice California red in his office. ("He'll come out and say, 'This is great. You have to try this Merlot,'" says Jim Hickey. "I'm like, 'Yeah, Joe, we just kicked the Yankees' ass. I'm going to have a cold beer.'") But Maddon balances that sophistication with a sense that he's having as much fun on Tampa Bay's unlikely ride as anyone. On one September road trip the players decided everyone should wear T-shirts bearing designs by ultrahip tattoo artist Ed Hardy on travel days. Veteran outfielder and clubhouse leader Cliff Floyd bought dozens of shirts, and Maddon was among the first to pick one off the rack in the clubhouse. "It had a bull's-eye on it, and it said, truth and faith," Maddon says. "Those are two pretty good words to put on any T-shirt."

"JOE'S BRILLIANCE is that he knows what needs to be tinkered with and which deep-rooted fundamentals to leave alone," says Scioscia.

"Joe will say, 'You have to try this Merlot,'" says Hickey. "I'm like, 'Yeah, we just kicked the Yankees' ass. I'm going to have a COLD BEER.'"

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PHOTOPhotograph by Skip Milos/Tampa Bay RaysHEAVE JOE Maddon lit a fire under his players in the spring, when he told them that the postseason was within reach. PHOTOCHRIS O'MEARA/AP[See caption above] PHOTOMIKE CARLSON/AP (NAVARRO)GIVE A LITTLE ... The energy of Dioner Navarro and the Rays recalls that of the Angels' system from which Maddon came. PHOTOSCOTT AUDETTE/REUTERS (LONGORIA)... TAKE A LITTLE Evan Longoria and his teammates bought into a new philosophy that put pitching and defense first. PHOTOLAFAYETTE COLLEGETWO WAYS ABOUT IT Maddon (22) played baseball in college (below) and the minors but was a better football player. PHOTOTHE STANDARD-SPEAKER[See caption above] PHOTOSKIP MILOS/TAMPA BAY RAYSJUST ONE OF THE BOYS For all his erudition, the Rays' manager has won over his team with his teenager's enthusiasm.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)