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Despite Tampa Bay Rays' constraints, manager Joe Maddon finds a way to win

Despite having lost several of his highest-paid players, manager Joe Maddon has the Rays still in the race in the final weeks of the season.

Associated Press

Despite having lost several of his highest-paid players, manager Joe Maddon has the Rays still in the race in the final weeks of the season.

Once, he stood on the first-base line, the electricity coursing through him, as he waited for his team's World Series to begin.

He has watched from a corner of the clubhouse, the champagne and satisfaction streaming down his face after winning an American League championship.

He has tilted his head backward to see division championship banners raised in the unlikely direction of those infernal catwalks.

He has seen some things, Joe Maddon, and he has had some moments. He helped introduce winning to the Tampa Bay Rays. He helped wipe the shame from previous seasons off the clubhouse walls. He helped raise standards, heighten expectations and change the impression of a franchise.

These, however, are Maddon's finest moments.

It is mid September, and the Rays are in the thick of a race, and who would have expected that? Despite two disappointing losses in a row, the Rays go into Boston tonight for one of those middle-of-the-street showdowns, and all possibilities are alive. After all the defections, despite all the doubters, you still cannot discount Team Discount.

Weeks after they were pronounced dead, the Rays are still alive.

When you think about it, what better compliment is there for a manager?

For Maddon, for the Rays, there were so many reasons to fail this season. The roster had been stripped, and a good deal of the key parts had been scattered across major-league baseball. The Rays had a bullpen built out of used parts and a batting order held together by duct tape and spackle. The drive-through at Burger King had a higher payroll.

And still, the Rays have won. They are 16 games above .500 and in the hunt. On the miracle scale, overcoming the Red Sox would be only a few notches behind parting the Red Sea.

Along the way, this has become Maddon's signature season. What Hamlet was to Shakespeare, what the Mona Lisa was to Da Vinci, what Thunder Road was to Springsteen, this season is to Maddon. It is his greatest hit.

When he is retired, when he is 100 years old, this is the season that will define Maddon. When his team was circled by grave diggers, all eager to be the first one to announce the time of death, he won. When there were doubters — and, yes, I might have been premature when I called the team underachievers a few weeks back — he won. When his team was 10 games back and seemed to be chasing Baltimore instead of Boston, he won.

Maddon never flinched. He answered every pessimistic question with the voice of an optimist. Yes, he would say, a run is possible. Yes, he would say, he still believed. Yes, he would say, good things can happen. "You can only do this if you believe you can do this,'' he has said several times.

For many, believing was a lot to ask. If the odds were stacked any higher against Maddon this season, he would have been forced to manage while standing on one foot.

His top eight highest-paid players from last year were in other uniforms. Compared with the Yankees and Red Sox, the Rays were spending dimes instead of dollars. The stars, Evan Longoria and David Price, had their struggles. Five weeks ago, the Rays were 10 games out of the wild card. The batting order was stuffed with averages of .220 (or less). There were nights when Justin Ruggiano hit third and Felipe Lopez fourth and Kelly Shoppach fifth.

Yet, here Maddon is, and here are the Rays. Contending again. It shows just how far starting pitching, solid defense and a manager's faith can take a team.

"Joe has done a phenomenal job, not just this year but in years past,'' executive vice president Andrew Friedman said. "Part of that is the environment he's created. He has an uncanny ability to utilize every guy on our roster and put them in a position to succeed.''

It has always amazed me that Maddon, whose past four seasons have been the best four in Rays history, isn't appreciated more in his community. This will be Maddon's fourth straight winning season; no Tampa Bay pro team has ever had five. In baseball, only three teams — the Yankees, Red Sox and Phillies — have longer streaks. Yet, Maddon is one of those rare sportsmen who seems to be appreciated more nationally than locally.

Who knows? Perhaps this season will win over his critics. This time, his optimism spread, and this time, his belief made a difference.

Does that mean Maddon will win the AL manager of the year award? Maybe. Jim Leyland has had a great year in Detroit. Manny Acta in Cleveland will get some votes. However, when you think of the division, when you think of the payroll, no one in baseball fights the same odds as Maddon does on a daily basis. He was first in 2008. He was third in 2010. He should win it this year.

Think of it like this: No team has ever come from this far back in September. If the Rays pull it off, you could argue that it has been decades since a manager has done a better job.

After all, Maddon has overcome the odds, the payroll and the critics.

From here, all he has to overcome is the Red Sox.

Despite Tampa Bay Rays' constraints, manager Joe Maddon finds a way to win 09/14/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, September 14, 2011 10:50pm]

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