JUPITER — For the better part of Tuesday, Joe Maddon was a kid again.
He was Joey Maddon. He was wearing his No. 12 jersey for the State Trooper Eagles midget football team. He was, as they called him at Hazleton High, Broad Street Joe. He had on his Lafayette College helmet with the full face mask, and the Zeta Psi fraternity T-shirt with "Joe Willie" written on the back. He was lacing up his white cleats.
Joe Maddon met his idol, Joe Namath.
"You have no idea," the Rays manager said after Namath sat in the dugout during a victory over the Marlins. "'For me personally, it's quite a moment. I'm not usually star-struck but I have been today. … I've been waiting for this moment to happen for many, many years."
Growing up in Hazleton, Pa., Maddon was obsessed with Namath, who was 10 years older, coming out of Beaver Falls on the other side of the state, playing at Alabama, becoming a star quarterback for the New York Jets and an icon as Broadway Joe.
"I truly did model myself after him," Maddon said.
Maddon came to spring training with the idea of reaching out to Namath and getting him to a game, his interest furthered after watching the HBO documentary Namath. It took team vice president Rick Vaughn about three weeks to work it out, facilitated by the Hall of Fame quarterback living in Tequesta, just a few miles from Jupiter.
Namath, 68, drove himself to the stadium and arrived early, pulled on a Rays cap and jersey — supplanting Wade Boggs as the most famous No. 12 in team history.
"I just like Joe's style and what I've read about him, and was flattered that he invited me to practice," Namath said. "Hey, I wanted to be a part of it. I feed off the energy and excitement, man. It's great to be here."
They laughed, they talked sports and philosophies, they shared stories, about Bear Bryant and others. Maddon, who wore white tennis shoes in Namath's honor, had him sign a Jets jersey. ("That's a keeper," Maddon said.) Maddon introduced him to his players (particularly Desmond Jennings, an Alabama native who grew up playing football) and coaches (especially Dave Martinez, who grew up in New York, and said later, "That was incredible"). He handed him the lineup card to bring to the plate, and invited him to the Trop, or to meet the team on the road.
At one point, Namath asked about the Hazleton Integration Project, which Maddon launched during the offseason to help his hometown. "He thought it was a great thing we're doing," Maddon said. "I was pretty impressed with that."
At another — at least the way Maddon tells it — Namath assured him the Rays would come out on top Tuesday, just as he did in Super Bowl III when the Jets upset the Colts.
"Joe guaranteed before the game began that we would win today," Maddon said. "So he's now 2-0. This one maybe not as significant as the first one, but we'll take it."
Namath, still a Pirates fan at heart, follows baseball enough to know of Maddon and the Rays, saying he was impressed by what they've done and also aware of their shortcoming.
"They're close," Namath said. "I don't like being the 25th best hitting team in the league. I think that's something they've got to work on. I think this year if the bats come alive a little bit more, you never know."
Maddon wanted to be like Namath on the field, which is why he wore the white Riddell cleats as soon as he was allowed, why he had the extra bar on his facemask, why he played quarterback as he did. "The whole thing, the way he dropped back, the way he threw the ball," Maddon said. "I tried to pattern myself after him."
And off the field, specifically the way Namath carried himself, the way he was willing to speak out, to speak his truth. "He's had a great impact on me," Maddon said. "I always respect and admired his saying what he had on his mind back in the day when that wasn't really popular, and he always did."
Maddon took his idolization seriously, even to the point of drinking scotch in college because that's what Namath did. But what about Namath's infamous 1973 TV commercial?
"I never wore panty hose," Maddon said. "I don't think."
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]