BOSTON — This is his time. This is his place.
Joe Maddon, on the brink of another playoff series, sits inside the opposing manager's office at Fenway Park. He leans back in his chair, and he runs his hands over the sides of his face.
He is tired, and he looks it. It was almost daybreak when the previous night ended, but still, he is smiling and cracking jokes. That's hardly news. Most of the time, even in the pressure of the baseball playoffs, even when the mighty Red Sox are on deck, Maddon is smiling and cracking jokes. He leads the major leagues in punch lines.
After all, this is his moment. This is his history.
He is, by far, the best manager the Rays have ever had. You might as well go a step further. Maddon is the best pro coach or manager any Tampa Bay team has had in the history of ever.
Yes, he is better than Dungy. Yes, he is better than Gruden. Yes, he is better than Tortorella.
Time after time, Maddon has brought his Rays to this point. No, he hasn't won a championship, not like Gruden and not like Tortorella. But he has maintained excellence for a longer period of time. For six straight seasons, he has won. For four straight, he has won more than 90. For the fourth time in six years, he has taken the low-budget Rays to the playoffs. He seems destined to finish in the top four in the manager of the year voting for the fifth time.
And now come the Red Sox in the AL Division Series.
"This is so interesting and fun," Maddon says, grinning. "This is a blast. I wish we could train for it. To be up here under this circumstances and this venue, it doesn't get much better than that. Our players feel the same way. I'm not just speaking for myself."
Is this Maddon's best managing job? Maybe. When you consider starters Alex Cobb missed 50 games, and David Price missed 44, and Matt Moore missed 31 (a total of 125 games in a 162-game season), when you consider closer Fernando Rodney had huge stretches of time when he could not get a batter out, when you consider third baseman Evan Longoria scuffled for a long period of time, it was Maddon's best job of holding things together.
Do you want to know how good Maddon is? No one mentions his disadvantages anymore. No one talks about the budget or the offseasons or how the best free agents go elsewhere. No one talks about competing against the Red Sox and Yankees and Orioles, who all outspend the Rays. No one talks about how the unbalanced schedule makes 90 wins so difficult. They just expect the playoffs … and beyond.
Let's face it. In a way, major-league baseball is the toughest sport in which to coach or manage, simply because there is no free substitution. Drew Brees can throw the ball 50 times, and Adrian Peterson can run it 40. But Longoria is going to get the same four or five at-bats as the next guy.
So how do you judge a manager? Maybe you judge him in this way: How many ways can the guy beat you?
This was a different Rays team this year. It didn't run well, and it didn't hit the ball over the fence. The team's 73 stolen bases were tied for the worst by a Rays team (with 1999). The 165 home runs were the second-worst of the past six years.
And still, they won.
"I think flexibility is a good thing," Maddon said. "We've had to do it differently. We're not running the ball anymore. We've gone to a Sammy Baugh kind of drop-back mentality, where you drop back in the pocket. Who was the guy? Bob Waterfield? We're like that."
Maddon laughs. He is a funny man, a friendly man. And sometimes, that seems to drive his critics crazy. It always has.
You remember Maddon's early years, when everyone figured he was just another guy who was going to be eaten alive by this franchise. He didn't chew and he didn't spit and he didn't cuss. He was in contrast to every image everyone had of a major-league manager. Lou Piniella? Now he looked like a manager, by goodness. Maddon? He looked like a Grateful Dead fan at a steelworkers convention.
Eventually, Maddon sponged off the clubhouse and remade it into the Maddon Zoo, where snakes, penguins and monkeys have been known to stop by on a summer's eve.
"We had to flush the whole thing," Maddon says, looking back. "My father was a plumber. Sometimes, you just have to clean the whole thing."
Amazingly, it worked. The front office kept finding pitchers and defenders, and the right players blossomed, and Maddon was the orchestra leader.
"The thing that comes to mind when you think of Joe Maddon is that he's fun," second baseman Ben Zobrist said. "He makes the managerial position a fun position. He tries to communicate that to us, that he wants us to have fun out here. Yeah, it's our job. Yeah, there is a lot of pressure involved. We're out there trying to do very difficult things. He tries to take the pressure off."
Ah, but are there times the team rolls its eyes at Maddon's antics with pythons and exotic birds?
"Absolutely," Zobrist says, grinning. "There is no question. Some of us are, 'What are we doing? What is going on?' We just kind of roll with it. If there is anything you don't get, try not to figure it out. Just roll with it. More often than not it works, and that's the genius."
And so Maddon tinkers with his lineup, and he tries to create matchups, and he leaves outsiders wondering what he was thinking when.
"For me, my main objective is to help organize the day and then, and I mean this sincerely, stay out of the way during the game as much as I can," Maddon said. "I think it's only important to interfere when it's … like (Wednesday) night. I thought we had to interfere last night on Alex Cobb's 107th pitch when we got Joel Peralta in the game with a good matchup against (Nick) Swisher.
"I don't try to consider if I've made a difference or not. I just want to do my job on a daily basis. I tell myself to be consistent, be consistent, be consistent. When I walk in the door, I don't want my players to have any surprises about me."
At this point, of course, Maddon needs to start thinking. He has to find his way around an impressive pitching staff of the Red Sox, and he has to tame their hitting. He has to find a way to the next round.
After all, he is Tampa Bay's best.
Who else is going to plot a course?