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Maddon was the right man for the Rays

A 1982 baseball card shows Tampa Bay Rays skipper Joe Maddon as the manager of the Salem (Ore.) Angels.

Courtesy of the Salem-Keizer Volcanoes

A 1982 baseball card shows Tampa Bay Rays skipper Joe Maddon as the manager of the Salem (Ore.) Angels.

ST. PETERSBURG — Casey Stengel was more colorful. No argument there.

Billy Martin was more ferocious, and Tommy Lasorda was more obnoxious. Tony LaRussa has a reputation for being more studious, and Joe Torre is far more accomplished.

Yes, the list of managers with higher profiles and fatter resumes than Joe Maddon is lengthy and inarguable.

So let's not even pretend the Rays' manager sits in their company today.

The question you should be pondering — after Maddon came up one vote shy Wednesday of being the first unanimous winner of the American League manager of the year award — is whether you witnessed the greatest single-season job of managing in baseball history.

Scoff, if you like. Bring up sacrifice bunts, bullpen management and pinch-hitters, if you must. Just understand, the job Maddon did this season was shocking, to say the least. It was historic, to say the most.

This is a franchise that wasn't just wandering the desert the past 10 years, it was carrying a camel on its back. For the most part, the Rays were a joke nationally, and in a lot of ways, they were unloved locally. Their history was abysmal, and their future was supposed to be a distant point on the map.

So you begin spring training with that as your backdrop.

And then you realize the Rays were just the second team in history to go from the worst record in the major leagues one season to the World Series in the next. And they were the first team in the era of free agency to reach the Series when they started the season with the lowest payroll in their league.

Those facts alone are enough to eliminate a lot of contenders in this debate.

And then realize that none of the Rays hit above .300. And none was among the top 10 in the league in homers or runs scored. And none of the pitchers was in the top 10 in victories or ERA. Which suggests Maddon was working without a surplus of stars and did a remarkable job of mixing, matching and juggling his roster.

On top of all that, the Rays had one of the youngest lineups in the majors and were playing in baseball's richest, and toughest, division.

Does all that add up to a new standard for skippers? Beats me. But I do know the job Maddon did from February to October is worthy of any conversation on the topic. He was as good as Bobby Cox in 1991 with the Braves. As good as Gil Hodges with the Mets in 1969. As good as Leo Durocher with the Giants in 1951.

What Maddon, 54, did goes far beyond ordering a hit-and-run or bringing in a left-handed reliever. Strategy may be the most visible part of a manager's job — and it's usually a fan's greatest complaint — but it's terribly overrated.

This isn't football, where a coach's game plan is critical. The difference in strategy from one manager to the next is pretty miniscule over a season. The true measure of a manager is in the environment he creates in a clubhouse and his ability to get the most out of his players.

And in that sense, Maddon may have been without peer in '08.

"One of our biggest challenges coming in was changing the culture and creating a destination spot where our own players wanted to stay and free agents wanted to come," Rays executive vice president Andrew Friedman said. "In 2006, our own players didn't want to be here, and Joe has been an integral part of changing that mind-set.

"We are beyond the point of players wanting to stay. Now I'm getting calls from agents because players around the league want to come here. Word spreads quickly, and that speaks to the environment Joe created."

I suppose it is fitting Maddon was named the American League's best manager on the same day Lou Piniella was given the National League award. For it was Piniella's frustration here that led to owner Stuart Sternberg buying out his contract and eventually bringing Maddon to town.

Piniella is one of the highest-paid managers in the game. This is his third manager of the year award and puts him a step closer to a possible Hall of Fame flourish to his career.

And yet, I'm fairly confident in saying the Rays would not have reached the World Series with Piniella as manager this season. They may not have even come close. Maddon was the right man at the right time, and he may have even been the only man, considering all that was overcome.

Does this mean he deserves most of the credit for Tampa Bay's breakthrough season? No. If I were listing the reasons in order of importance, Friedman probably ranks higher. And Evan Longoria, Jason Bartlett, James Shields, Matt Garza and Carlos Pena weren't bad themselves.

Heck, this may not have even been the best job of Maddon's career.

A lifetime ago, he was a 28-year-old rookie manager in Oregon with a team of teenagers and a handful of college-age players on his roster. The Class A Salem Angels went 34-36 that season, yet somehow managed to win a division title in the Northwest League. In the league championship, they faced the Medford A's, who were an astounding 53-17 in the regular season.

Salem swept Medford, and Maddon was named the Northwest League manager of the year.

Wednesday afternoon, those memories seemed a world away. Maddon was married Saturday, left for his honeymoon Tuesday, arrived in Rome on Wednesday and got word he was the American League manager of the year two hours later. This morning he was off to the Sistine Chapel.

I suppose we should all take time to appreciate a masterpiece when we see one.

John Romano can be reached at romano@sptimes.com.

Maddon was the right man for the Rays 11/12/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, November 19, 2008 11:19pm]

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