Joe Maddon didn't start out in the Tampa Bay dugout as such a good manager. The then-Devil Rays lost a major league-most 197 games his first two seasons, and there was some question — at least publicly — whether the team would pick up the option to bring back the eclectic guy with the unconventional strategies, big-word vocabulary and hipster glasses that outsiders scoffed must have been rose-tinted.
Today, as Maddon starts his ninth season leading the Rays, there is no debate about how well it worked out. The two American League manager of the year awards, four playoff appearances (and two AL East titles) over six straight winning seasons, .522 winning percentage and third-longest tenure of any major-league manager all stand in testament.
"It's gone great," Maddon said. "Where we hit the ground was kind of difficult, but where we've gotten to has been a lot of fun and very interesting. Outside of winning the World Series, it really couldn't have gone any better than it has. Not just the performance on the field, but the whole way the organization has developed."
Maddon, 60 now, said he would come across "way too cocky and pretentious" to say he knew they would win this much. But he also insists — despite it being his first full-time big-league managing job after a long career in the minors and a couple of interim stints with the Angels — that he never lost confidence, that as long as he was given enough time to build a team and create a culture, it could be successful.
"I never doubted," he said. "I really didn't."
The combination of success — unconventional game strategies, clubhouse methods and all — and personality have made Maddon one of the game's most popular and respected managers. The Rays will soon get to show their appreciation as Maddon — who has never expressed interest in going elsewhere (and is opening a restaurant, Ava, this summer in Tampa) — has one more season after this one on his third contract, paying him an undervalued $2 million a year on average.
To get a sense of what has made Maddon so successful, we asked some Rays who have played and coached elsewhere to describe what it's like doing so for him, and (with help from some other writers) nine other AL managers what it's like to go up against him. Here are excerpts:
FROM THE RAYS DUGOUT
Joel Peralta, Rays reliever
(Previously with Angels, Royals, Rockies, Nationals)
"If I tried to compare it to the other teams I've been on, I can't because he's the best. … These guys are unbelievable the way they treat players and I think the main reason is Joe Maddon — the freedom he gives us, the relationship he's created with each and every one of us, and the confidence. He says just to go out there and have fun like when we were kids, and we enjoy the game because of him."
Matt Joyce, outfielder
(Previously with Tigers)
"Joe understands how hard of a game it is, and he keeps things in perspective. … It's just his attitude. How he views things is a little different — he has great insight, great perspective, great ideas."
Jim Hickey, pitching coach
(Previously with Astros)
"It's easy to coach for Joe Maddon, and it would be easy to coach for Joe Maddon no matter if he was the nutty professor of managers, or the most conservative by-the-book guy there was, because of his personality. … He certainly keeps it fresh and keeps it interesting. … Sometimes you've got to rein him in a little bit on some of his aspirations, if you will, which is fun. … I really, really enjoy working for him and (executive VP Andrew Friedman) because they are never concerned what public reaction or media backlash might be — he does things because he believes it's the right thing to do."
Derek Shelton, hitting coach
(Previously with Indians)
"He's not afraid to do anything outside the box. And it looks like a lot of things are outside the box but they are well thought out — it's not something he just does spur of the moment. … He surprises me all the time, but I think that's part of the method to the madness, not only during the game but the other things he does — to keep us on our toes and keep us sharper."
FROM OTHER DUGOUTS
"The style of play is the most unique thing. If there is such a thing as being unpredictable in baseball, they are. Safety squeeze, they'll look to run, hit and run. Everything that is available inside of a given game, they probably worked on it, and you have to defend against it. … I've managed against him for three years now and there are no real surprises. But you have to be aware."
"He'll try anything. He kind of throws the book out the window. … He's not an all-numbers guy, but he's a smart dude so he'll look at the matchups and go left on left. … He's not scared to try anything. He's a confident dude. You have to be on your toes."
"He's not doing anything other people aren't doing. … I haven't seen something that makes me go, 'God, I've never seen that before.' … I have a lot of respect for Joe — I think he's very good, and he's done a good job of figuring out what works for them."
"He has a lot of pieces on his club that do a lot of different things, so it's not really a predictable team from an offensive standpoint. … Joe has always been someone that has tried to be ahead of the curve. … Joe is innovative. That's who he is."
"His preparation is off the charts — was as a coach, is as a manager. All the attributes you need to manage, he has them. He's connected with his players, puts them in good position, understands strategies and tendencies, he's incredible. … Joe is great at looking at strengths and weaknesses of the clubs he's playing and seeing if he can get some kind of advantage with a matchup or whatever it might be. … He's definitely a progressive thinker in this game."
"Unpredictable. Against Joe and his team, you're always uneasy — and I don't like to get distracted. But you never know with him. … For a while, it was the first-and-third safety (squeeze) thing. The next thing you know, they're running double steals off picks. He's always coming up with stuff to keep you on your toes — and you'd better be on your toes."
"You have to be prepared for the unexpected, because he'll do it at any time. And his players buy in. There's a lot of reasons why people are successful, but he's gotten his guys to buy in. They'll do anything at any time, and they're pretty talented."
"You just never know what Joe is going to do. He's had versatility over there and he uses it as anyone can. You just hope you play a game where you can keep them off the bag and keep them out of situations because his mind is always working. You think he's going to go one way or that he should do something and he does something completely different, and it works out for him. He knows his personnel very well."
"The thing that's unusual about the Rays in general is they have all these working parts, people that can play anywhere and everywhere. So he does all kinds of stuff. … He uses his bullpen — it's not always left-right with him. … He's fun to manage against, I tell him that all the time: 'It's fun to watch your club play.' They're very athletic, and they're a very intelligent baseball team. And it starts with him.''
Marc Topkin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @TBTimes_Rays.