PORT CHARLOTTE — It starts with two men sitting side by side, the way they have for seven seasons, expressing similar thoughts, speaking similar ideas.
Andrew and Joe. Joe and Andrew.
Together, they are Tampa Bay's biggest hitmakers. The good news is, they have another release coming soon.
It was early afternoon on Monday, and Andrew Friedman and Joe Maddon, the brain and the heart of Tampa Bay's baseball operations, sat on matching stools and talked of the season to come. Both of them wore sunglasses, and both held their microphones in their right hands, and both had bottles of water in their left. Thanks to Maddon's hairdresser and her magic bottle of brown, both of them were brunettes.
Oh, and both expect the Rays to be pretty good.
These days, who doesn't?
For seven springs now, these two have been a fit. Together, the general manager and the manager have helped fashion the best moments of the Rays. They have set a new direction, and they have altered expectations, and they have changed the culture of a clubhouse. They have showered in champagne, and they have raised banners. They have ended the losing, and they have not been distracted by the winning.
Here they come again.
Look around. Anymore, what general manager and manager survive each other for seven years? It is a relationship that can grow acrimonious in a hurry. In other places, each can blame the other for failure. On other teams, each can step over the other to get the credit for success.
Here, after three playoff appearances and 368 regular-season victories in the past four years, the furniture remains unthrown.
After an offseason in which they both could have ended up elsewhere making more money, perhaps that is why they are still here. Friedman had opportunities to go elsewhere, either to the Astros or Angels. Maddon still had a year left on his contract, but if his goal was to make as much as possible, the Rays might have traded him or released him.
"In this division, with the resources we have to overcome, it's imperative that everyone is on the same page," Friedman said. "We work very hard to do that. It's easier to not communicate, to not have meetings, to not talk about certain things, because that takes time.
"We get it. We appreciate it. It's not lost on us what a special group of people that we have or how many talented people it has taken to get us to this spot. To have success in this division with all the resource disparity that we face is special. It's a driving force in our creative thought process. We have to approach things differently."
As it turns out, creative thoughts can get loud sometimes. Both Friedman, 35, and Maddon, 58, will tell you how much they admire each other, how much trust they share. But, sure, they argue. What's the old saying? That if two men always agree, one of them is not necessary.
"We do disagree," said Friedman, who in 2008 became the youngest man ever to win executive of the year. "We have a lot of very animated discussions. But it's never personal. It's always that we're coming at it with the purest of intentions to make this organization better, to win more games now and to win more in the future. Because both of us know that, everything is on the table. We can talk about anything, everything."
Said Maddon: "Maybe every couple of weeks during the season, we'll disagree. Maybe about a personnel decision, maybe about an in-game decision. The beauty of it is that we have thick enough skin or we're good enough buddies. We trust each other. It's a huge part of our success.
"He knows when he's upset me, and he knows how to get the conversation going back in the right direction. And vice versa. It's never about either one of us trying to be right. His ego is totally in his back pocket, and I'd like to believe mine is, too. If you get credit seekers, that's when things start breaking down. We use the words 'we' and 'us' a lot more than 'I' and 'me.' "
Friedman: "Typically, when someone brings something up, they're right. Because they've thought about it."
As much as anything, that may be why the two men are still together as the second-longest tenured duo in the majors, behind the Tigers' Dave Dombrowski and Jim Leyland.
During the offseason, both the Astros and Angels flirted with Friedman. Maddon still had a year left on his contract, but if it was obvious that money was going to be a dividing issue, the Rays might have let him go. The Cardinals, Cubs and Red Sox were all reportedly interested. Neither wanted to go, and Maddon signed a new contract.
"I'm making a great living here," said Maddon, who in the past four years has two firsts and a third in AL manager of the year voting. "It exceeds all my expectations. It comes down to being with people you want to work with. I don't know how to break that down into dollars and cents, but that matters a lot to me.
"Look what we've built here. Look what's on the horizon. There is a lot more coming. The last chapter is far from being written, and I want to be part of that. I don't need to be jumping around in different uniforms and pretending to be loyal when my loyalties are here."
Other places, managers are demanding different players. On other teams, general managers roll their eyes at manager's decisions. Not here.
It matters. In a baseball clubhouse, everything matters. When the front office is dysfunctional, players know it. When it is calm, everyone knows.
"When I was with the Royals, they were in transition," reliever J.P. Howell said. "It brings out a person's negativity. It's glaring. Any flaw in the room is loud. Here, we work at fixing flaws. These guys make a player feel like more than a number."
"As an organization, we have a pretty good vibe," pitcher James Shields said. "It hasn't always been that way."
So what's next for these two? Success? Playoffs? A new hair color?
"What color is that?" Friedman said, looking at Maddon's dye job. "Rust?"
Friedman laughed. Maddon, too.
From the sound of it, there are more smiles ahead.