Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon has reshaped the role of team skipper

ST. PETERSBURG

The boy did not know any better. His entire world was contained in a handful of city blocks in Hazleton, Pa., and was forever monitored by a small army of relatives on the Polish and Italian sides.

When he went to parochial school in the morning, he walked in a crowd of cousins. When he came home after school, he hung out on the back porch of his family's plumbing shop where everyone came to play cards and mingle.

If the nuns were around to teach him discipline and organization, his father, Joe, was there to teach him just about everything else. Not so that young Joey ever noticed. Years would pass before he truly understood the importance of something as simple as his father's smile.

"I wish to God my father and all of my uncles were still alive to see this," said Joey's brother, Mark. "They were all the same. It was like they never had a bad day in their lives. They worked hard, believe me, I know that. But you would never think they had a problem. My father always had a smile on his face, never had a bad word to say to anyone, always looking to help someone else.

"He loved what he did, just like Joe now. It's the exact same thing. It's not a facade; it's how we grew up. I know that it can be hard sometimes for people to understand. When I went to college, I would bring my friends home on weekends, and they'd say, 'Is it always like this? Always this many people around? This much food? It's like everybody knows everybody.'

"I wish every kid could grow up the way we did. I really do."

Years later, fans of the Tampa Bay Rays would wonder:

Why isn't Joe Maddon more critical? How can he be so loyal to slumping players?

Just remember:

It's not a facade.

It's how he grew up.

• • •

For the longest time, there was little variation in the DNA of baseball managers.

You had crusty and you had paternal, and little else in between. They talked a certain way, they behaved a certain way, and they all pretty much managed the same way. In a sport that worships tradition, it was a one-size-fits-all kind of job.

So who let Joe Maddon in?

He of the California chic style. With the bookshelves and wine rack in his office. With the inspirational quotes, the goofy team-building exercises and the middle finger that seems permanently raised at the establishment.

To understand how Maddon got here, you probably need to go back to Pennsylvania.

It's now the early 1970s, and he has left Hazleton for the first time. Granted, he's only 50 miles down the road at Lafayette College, but for Maddon, it's like another world.

He always had a touch of free spirit in him. An appreciation for those who stepped away from the crowd. His father was a Bart Starr fan. Solid, conservative, dependable Bart Starr. So, of course, the son became a Joe Namath fan. White shoes, long hair, starlets-on-his-arm Joe Namath.

Those iconoclast tendencies became full blown at this liberal arts college where Maddon was recruited to play football. He was easy to spot at Lafayette. Just look for the quarterback reading Slaughterhouse Five. A nonconformist in a conforming society is what he called himself.

"I was a hedonist, absolutely," Maddon said. "I had all of that going on."

He also was beginning to show signs of a man who would not just march to his own beat, but who would tap out an entirely new rhythm. On his second day of fall practice in his sophomore season, when he was No. 1 on the depth chart at quarterback, Maddon came to the realization that baseball better suited his personality. So he apologized to his football coach and handed in his playbook.

The decision cost him his financial aid and put a strain on his family's budget. It also caused the only serious rift he ever had with his father. In retrospect, it was a ridiculous decision. He was a marginal baseball prospect, so there seemed to be little reason to give up tuition money to chase a long-shot fantasy.

Yet it helps explain the Maddon you see in the dugout today. The one who is confident in his choices and who doesn't give a rip if his decisions leave him vulnerable to second-guessing.

"Joe has always had a very strong belief system," said Jim Curnal, a teammate at Lafayette. "You could have 15 guys who decided to do X, but if it wasn't right for Joe, he was going to be very comfortable doing Y. And he didn't care what anyone else thought. Looking back, it's a pretty remarkable example of confidence and independence for a 21-year-old."

This is the same guy who took advantage of his time in the minor leagues with the Angels to turn strategies inside out and discover the narrow margin between theory and application. A manager not afraid to give up his DH, or bring one of his outfielders in as a fifth infielder, or intentionally walk a slugger with the bases loaded or use a catcher to bat leadoff.

This is the manager others would mock for his ideas in the minors, who would tell him to knock off the nonsense and stick to the tried and true. And when they looked the other direction, he would go right back to his own way of doing things.

This is the bridge between Kurt Vonnegut and Tommy Lasorda.

"With all due respect to Tommy, I never wanted to be him. There's a lot of guys I never wanted to be," Maddon said. "For me to do this, and do it well, I believe you've got to be yourself."

• • •

The message arrived early in his Rays tenure. An old friend was horrified to hear Maddon was enjoying a postgame glass of wine in the manager's office. Right in front of everybody. Put it away, Joe, his friend said. They'll crucify you, Joe. For heaven's sakes, drink a beer, Joe.

Instead, a wine rack was added.

There are those who believe Maddon makes a point of being different. That he enjoys the attention as baseball's erudite skipper. And maybe there is a scintilla of truth to that, for he does seem to enjoy tweaking those who resist change.

Yet as free-spirited as his image would have you believe, Maddon is actually very process-oriented. And much of his philosophy is based on a lot of old-school beliefs in terms of defense and small ball.

So perhaps it was fitting that, all these years later, Lafayette College recently honored Maddon in the most traditional manner possible. Thirty-four years after he left campus with a minor-league contract but no degree, Maddon was given an honorary doctorate of letters.

During the ceremony, Maddon's niece and nephew came to the stage with a small box. As he opened the gift in front 100 or so guests, Maddon discovered an Army-issued field Bible his father had carried during World War II. Inside the cover, he saw where his father had written his name, company and address in Hazleton.

And that's when baseball's maverick of the moment had to turn his back to the crowd.

"There was not a dry eye in the place," said Joe's sister Carmine Parlatore. "The president of the school, his wife, everyone there was teary-eyed. And they didn't even know my dad. It was a perfect, perfect night."

In a way, a life had come full circle. Maddon was back home, back with his family and, as much as possible, back with his late father. It was just like the old days for little Joey. Well, sort of.

When he arrived at Lafayette that afternoon to give a speech on leadership to a group of faculty and students, he wore the garish blue plaid BRayser sport coat he designed for the team this season.

After all, you've got to be yourself.

Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon has reshaped the role of team skipper 10/05/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, October 6, 2010 1:37pm]

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