Throughout the Rays' historic September comeback from nine games back to claim the wild-card spot, manager Joe Maddon was the calming force.
When they lost both games of a doubleheader against the Yankees Sept. 21, dropping 2½ games behind the Red Sox with seven to play, Maddon walked into the visitor's clubhouse and said, "I know we can still do this."
Quipped right-hander James Shields: "In September, the players might have been the only people in the world that were believing the stuff he was saying. But he believed in us."
Maddon's faith — and ability — was rewarded again Wednesday as he was nearly unanimously chosen American League manager of the year by the Baseball Writers Association of America. It's the second time in four years Maddon won the award, with the other after the Rays' 2008 World Series run.
Twenty-six of 28 voters had Maddon first on their ballot, with the Tigers' Jim Leyland finishing second and the Rangers' Ron Washington third.
"On an individual basis, I'm blown away by it," Maddon said. "To think this would happen twice in four years for me is very gratifying to me."
Maddon taking the Rays from the league's worst team to the World Series in 2008 was remarkable enough, but one can argue he did an even better job this season. With the Rays losing stars such as leftfielder Carl Crawford and first baseman Carlos Peña to free agency and trading right-hander Matt Garza before the season while having to revamp the bullpen, Maddon said they'd have to win "Another Way."
The Rays would then start the season 0-6 and lose projected DH Manny Ramirez to retirement and their best hitter, third baseman Evan Longoria, for a month due to an oblique injury. But the Rays became the first team in baseball history to overcome a nine-game deficit in September to make the postseason.
Maddon said it was an "organizational award" and that it "speaks to the culture that we created and the system we created," giving credit to principal owner Stuart Sternberg, executive VP Andrew Friedman and the entire scouting and minor-league staff.
"If you had this kind of support and this kind of help, for guys like me to win an award like this becomes somewhat easier," Maddon said.
It's that support that is a main reason Maddon, 57, has said he doesn't want to go anywhere else, though he admitted it was "surreal" to be mentioned as a potential candidate for the Cardinals and Red Sox jobs. Maddon is entering the final year of his contract.
"A better place to work? I don't think one exists in baseball," he said. "My goal has been to make the Rays into the next century's Yankees, Cardinals, Red Sox."
Maddon said while the 2008 season broke a lot of "negative barriers" and created a culture, this past season validated it.
"There really might have been less expectations this year than in 2008," Maddon said. "This is the fact the culture of 2008 works, the system that established in 2008 works, so that you can maybe move some people, not worry about the dollar sign and put together a good team that plays the game right, plays the game hard."
He becomes the seventh multi-winner of the AL award. The one BBWAA voter who left Maddon off the ballot was Chris Assenheimer, Elyria Chronicle-Telegram in Cleveland chapter. His ballot: Leyland, the Yankees' Joe Girardi and the Indians' Manny Acta. The only BBWAA voter who had Maddon second was Drew Davison of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. His ballot: Washington, Maddon, Leyland.
Assenheimer, taking heat for leaving Maddon off, tweeted "my bad," explaining he voted before the end of the regular season.
"He deserves it," Shields said. "One of the best things about Joe, and I think the reason why we've been to the playoffs three of the last four years is he knows how to put 25 guys together and really gel. No matter how much talent you have, how much money you spend as an organization, you still have to have that good chemistry. And I think he brings a lot of that to the table."
Joe Smith can be reached at [email protected]