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Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon puts his stamp on baseball's All-Star Game

ST. LOUIS — The commissioner found an exit quite some time ago. So did the honorary presidents of the American and National leagues. The two starting pitchers are nowhere to be found, and the manager of the NL All-Star team is gone, too.

The few dozen honored guests herded into a hotel ballroom by Major League Baseball on Monday morning are down to their last celebrity. Fortunately for them, it took a lifetime for Joe Maddon to get here, and he's in no hurry to walk away.

He introduces himself to the man in a Phillies jersey. He shakes hands with the guy in the Yankees top. He is taking pictures with everyone, carrying on conversations as if these strangers had been invited into his living room.

You could make a pretty good argument that this game has never seen a more unlikely manager than the skipper of the Rays. He is one of 10 All-Star managers to have never played in the majors, but none was as old as Maddon before taking over a big-league ballclub.

None had a grand total of 514 at-bats in the minor leagues. And none took a path from Quad Cities to Salinas to Santa Clara to Idaho Falls to Salem to Peoria to Midland and dozens of other points in between in a 17-year apprenticeship in baseball's minor leagues.

"I've thought about that. Not having played in the big leagues, really being a minimal minor-league player and getting this opportunity now," Maddon said. "It really is staggering."

Which is why it is important that Maddon, 55, is here. He earned this by taking Tampa Bay to the World Series in 2008, but he deserves it because of a career built from the bottom up.

What Maddon brings to this All-Star Game is possibilities. Possibilities for the college baseball player ignored in the draft. Possibilities for the minor-league manager who is 16 games under .500 in his debut in rookie ball. Possibilities for the big-league coach passed over time after time for a manager's job.

In a game surrounded by stars, Maddon is baseball's everyman.

"Joe is a survivor. Joe is a guy who adapts. He is a guy who continues to educate himself, and those are all admirable traits," said Mariners manager Don Wakamatsu, who has known Maddon since Wakamatsu was a player at Arizona State 25 years ago. "He's like a fine wine; he just keeps getting better with age. He has a great demeanor; he's very intelligent. He understands people.

"I talked to him years ago, when we were together with Anaheim, and he told me about some of his experiences as a minor-league manager. He said there were times he never wanted to manage again because of the struggles and difficulties. And look at him now."

Now he is standing next to the batting cage on the field at Busch Stadium. Dodgers manager Joe Torre is on his left. College basketball legend Bobby Knight is on his right. Nearby is Tony La Russa and famed US Airways pilot Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger.

It has been like this for much of the day. Maddon began with a charity breakfast with Cal Ripken Jr. and some big-shot donors from Naples. He went from chatting with Bud Selig in the Hyatt Regency lobby to a news conference (where he got big laughs for introducing every All-Star by first name only, in honor of leadoff hitter Ichiro) and then interviews with ESPN and Fox Sports.

By midday, he was wandering through the hotel lobby looking for his wife, Jaye. It seems the man in charge of securing homefield advantage for the American League in the World Series had lost the card key for his hotel room.

"It's been a wild day," he said later, sitting in the coaches' room in the visiting clubhouse with the commissioner waiting just outside the door to talk to him.

He never imagined himself sitting here. Not as a bench coach in Anaheim in the 1990s, not as a minor-league manager in the 1980s, not as a college player in the 1970s and not as a kid lying on the floor of his bedroom in Hazleton, Pa., and listening to Cardinals games on his transistor radio in the 1960s. He wanted to be a big-league manager, but his dreams did not extend to the All-Star Game.

And so the best part of his day was bringing his players together in the clubhouse before batting practice. He stood in front of Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera and Joe Mauer and Roy Halladay, and he began talking.

He congratulated them on being All-Stars. He explained that he wanted them to incorporate their own styles, meaning they were free to steal or bunt or whatever else they were comfortable doing. He talked about logistics and expectations.

And then he began telling them what it meant to be an All-Star. How it was a moment that should not be taken for granted. That it was an honor and an experience to be enjoyed. That they did not want to wake up later in the week and realize they had not taken the time to appreciate what this moment meant in their careers and lives.

He had not written the speech down, but it was familiar to him nonetheless.

It was what he had been telling himself all day.

John Romano can reached at romano@sptimes.com.

Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon puts his stamp on baseball's All-Star Game 07/13/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, July 15, 2009 11:39am]
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