ST. PETERSBURG — There's a word manager Joe Maddon wants to keep in mind as the Rays tonight open their season of grand expectation and urgency, letters so important he plans to write them on his lineup card as a daily reminder.
P … r …
"Process," Maddon said. "That's it. Just process. Oh, and you can't spell success without the last four letters of process."
If you were expecting the other P-word — pressure — then you're clearly in the wrong place.
For as Maddon begins his fifth season as manager, no matter the additions the Rays made for this year, the subtractions that might happen afterward and the overall all-in approach to running down the Red Sox and Yankees, Maddon insists there is no reason to change the plan or the purpose and definitely no concern about any pressure.
"The only time I hear about it is when you guys (in the media) talk about it. I don't even think about it any differently than 2006, 2007, 2008. I don't. That is not a part of my evaluation of the day," Maddon said.
"If you want to say it's there, it's there. But it doesn't matter. It's about us playing the game right."
That's the process, of course.
That's how he was when he arrived for his first full-time managing gig. And after winning an AL manager of the year award, having his option picked up and his contract extended, getting married, having his profile raised and his wine tastes, musical preferences and biking exploits become topics of public interest, he insists he's still doing things the same way.
The start was rough, with more to "clean up" than he could have imagined those first two seasons. From a widespread lack of trust to an entitlement program that had young players nearly "delusional" in their opinions of themselves, it took nearly two seasons for the culture and the clubhouse to improve.
"The stuff we ran into the first year I had never experienced in major-league baseball before," he said.
The Rays lost 197 games his first two seasons and won 181 his past two, but Maddon says he's not managing any differently.
He throws out the old line about how better players make a manager better and insists that any improvement he has made is because of the quality of the Rays staff and the volume of information available.
If you're among those who think he's occasionally "too smart," with all his matchups, platoons and nontraditional decisions (as well as his 123 different lineups and AL-high 510 pitching changes and 223 stolen base attempts), well, as politely as this can be said, he doesn't care.
"That would be like me being critical of somebody else at their job when I have no idea how it works," he said. "I couldn't walk into a doctor's office or an auto mechanic's shop and say that's really bad the way you changed that clutch, or that heart procedure, man, I can't believe how you went after the aorta. …
"With all due respect to everyone who is critical, it's okay — it doesn't bother me."
Besides, he's not making all those moves because he wants to: "Trust me, people, you wouldn't like it the other way if I didn't even try to do that."
He has learned some things, specifically the importance of a good start (enhanced this year by having 15 of their first 25 at home) and the double-whammy effects of the extended 2008 season and earlier-starting 2009 spring.
And he has plenty of new ideas, including what he admits "is the most naïve comment that anybody has ever made":
That if the Rays get back to the World Series, free-agents-to-be Carl Crawford and Carlos Peña would stick around. "I want to believe that people want to come here and stay here," Maddon said. "I want them to be Rays. I believe there's a part of them that they want to remain here. I do. …
"Why not be the first group that has players that are actually taking less money to be a Ray because they like it here, they like the organization, they like the opportunity to win on an annual basis. I also believe this: A new ballpark definitely helps that."
Above all, in case you couldn't tell, Maddon, 56, is still having fun. Loads of fun.
"Absolutely," he said. "It's a blast. Every day's a blast."
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]