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Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon unruffled by criticism

ST. PETERSBURG

Joe Maddon stands accused.

From the sound of it, the allegations are serious. Maddon, 56, has been charged with unreasonable tinkering of a lineup, with aggravated pitch-counting and with over-quoting rock musicians.

Also, there are assertions of bullpen mismanagement, of failure to pinch-hit often enough and in his interpretation of what a day off is, particularly in the case of Dioner Navarro, who everyone seems to agree doesn't get enough of them. If you read the blog comments or listen to talk radio, you might suspect Maddon could also be charged with going 0-16 while the rest of the Rays are currently at 34-0.

How does Maddon plead?

Well, for starters, he pleads "scoreboard."

After that, he confesses that he's a little amused.

"Honestly? I think it's kind of funny," Maddon says of the criticism. "I really do think it's humorous. Frankly, these people don't know what they're talking about. I would never go into a person's place of business where I've never been and feel comfortable in telling them how to do their jobs. Most of the critics, even the average fans, have no idea what it's like to work a major-league clubhouse. It's not at all what they think it is.

"All the things we do, all the things we might try, whether it's lineups or plays or pitching, are really well thought out."

It is Friday afternoon, four hours before the Rays take the field for a game against the Chicago White Sox. Maddon is sitting in his office with hitting charts for that night's game. His lineup card, jammed with statistics and notes he has jotted down, is beside his left hand.

Outside, where fans converse, court is in session. Isn't it always? Part of this is the job, of course. Yet somehow, the barbs tossed at Maddon seem more pointed, more harsh. Maybe it's because critics never take a day off.

Considering the standings, and considering the lousy history of the franchise, the unrest seems a little strange. After all, these are the glory days of the Rays. They have the best record in baseball. Despite a disappointing homestand, they still lead the American League East by 41/2 games. They are in their third season of being a team that matters, and Maddon has managed them in every one of those.

Darn him.

Even in a bottom-line profession, success has not insulated Maddon from daily criticism. There are those who will suggest Maddon had nothing at all to do with the World Series run of 2008 and everything to do with the underachievement of 2009. Which is, of course, silly. This week, there was an afternoon radio sports talk-show host who suggested that it was because of Maddon the Rays were no-hit by Dallas Braden, as though a manager should be able to win a game in which none of his hitters reaches first base. Which is, of course, even sillier.

Look, this isn't to say Maddon should be criticism-proof. No one is. There is a website where people want to fire Joe Torre of the Dodgers, and one where people want to fire Jim Leyland, and one where people want to fire Lou Piniella. Name a manager, from Joe Girardi to Charlie Manuel to Tony La Russa, and there are sites that wonder how the guy stays employed. It is natural that Maddon has his doubters. But this many? And this loud?

For the record, it was my idea, not Maddon's, for him to address the most common criticisms. Maddon spoke without anger. He never turned defensive. But if you're asking, no, he wasn't asking for advice, either.

Allegation No. 1: The great pitch-count swindle

For some reason, this is the charge that seems to anger people the most. Yet, three of the Rays' starters are in the top seven in the American League in innings pitched. And last year? The Rays' starters pitched more innings than any team in the league. If the Rays are counting pitches, its seems they have lost the calculator.

"I'm not going to let them go out there and pitch like crazy," Maddon said. "If you do, you're looking for an arm problem. As a former catcher, I think I have a good feel for our pitchers. When you have guys as competitive as ours, you're never going to make them happy. But I want them healthy enough so they can pitch in a World Series."

Allegation No. 2: The batting-order hijack

In a recent game against Seattle, Gabe Kapler hit third. In games against Houston and Chicago, platoon catcher John Jaso hit third. Despite early struggles, Ben Zobrist has hit third. And if that isn't enough, B.J. Upton hit leadoff far too often last year.

So what does Maddon look for in a lineup? Put simply, he wants guys with high on-base percentages hitting early, with Evan Longoria and Carlos Peña in the middle to drive them home. And so, depending on the opposing pitcher, he tinkers.

"We have some really good folks doing our advance scouting," Maddon said. "We look into the opposing pitcher and our hitters and talk about what might work."

Allegation No. 3: Redefinition of idle time

When is an off day an off day? Not when a game is on the line.

Lately, Maddon has taken to talking about "off" days and "off-off days." By the second one, he says, he doesn't want a player to even wear his spikes. But like most managers, he'll use a player in the late innings to play defense or pinch-hit.

"If you can raise the level of defensive proficiency late in a game, you do it," Maddon said. And let's be honest. If Maddon kept Carl Crawford or Upton on the bench and lost a game because an opponent hit the ball over the head of the player in their place, he would be criticized. And he would deserve it.

Allegation No. 4: Failure to hit in a pinch

When a regular is struggling at the plate, why not pinch-hit for him? Especially when the game is on the line?

Maddon drew fire after a 2-0 loss to Boston last week. With a runner on first, he let Peña and Upton bat. On the bench, he had Hank Blalock, Jaso and Reid Brignac, all with good averages. So why not pinch-hit?

"No, you're not going to do that," Maddon said. "Peña has hit over 40 home runs for the last three seasons. I don't know that he was going to hit one out there, but a lot of it has to do with confidence and how a player feels about himself. This guy was an All-Star last year. As far as B.J., you're trying to build his confidence. Maybe you think about it if was the playoffs and things were going badly, but not in the middle of May.

"I honestly believe this. The average fan in the dugout wouldn't have pinch-hit for them, either. It's easy to say, but when you're in the dugout, I'd bet dollars to doughnuts they would have made the same decision."

Allegation No. 5: Breaking the mold

Let's face it. Hollywood would never cast Maddon as a manager. He wears Buddy Holly glasses, and he talks about things like swing planes, and he came up with 9=8, and he has a car named Babaloo. As you might have heard, he enjoys a nice glass of wine.

Maybe that's part of the reason for the criticism. He doesn't demonstrate a lot of gruff.

"I think I'm very orthodox," Maddon said. "I'm not old school or new school. I'm about what's happening right now."

Allegation No. 6: That whole thing with 2009 turning sour

This much is true. Last season wasn't nearly as good as it should have been. If you are going to give Maddon credit for the way he turned around the clubhouse in 2008 — and you should — then it's fair to say his fingerprints were on last year's disappointment, too.

"I think we were all culpable," Maddon said. "I don't know what level. From my perspective, I think I needed to do a better job coaching the coaches. That was my evaluation."

Allegation No. 7: Maddon doesn't know baseball

This one is simply untrue. Agree with his style or not, Maddon is a bright guy who has spent his life in a dugout. He didn't stumble into this job.

If you believe — as many do — that a manager's job is to set a tone in the clubhouse, Maddon has certainly changed the atmosphere since his arrival.

"I think I'm pretty solid as a manager," Maddon said. "I think my prep is good. I think in-game I'm good. Dealing with the players, interaction in the clubhouse with the coaches, my relationship with the front office. I feel very comfortable with the job I do. I feel like I'm a very competent fifth-year manager."

Of course, those scoring at home may disagree.

In baseball, they usually do.

Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon unruffled by criticism 05/29/10 [Last modified: Saturday, May 29, 2010 11:48pm]

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