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Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon's genius occurs mostly behind the scenes

ST. PETERSBURG — This is a column about managerial strategy. Even if it was a decision never meant to be dissected.

This was in the hours after the Rays' victory against the Indians on Sunday. The game, you may recall, when Rays manager Joe Maddon made national news for a lineup card gaffe that cost Tampa Bay the use of the designated hitter.

Maddon had immediately, and unequivocally, accepted responsibility for the mistake. Now, he could have easily mentioned it was someone else who typed out the lineup card. He could have insinuated others were in charge of proofreading. Instead, Maddon said the blame was his alone. And when he found out a reporter was sniffing deeper for context, Maddon refused to budge.

"I hope they use a big (bleeping) headline that says it was my fault," Maddon told someone in his office.

By now, you may be wondering what this has to do with managerial strategy. Listen, then, to what reliever Dan Wheeler had to say about Maddon on Wednesday afternoon in the Rays clubhouse.

"One of the things Joe is always preaching is being accountable. Being accountable to yourself, and to your teammates," Wheeler said. "A perfect example is the mistake with the lineup. Joe stood in front of the media and took all the blame himself. That's the accountability he's talking about. Those are the kind of little things he does."

And therein lies the genius of Joe Maddon. He turned a mistake into a lesson and didn't care if it cost him any humiliation along the way. All of which explains why you should be thankful today he is about to sign a three-year contract extension.

Managerial strategy is more than the sacrifice bunt or the intentional walk. It is more than choosing a lefty or righty in the eighth. A manager's best work is not done in the dugout in the evenings, but in the clubhouse in the afternoon. In the hotel lobby in the morning. In his office behind closed doors deep in the night.

In that way, baseball is far different from other sports. Most football coaches are hired for their game plans. Basketball coaches bring specific systems to their franchises. Baseball managers are rarely graded by that scale.

Bobby Cox has not won more than 2,300 games because he always outsmarts the guy in the other dugout. Joe Torre did not win four World Series rings because he asked Derek Jeter to move a runner over.

They win, mostly, because of the talent. But also because they know how to manage that talent. They know how to keep 25 guys happy. To keep everyone motivated from April to October. To keep distractions to a minimum.

This is the gift Maddon brought to Tampa Bay. He changed the culture in a clubhouse that had forever been glum.

"It's his personality," first baseman Carlos Peña said. "How he's able to relate to the players. How he puts the players in a comfort zone and pretty much knows how to bring out the best in everybody. And at the same time, he keeps that respect. I always say that's a huge paradox because you need to respect the manager, so there needs to be this distance."

Maddon was patient when he needed to be in the early years. He was angry when necessary with Delmon Young. He gave tough love to B.J. Upton. And he has shown faith in players when everyone else was ready to move on.

Granted, the Rays have not been very good in 2009. The starting pitching has been wildly inconsistent, and there have been too many easy outs in the lineup. Which is why this contract extension comes at the perfect time.

It never has been the policy of the Rays front office to extend contracts before necessary unless there was a financial benefit involved. In this case, they broke their own rules. Why? I can only surmise it was because the team was off to a less-than-exemplary start, and ownership wanted no chatter about Maddon's job being in jeopardy.

It wasn't so much for the manager, but for the players.

"I think it sends a message," said bench coach Dave Martinez. "I know Stu (Sternberg) and Matt (Silverman) and Andrew (Friedman) believe in Joe, and believe in the job he has done here. What this does is show everybody that we're in this together, and we're going to stick together. We've been through managers here before, but now we've got some stability."

Most managers have a short shelf life. Cox and Torre and Tony La Russa are exceptions to the rule. (And even the three of them have been replaced more than a half dozen times.) It is not a stretch to say the day will come when Maddon's message is no longer working in the clubhouse. When a new voice is necessary in Tampa Bay.

But that time is not now.

And the Rays were wise enough to recognize that.

John Romano can be reached at romano@sptimes.com.

Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon's genius occurs mostly behind the scenes 05/20/09 [Last modified: Thursday, May 21, 2009 6:36am]
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