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Tampa Bay Rays may not be able to hold on to Joe Maddon forever

In Hazleton, Pa., they still know him as Joey from the hill.

In Chicago, meanwhile, he's a potential savior.

In Boston, he's a distant dream.

In St. Louis, he's the one that got away.

It has taken some time, but it seems the rest of the world has finally come to appreciate Joseph John Maddon and all of his eccentricities.

He's 57 now, and essentially the same free spirit who left his parents' home almost 40 years ago in search of a different kind of life. For most of that time, he has been anonymous. Overlooked. Maybe even taken for granted.

Not anymore. The legend of the plumber's son grew a little more on Wednesday when he won his second American League manager of the year award.

And now Joe Maddon is the hottest commodity holding a lineup card.

"It is kind of strange," Maddon said Wednesday from Hazleton, where he is working on an integration project he recently initiated. "What makes it even more surreal is that I'm in Hazleton with all of this stuff going on. When you're among family and friends, and as tight-knit as we are, it puts a lot of things in perspective.

"To have all of this going on nationally, sometimes I have to step back and try to understand it all myself."

For a Tampa Bay fan, the fascination with Maddon's job status should be a matter of considerable pride. And perhaps a little concern.

You see, it was the Rays who took a chance on Maddon six years ago this week after he had been passed over as a managerial candidate dozens of times. They stuck by him through two losing seasons and now have one of the most acclaimed names in the game.

But there's a cost to that kind of success, and the question today is whether it will eventually be more than the Rays can afford.

Maddon still has one more year on his contract with Tampa Bay, but that did not stop the speculation when jobs opened in Boston, Chicago and St. Louis in the past month.

At least one of those teams contacted the Rays about the possibility of acquiring Maddon but was rebuffed.

There's no fear the Rays' skipper is going anywhere this offseason, but the future is a little less certain. The Rays say extension talks have been ongoing, but indications are they have not gotten off to a promising start.

Maddon has said, repeatedly and passionately, that he wishes to remain in Tampa Bay. But, every so often, a caveat shows up.

He talks with pride of the culture and camaraderie created within the Rays' management structure, and the possibility that Tampa Bay is in the early stages of a new tradition.

But he is not unaware of ownership's concerns about the future of this market, nor his own growing stature in other baseball towns.

"The iPad is a great thing. I go down to Starbucks and I read all of these (rumors). It really is incredible, and again a very humbling thought," Maddon said. "But at the end of the day, I'm under contract with the Rays.

"I don't want to have to go anywhere else for all the reasons I've already described."

And that is the line you might worry about. The idea Maddon might "have to go" somewhere else. Why would this be the case? Two reasons.

No. 1, if he becomes concerned that Stuart Sternberg might sell the team or that the payroll will be permanently locked in at baseball's poverty level.

No. 2, if he decides that he's being asked to leave too much money on the table in these contract negotiations.

Maddon's current salary is in the $1.3 million range, which would put him in the bottom half of major-league managers. For a two-time manager of the year, that is unacceptable.

The issue is what kind of raise he is seeking in his next deal. He has every right to expect a salary in the $2.5 million range, which would get him among the top 10 managers in the game, but the Rays are not inclined to spend that much on a manager.

So does Maddon take less? Does he sign a shorter extension with opt-out clauses? Do the Rays swallow hard and decide not to sabotage a good thing?

My gut feeling is that Maddon signs, but not for the long haul. I can see a shorter contract with mutual options so either side can feel somewhat protected.

It has taken Maddon a lifetime to get to this point. Unlike a Kirk Gibson or a Robin Ventura or a Joe Girardi, he did not reach the manager's office with a ton of money in his bank account. He spent two decades in the minors and another 10 years as a big-league coach, before finally becoming a hot commodity.

This is his time. This is his moment.

Joey from the hill has hit the big time.

Tampa Bay Rays may not be able to hold on to Joe Maddon forever 11/16/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, November 16, 2011 10:57pm]
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