PORT CHARLOTTE — Joe Nelson knew only what he had seen, heard and read of Joe Maddon until Maddon called on a December afternoon to recruit the free agent reliever to sign with the Rays.
Thirty minutes of good conversation later, Nelson was a convert, awed by Maddon's personality, intelligence and passion for the game. And after six-plus weeks of spring training interaction, Nelson is even more impressed, raving about Maddon's ways of communicating with and encouraging each player, and using myriad methods to do so.
"I've played for people that when you walk down the hall, you're just hoping he doesn't call you into his office," Nelson said. "When you walk down Joe's hall, you're hoping he does call you into his office.
"He's probably going to have something either philosophical or highly intelligent, and it's going to make you laugh, because he wants to keep this light and fun. He knows there's enough pressure on you, self-imposed, and he's trying to find the best release for you. …
"All he wants is for you to be comfortable so you can perform how he expects you to, and how you're capable of."
Much was made of what Maddon did right last season. How his strategies, no matter how unorthodox, succeeded. How his hunches, no matter how unusual, paid off. How his in-game maneuvers, no matter how unexpected, worked out.
He managed the seriously woeful Rays into the World Series and suddenly the world noticed the funky glasses-wearing, big words-spewing, rock 'n' roll-listening, book-reading, bike-riding, wine-drinking, conversation-loving cross of a hard-scrabble Hazleton, Pa., background and California cool lifestyle.
Maddon, 55, worked the equivalent of a baseball miracle, and the accolades accumulated, crowned by an American League manager of the year award that was one vote shy of unanimous for the first time in its 26-year history.
But inside the Rays clubhouse, they reserve the loftiest praise for what Maddon didn't do.
His greatest impact wasn't how he changed any one game (though sending Dan Johnson up to pinch-hit in Boston was pretty good), but how he changed their entire existence.
"That's a no-brainer: It was definitely the attitude," said leftfielder Carl Crawford, the longest-serving Ray. "He did a great job taking that negative energy out and bringing in a positive energy. … He's always smiling, always happy and he finds a positive out of everything. It turns out that's the one thing that turned this whole thing around."
Maddon never wavered from his relentlessly positive approach, never — no matter what the latest injury or crisis — gave off a hint of worry. In the rare instances when he had reason to be upset, he was methodical about it.
"He never showed any emotion, he never got flustered," centerfielder B.J. Upton said. "There were times when s- - - could have gotten out of hand, and I can't remember one time when he showed us he was panicking."
Closer Troy Percival talks about Maddon's "confidence and his calm demeanor," how "when he says, 'I know this is going to work,' everyone's like, 'Okay.' " Nelson is struck by the rare ego-less way Maddon teaches, how "he wants you to feel like you kind of figured it out, and that's a rare quality in this game."
And to think in Maddon's first two seasons, some Rays, like some media and some fans, didn't know what to make of him. He didn't rant nor rave, didn't point fingers nor assign blame. He not only spoke of better days but insisted steadfastly they were coming soon, prefacing responses with phrases like "when we're playing in October."
"It was like, 'Do you realize we've lost the last 10 years here?' " pitcher James Shields said.
Maddon wasn't just different from predecessor Lou Piniella, he was at the other end of the spectrum.
"Basically we were going along with the plan, but it was a little different for us at the very beginning," said Scott Kazmir, another veteran. "We never had a manager like that. I don't think anyone's ever had a manager like that. But we bought into it, and now look where we're at."
"You've got to have that positive attitude, that drive, that there's nothing negative," Shields said. "I'm a firm believer in karma, I'm a firm believer in being positive and I'm a firm believer in mind over matter; if you can trick yourself into thinking you're going to be good then you're going to be good. …
"By him coming here with that positive attitude, it kind of gave us a positive outlook on what we were all about. And he's definitely looking like a genius, that's for sure."
Maddon, naturally, doesn't see it that way. It wouldn't be like him to find satisfaction in proving people wrong, and only slightly in proving that he was right.
"The validation is only that the things I had thought would work did, and can work," Maddon said. "And now I really believe the challenge for this year is to learn how to follow it up. I've presented all my different ideas, now I'm really eager to see how this year unfolds in regard to whether we handled it properly, post-World Series appearance."
Marc Topkin can be reached at email@example.com.