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What if Rays didn't have Maddon?

ST. PETERSBURG — Those Hugo Boss glasses could still be in Anaheim.

Think about that. There would be no wine rack in the manager's office this morning. Nine would no longer equal eight. And, in all likelihood, the Rays would not be the champions of the American League East.

For, in some alternate universe, Joe Maddon is the manager of the Angels.

It could have happened that way, you know. He spent 31 years in the Angels' employ and was twice a candidate for their manager's job. Once in 1996, and again in '99. He also interviewed for the Diamondbacks job in '04 and had a look-see with the Mariners that winter, too. And he darn near got the Red Sox job instead of Terry Francona in 2003.

It's worth considering this morning just how many stars had to align for Tampa Bay to be 48 hours away from playing in the postseason. You could say the Rays would not be here if not for a Ben Zobrist home run against Toronto that jump-started the second half. Or you could say the Dan Johnson homer in Fenway was the season's watershed moment.

But maybe, just maybe, none of that would have mattered if some maverick general manager had been more willing to take a chance on this minor-league-playing, iPod-wearing, eclectic offspring of a plumber and a waitress.

Five times Maddon was a candidate to be a big-league manager. Five times, he was passed by.

"I think I may have come relatively close the second time in Anaheim, I'm not quite sure," Maddon said while sitting on a dugout bench in Detroit just hours before the Rays would clinch the AL East. "I don't think I met all of (GM) Bill Stoneman's requirements. And that's cool. I get all that. When Boston came along, I think I did meet a lot of their requirements, and I think it was the same with the Diamondbacks.

"I always believed it would happen. But I always knew it had to be the right spot, too."

So what made Tampa Bay the right spot? And what did the Rays see in Maddon that others failed to recognize?

Well, you could say the Rays had less to lose than some of those other franchises, with their higher payrolls and more grandiose expectations. You could also say the Rays would have time to reassess because they knew it would take at least two years to become a competitive club.

The truth is, the details that might have made others shy away from Maddon are exactly what attracted the Rays to him. He was not a retread, and he was not stuck in some old-time baseball time warp. He was more erudite than crusty. He had never been a big-league manager, but then Stuart Sternberg had never been a big-league owner.

The Rays wanted to establish their own way of doing things, and that made Maddon an intriguing fit. He had been on the big-league staff in Anaheim long enough that he would not be some off-the-wall experiment, but he was also inquisitive enough to embrace some of the new-age concepts in Tampa Bay's front office.

"You could tell he would be a good communicator, and the intellect was apparent from the very start," executive vice president Andrew Friedman said. "Joe has been everything we thought he would be, and then some."

And, yet, that white-haired Mohawk might never have made it to Tampa Bay.

It wasn't just that a handful of other teams failed to snatch up Maddon. Or that a couple more ignored him completely (he was disappointed he didn't get job interviews in Pittsburgh in 2000 and Kansas City in 2002).

But it was also that the Rays actually interviewed nine others before the Angels finally granted permission to speak to Maddon.

And the scary part is that Friedman, Gerry Hunsicker and Matt Silverman talked to a lot of candidates who were everything Maddon was not. They talked to a Hall of Fame player (Mike Schmidt) and a former MVP (Terry Pendleton). They talked to a flamboyant World Series manager (Bobby Valentine) and a Detroit icon (Alan Trammell).

A lot of the candidates were mere formalities and not serious contenders. The final choices came down to Maddon and former Rays bench coach John McLaren, but that decision wasn't really close, either.

What should frighten you this morning is the possibility that Joe Girardi could have been in the picture.

Girardi was very impressive in his Tampa Bay interview, but the Marlins were already pushing hard for him to accept their offer, and the Rays wanted to wait until the Angels were eliminated from the postseason to talk to Maddon.

So could this season have been possible if someone other than Maddon had been in charge for three years?

Naturally, that's an impossible question to answer. But it is hard to imagine many managers having the patience Maddon showed while losing 101 games in 2006, the personality to instill trust and discipline in 2007 and the uncanny ability to push all the right buttons during a wondrous 2008.

"I always thought the most important quality of a major-league coach is to listen. For 10 years, I listened, and I watched. I still think that's one of the most important things I do," Maddon said. "I've often said, 'Okay, what is the equivalency rate? Ten years as a major-league coach, how much does that equal as a major-league player? Does that give me a month in the big leagues? Does that give me six months? Does it give me two years? How much does that qualify me, being here for 10 years and paying attention?'

"I really don't know, but I can say, by the time I got this job, I felt really comfortable in regard to who I was and how I wanted to work with players on a daily basis."

If you think about it, you have seen something like this before.

A dozen years ago, the Buccaneers took a chance on a long-time assistant coach who kept getting passed over for the top job. Tony Dungy, like Maddon, was a quiet, thoughtful and kind man. He didn't yell, and he didn't curse.

All Dungy did was establish a way of doing things in Tampa Bay. He taught his players to believe and, eventually, he convinced us to do the same. The Bucs had been sniffing around Steve Spurrier and Jimmy Johnson but, instead, it was Dungy who took the most hapless team in the NFL and turned it into one of the league's most proud franchises.

It is too soon to say if Maddon's legacy will grow as large as Dungy's, but you have to like the direction it is going.

Most of all, you have to be thankful he is here at all.

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

What if Rays didn't have Maddon? 09/29/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, October 1, 2008 4:59pm]
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