Very few franchises are defined by their manager. Managers are more or less second-guessed dugout dwellers whose job it is to write the lineup card and push the right bullpen buttons.
Joe Maddon was more than that. Like Casey Stengel for the 1962 Mets, Maddon was the face of the Devil Rays from the day he was hired before the 2006 season. His trademark glasses, wine drinking, and involvement in the community endeared him to the fan base more than almost any of the players on the roster.
But now that face is gone. Now there will be another face in the Rays dugout calling the shots and outsmarting umpires.
In the nine years he managed the Rays, Joe Maddon created a team and a culture based on intelligence, teamwork, and winning. After sifting through the parts in 2006 and 2007, Maddon’s no-longer-Devil Rays had newfound confidence and attitude coming into 2008. They hadn’t proved it on the field, but in their minds, they believed. Once the season started, that attitude, along with emerging rookies and some key acquisitions made by the Sabermetric Keebler Elves in the front office, started turning into wins.
An extra-inning win over the Red Sox on April 25th.
A walk-off home run by Evan Longoria on May 9th.
A seven-game winning streak in July.
The first winning record clinched on August 29th.
First division championship clinched on September 23rd.
It wasn’t supposed to happen that fast. The Rays were supposed to grow slowly, add a few more pieces and creep into contention. While the team was young, Joe Maddon was the stable force providing the guiding hand and leading them to the promise land. Although they lost the World Series in 2008, Joe Maddon was secure in his place as the best Rays manager in franchise history.
In only his third year at the helm.
The following years brought more of the same. More wins, more confidence, and more flirting with the impossible. As long as they stayed the course and believed in the process, they would contend, Maddon promised. Despite the coming and going of other franchise faces.
In 2009, Scott Kazmir to Anaheim.
In 2011, Carl Crawford to Boston.
All-stars and popular players, each.
Doomsday predictions followed.
But Maddon kept the course. The process was followed. Ben Zobrist emerged as an all-star and leader. Evan Longoria became a family man, restaurateur, and franchise cornerstone. David Price won the Cy Young Award and a fan following.
Miracles happened and heroes emerged. But they wouldn’t have had the opportunity without Maddon’s leadership and commandeering.
Meanwhile, Maddon bicycled Bayshore and fed folks on Thanksmas. He was a community staple and fan favorite, especially for the adult demographic who felt too old to swoon over players half their age. Maddon had grown-up appeal.
He was just another Tampa resident. Albeit one who managed one of 30 Major League Baseball teams.
Following the 2012 season, James Shields was traded to Kansas City.
The Rays machine kept churning, securing the wild card and making the playoffs.
Unfortunately, 2014 happened and changed everything. What once worked, failed to. Things that shone bright failed to glisten. The same levers were pulled, but instead of jackpot, the Rays walked away busted. Even after bringing in a Seminole magic man.
Of course, we can’t underestimate the loss of Don Zimmer. Death has a way of leaving an irreplaceable hole. Maddon’s most trusted confidant was no longer watching by his side; he was watching from heaven above. While his presence was still felt, Zim could no longer provide guidance.
Roster moves are expected, but coaches aren’t supposed to join the great team in the sky a month into the season. I think Zimmer’s departure played a bigger part in the Rays 2014 season and the postseason fallout than is made public.
Perhaps in a way, Maddon wanted a reset. He wanted to move to a place where he wouldn’t be reminded of his lost friend and adviser. Perhaps the Rays dugout was too emotional to stay in and the memories too powerful for him to focus.
Just a theory.
But back to our story.
Despite the down year, there were highlights and hopes for brighter days ahead.
On July 31, the Rays dealt another yet another franchise face. But while David Price took his car, his twitter followers, and his little dog too to Detroit, Drew Smyly, with the guidance of Maddon and his coaching staff, pitched like an ace. He joined Alex Cobb, Chris Archer, and Jake Odorizzi as a formidable four that gave the Rays and their fan base hope.
Add the return of Matt Moore and the Rays knew they had nothing to fear. After one off-year, they would have five aces and Maddon still at the helm. Joe would push the right buttons to make each hard-fought run count.
Even after Andrew Friedman departed for the bright lights of Hollywood, Rays fans reassured themselves all was ok. After all, most of the levers that needed to be pulled and the buttons that needed to be pushed were under team control for years to come. The window hadn’t closed. And Maddon was still here, despite rumors he might migrate to the City of Angels with Friedman.
Joe was the franchise. He was the process personified. He was “The Extra 2%” incarnate.
Then Friday happened.
Maddon walked away and with him the captain, skipper, general, leader, and manager of on-field operations for the Tampa Bay Rays. Bayshore Boulevard’s most popular resident was taking a job somewhere else.
That’s tough to digest. By Opening Day 2015, we will still might not like it, but we will have to come to grips with our new manager. That’s the benefit of offseason moves. You have months to accept it. Unlike losing a coach and an ace during the season while the story is still being written, Opening Day 2015 gives us a new slate to write on. A story not yet written. A tale that could include miracles and comebacks and joy and jubilation.
So what of Joe Maddon’s legacy?
The Rays should eventually retire Maddon’s number. That’s a no-brainer. But it shouldn’t happen anytime soon. Perhaps when he calls it quits for good. Maybe the season following his last, the Rays can invite him back to whatever stadium they are playing in and hold a ceremony raising number 70 to the rafters. Maddon’s might be the first “true Rays” number retired. Unless Crawford hangs up his spikes first.
Maddon will go down as one of the first people to put the Rays on the map. For a franchise built on erroneous fallacies in regards to the fan base and the stadium, Maddon made the on-field situation work, no matter the budget constraints. He was a shrewd strategist, a master motivator, and colorful character. He gave the Rays wins, he gave them confidence, but most importantly, he gave them personality.
He will be missed.
But time marches on, all managers eventually leave, and teams do win again.
And the next time Joe Maddon enters Tropicana Field, I’ll give him a standing ovation for what he did here, but then I hope the Rays sweep his team out of town.