October 13, 2008


Maddon leading the cultural revolution (Howard Bryant, 10/13/08, ESPN.com)

The hazing from the establishment is also part of the game's self-policing reflex, a reminder that a business this hard requires a certain humility, that nobody can outwit the game. But that is only part of it. Respect for the business often manifests itself in petty professional jealousies that are tempered only by success -- say, for example, by a 97-win season with a team that had lost 90 games in every year of its existence. For the past century, the sport has developed a dictionary of snarky terms designed to keep the creative thinkers and the wackos alike in line, such as: "He thinks he invented the game, just ask him," and, "It's just baseball. We're not trying to reinvent the wheel." Maddon once used four outfielders in a defensive shift against David Ortiz. Earlier this season, Maddon brought in the right-handed Dan Wheeler to face Justin Morneau and Joe Mauer, the Twins' murderous left-handed tandem. In September, when Maddon wrote out a lineup of eight right handed hitters to face the right-handed Mike Mussina, the whispers started again (there's a lot of reinventing going on over there).

There is another segment of the establishment convinced they find his methods contrived, another new-age guy trying to tinker with a game that has been played for 150 years with no reason to go against the book. The book is the book, after all, for a reason. Left-handed hitters have a general advantage against right-handed pitchers. Right-handed hitters are generally at something of a disadvantage against right handed pitchers. Even the best hitters in the sport have a 70-percent chance of making an out, and even the hottest hitters at their supernova best are ever better than even money to come through in a given situation. Why, then, in Texas on Aug. 17, with a four-run lead over the Rangers and the bases loaded did Maddon order to intentionally walk Josh Hamilton ? The Rays won that game.

"More than anything else, I'm trying to get us to play the game the way it was played in 1920. I'm a traditionalist," Maddon said. "I want to play in the simplest way. I believe that. I think people are really reading it the wrong way. I want my defense to play catch. I want my pitchers to have command of the fastball first. I want my hitters to have a two-strike mentality.

"But I don't think I feel vindicated by our success. I think its validation. You wait a long time for this, and now you have a chance to do it. I believe in what we do. What we do is well-thought out. Sometimes we get it right on the field, but it's always intuitive."

If Maddon is not the Phil Jackson of major league baseball, it is only because he is more Catholic than Zen. Or is he? When the Red Sox took Game 1, 2-0, in part due to Daisuke Matsuzaka's remarkable adeptness at playing in traffic but also because of the Rays' inability to finish a wobbly fighter, Ortiz said he knew the reason: The Rays were tight, their faces froze, eyes as big as saucers at the gravity of the situation. The Red Sox had won the first battle, and now they were advancing forward with psychological warfare before the next game had even been played.

And yet the next day, Maddon agreed, essentially conceding macho points -- or, to the hard-liners of the old guard, he used the spotlight to publicly throw his team under the bus.

"Here's why I agreed with it: because it happened. Why deny it?" he said. "This is a process. What would be the point in denying it? My attitude was get it out there, face up to it and then you might even have a greater effect on your ballclub, because they don't want to be embarrassed. Their competitive fires are going to kick in, and I guarantee you this club isn't going to back down from anyone thinking they aren't ready. I slept for nine hours last night, and that was after a really tough loss."

Maddon believes in psychological construction as much as calisthenics. There was the time during spring training when the military's traveling baseball team was on a furlough from Iraq and asked Maddon if it could take batting practice with the Rays. Maddon agreed, but went a step further: He asked the soldiers to talk to his team about Iraq, about life when life isn't about losing a tough game and still earning more than 99 percent of the population, but actually is a game of life and death. After the soldiers, Maddon invited Dick Vitale and Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive coordination Monte Kiffin to speak to his team.

Then there was the game in Tampa last season when Ortiz walked by Maddon and caught a whiff of Maddon's style. Ortiz recalled the exchange.

"I said to him, 'What kind of cologne is that? It smells good.' He said, 'You like that?' and I said I did," Ortiz said. "I made a motion to him, during the game, that I wanted a bottle of it. And after the game, he had left some for me. It was sitting there on my chair. You gotta like a man like that."

And then there was the time in late September, when Tampa Bay stumbled and Boston surged and the Rays were about to walk the Trail of Tears: a nine-game road trip through Toronto, Boston and New York. The lead had dwindled and there was the inevitable talk that the time had come for the cute little Rays to go back to the kids' table and let the adults from Boston, New York and Los Angeles handle the business of the playoffs and of thinking big.

So Maddon showed even more style and put some money behind it. He ordered three dozen of the trendy Ed Hardy tattoo art T-shirts, by Christian Audigier at $150 apiece ("bold graphics, foil overlays and rhinestone accents add edgy drama to a classic short-sleeve T-shirt," according to a Nordstrom description). The reason was to signal to his players that they had approached a pivotal moment, and the shirts represented both solidarity and a feathery, important message.

It was bad enough that Maddon had turned spring training into a regular destination for the speaker's bureau, but now the establishment blanched that he had gotten too close to his players, always the death knell for any manager, especially a 54-year old grandfather of two. Trying to act hip was the worst thing a manager could do, or so went the conventional wisdom. The players would treat him like a substitute teacher. The snickers could be heard in every American League corridor.

"I told them this was the most important road trip in this franchise's history," Maddon said. "I saw it as a way to relate to the guys. Look, I'm 54, but you have to remain contemporary in your thinking. I don't agree that you have to accept and say, 'This is who I am and I can't go any further, and I can't relate to the next group of guys coming up.' I think that's wrong."

But that didn't mean he could not recognize when the leash extended out a bit too far. Take, for example, the night of July 25, when the Rays bounced back from a series-opening loss in Kansas City with a 5-3 win. The Rays had lost seven straight road games, and Maddon praised his team publicly for the win, explaining the importance of road wins to any playoff team.

But privately, he let his team have it. It was the first time the Rays had really seen Maddon's temper, the cerebral side locked away. Hurricane Joe obliterated the clubhouse.

"It wasn't something I like to talk about," Cliff Floyd said. "But he saw things he didn't like. It wasn't just about winning. We won the game. It was about playing the right way. He wanted accountability."

After the blowup, the Rays won 16 of their next 22 games.

"I knew that was the time. I laid it on the line," he said. "I treated them like men. I treated them with respect, and when I saw that it wasn't working, I knew it was time to take a different approach. It wasn't the winning. Here's what I wanted to avoid: when you win like that, sometimes you think you can always win any way you like. The winning can mask bad habits, but only temporarily.

"I could see it building," Maddon added. "But I wanted to make sure I did it on the road, because I didn't want it to linger. I wanted no stain of negativity in our clubhouse."

"People say, 'Aw, he's trying to reinvent the game,' and I say 'Yes, he is,'" said former big league player and manager and current television broadcaster Buck Martinez. "Of course he is, because that's what you have to do over there. They have new uniforms, new attitude, new everything. It is a total cultural revolution because they've never had a culture of winning. That's what he's trying to do, and it's absolutely appropriate."

This game has been played before, most recently in Oakland, when A's general manager Billy Beane began articulating a philosophy that reassessed how players were scouted and which set of player tools held greater value for clubs that could not compete financially for the most complete players. The resultant cacophony, culminating in the best-selling book, "Moneyball," infuriated Beane's contemporaries, who believed he was attempting to bring a new orthodoxy to the grand old game. He had gotten too big, in ego and intellectual capacity; he was (here's that word again) reinventing.

"You have to be committed to the belief that what you're doing is best for your situation," Beane said. "And what you've done outside the box could quickly become the norm. I'm sure his response is the same as ours was: Move forward with what you think is best. Besides, how can you get on a guy who wears such stylish glasses? They look great."

Posted by Orrin Judd at October 13, 2008 5:08 PM
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