ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Jamey Wright did a double-take the day he saw the DJ.
Then there was the time he saw the magician. And the merengue band. Oh, and the live penguins, too. At times during Wright’s first two months as a pitcher for the Rays, his newest clubhouse looked like Barnum and Bailey or Siegfried and Roy had taken it over.
“Little things like that, I’ve never seen in a clubhouse,” said Wright, an 18-year major league veteran who arrived in Tampa Bay earlier this year.
Welcome to Joe Maddon’s madhouse. Or, perhaps more appropriately, welcome to a baseball player’s paradise.
As eccentric as Maddon’s free-spirited, fun-loving approach to managing players and personalities may appear to be, it is the primary reason why Tampa Bay boasts the type of environment many big leaguers are desperate to see first-hand.
The approach also is the bedrock of a cash-strapped franchise that in recent seasons has bucked expectations and made winning its surprising calling card.
Maddon’s Rays have scorched through the last month as baseball’s hottest team. After retaking the American League East lead Monday night with a thrilling 2-1 win in Boston, Tampa Bay is hoping to outlast the pesky Red Sox and Orioles, and staving off the injury-weary Yankees.
“He’s one of the best managers in our game today,” Houston Astros manager Bo Porter said.
According to players from across the majors, Maddon isn’t just one of the best. He is the best. To them, he’s the Twain of reconstruction era literature; the Warhol of the 20th century pop art movement.
“You hear guys all the time say it: ‘I’d take a pay cut to go play for Joe,’” Tampa Bay infielder Sean Rodriguez said.
Rodriguez did the next closest thing in 2010, four years after Maddon left Anaheim’s bench to begin managing the Rays. When he made his own switch out of an Angels uniform, Rodriguez was given just an additional $500 on his previous annual salary. He has since been paid more than twice that original figure.
Such sentiments on Maddon were quantified June 12 when Athlon Sports released results of an anonymous player poll it had conducted. The publication found that 14.3 percent of players believed Maddon was the best manager in the major leagues. Cleveland’s Terry Francona came in second on the list, receiving 10.2 percent of the vote.
“Joe’s a good time. He likes to have fun,” Wright said. “He’s definitely got the reputation of being a player’s manager.”
If anyone should know what separates a good manager from a bad one, it’s Wright. The baseball journeyman has played for 16 of them throughout his career.
“Player’s manager is a guy that, he’s laid back, he has his rules and there’s not a lot of them,” Wright said. “The players respect those rules and they want to go out there and run through a brick wall for the guy.”
Once a mainstay in the Angels organization, Maddon’s career began in 1981 when he coached in the minor leagues and helped coordinate spring training. He had very little success those days, notching just one league championship in 1982. The 34-36 record those Salem Angels compiled was the closest thing to a winning tally that he had until the big-league Angels went 19-10 under his guidance in 1999. That mark came in the second of two stints he spent serving as Anaheim’s interim manager.
In Tampa Bay, he hasn’t just been a player’s delight. He has become a fan favorite and media darling. His thick, black-rimmed glasses are as much a part of his idyllic persona as his penchant for showing off his expansive interests outside of baseball. An avid cyclist, the adventurous Maddon spent his All-Star break traveling by a new method. He and his bride of four years packed up their recently-bought RV and journeyed “to parts unknown.”
He isn’t the typical baseball manager.
What other managers can seamlessly name drop the Contiki Islands in a postgame wrap with reporters, and then even more smoothly reference the ethnographer who voyaged across the South Pacific to the islands?
“Thor Heyerdahl came to our rescue today,” Maddon said after one recent win.
There’s a reason some call him quirky, others, unconventional.
To understand why, look no further than the mostly hands off approach on rules-making. The sources for that philosophy are multiple, starting with former Fed chairman Alan Greenspan.
“Rules cannot take the place of character,” Greenspan once said.
Why does Maddon believe there is little value for hard-coded rules and manager-imposed discipline? He just does, that’s why.
“That’s rooted more in how I was raised,” said Maddon, a 59-year-old Hazleton native and child of the 1960s. “You get rebellious. You wanted to be treated like a man and be able to make your own mistakes. I’ve always believed in that.”
Two years ago, just after opening the season with a 1-8 record, the Rays boarded a flight from Chicago bound for Boston. When they did, Maddon poured out shots of whiskey for every person on the plane.
“Here’s to the best 1-8 team in the history of the game,” Maddon pronounced.
As perplexing as the spectacle was at the time, it inspired the 2011 Rays. There wasn’t anything to feel bad about. The year was just beginning, and its finish was far from having been scripted.
“He turned out to be right. We made the playoffs,” Rays infielder Sam Fuld said, recalling his first season with the Rays. “That was shocking for me. That was a totally different experience to see that from a manager. That’s when I knew this was a pretty cool place to be.”
With that, the losses were flushed; just like the 10-1 loss at Detroit earlier this season when Maddon blasted polka music in the clubhouse at alarmingly cheerful decibel levels. The upbeat tune had players forgetting the beatdown.
“That makes it easier to come in the next day and strap it on and get after it,” Wright said.
The Rays won the next day, 3-0.
Wins like it are expected to continue with Maddon at the helm. Signed through 2015, Tampa Bay believes he is one of the key pieces of its future.
If the future will be anything like the Rays’ recent division-winning, pennant-chasing past, it is sure to include plenty of penguins and a whole lot of fun.
“It all has translated to wins on the field, good chemistry and guys who want to go out there and battle for each other,” Wright said. “In part, because of him, it’s a good group here.”