Rocking the boat has never scared Joe Maddon

January 16, 2020

By John Romano | Tampa Bay Times

As he gets nearer to Hall of Fame standards, the former Rays manager is contemplating a return to some old-style baseball ideas in his new gig as the Angels manager.

TAMPA — He is an Angel now. Of course, he is.

Isn’t that the progression after you’ve been a prophet in Tampa Bay, and a savior in Chicago?

These are good days for Joe Maddon. He’s heading back to where it all began for him in Major League Baseball, leaving his Tampa home this week to begin his new role as the manager of the Los Angeles Angels.

It’s been nearly 15 years since Stu Sternberg took a chance on Anaheim’s bench coach and hired him to take over the Devil Rays after Maddon had been passed by five times as a managerial candidate in other markets.

And now he returns to the Angels as one of the most accomplished managers in the game. He’s won 1,225 games, has a .540 winning percentage, two pennants and a World Series title. There are 12 other managers with similar benchmarks, and nine are already in the Hall of Fame.

But for Maddon, 65, his stature is more than lines on a resume. It always has been.

He helped orchestrate one of the greatest turnarounds in history when Tampa Bay went from last place in 2007 to the World Series in 2008, all while fielding the smallest payroll in the American League. In Chicago, he ended the most famous drought in sports when the Cubs won a World Series for the first time in 108 years.

He is, in some ways, the bridge between baseball’s yesterdays and tomorrows. He has an old-school heart with a new-age brain.

Joe Maddon chats with visitors during a news conference introducing him as the new Angels manager on Oct 24. [JEFF GRITCHEN | ZUMAPRESS.com]

Maddon was embracing analytics in Tampa Bay long before it was trendy in the dugout and he has never been afraid to consider off-the-wall strategies or team-bonding concepts. And yet, a traditionalist lurks deep within.

Maybe that appreciation for the game comes from spending 18 years in the minors as a player, coach, manager and hitting instructor. Or maybe the extra 12 years as a big league coach before Tampa Bay came calling.

Whatever the reason, he is a rarity in today’s game.

Maddon is a bona fide personality in an era where a lot of managers have become data processing clerks. And where he once was on the cutting edge of new reforms, he now sees value in some old methods.

“When this all started with the Rays, I was really analytically hungry and we only won because we were willing to do things that nobody else was willing to do. That was the edge,” Maddon said over lunch as his Italian restaurant Ava earlier this week. “Now, part of the reason people aren’t into baseball as much is because everybody is playing the same game and it’s the analytical game.

“The new edge, I think, is going to come from what happened in the past. Creating your own identity … What does that mean? Hit-and-run is okay, stealing is okay. Two-strike approach, hitting bloopers to rightfield is okay. Not striking out is okay. Everyone is getting caught up in launch angles and spin rates and it’s one method of playing. Home runs are good, strikeouts are good, walks are great and spin the baseball as a pitcher. (But) I want it all.”

For Maddon, an open-minded philosophy comes first. The willingness to try something new, to take risks, to forever be willing to adapt. The details and methods flow from there.

Relationships are also key. It’s one of the reasons he still calls Tampa Bay home for part of his offseason. There are bonds here that exist beyond the ballpark. And it explains why, after learning about Metropolitan Ministries during his annual Thanksmas event in November, Maddon arranged for a fundraiser at his home last Saturday night.

The auction raised $103,000 that will be used to fund an arts program for the local nonprofit.

Former Tampa Bay Rays and Cubs manager Joe Maddon serves dinner while spending time with siblings (from left) Jeremiah Richardson, 8, Loyal Richardson, 10, Rickey Richardson, 6, and Noah Richardson, 3, during his annual Joe Maddon’s Thanksmas at Metropolitan Ministries in Tampa. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times]

That’s also why, on the way to the winter meetings in San Diego, Maddon re-routed his trip to spend time with Angels veteran Albert Pujols at his foundation dinner in St. Louis. It’s all part of building relationships and bringing a fresh outlook to his new clubhouse.

“I want them to loosen up. That’s the one thing I’ve noticed when I walked through the place, I just felt it was a little bit uptight,” Maddon said. “So we have to loosen it up a little bit.”

A slogan? Yeah, he’ll probably have one. T-shirts, too.

The ideas that seemed wacky during the early days in Tampa Bay, are now part of the routine.

The difference is Maddon is a proven winner now. He’s got eight playoff appearances in his 14 seasons as a manager. In the 21st century, the only manager who can top that is Cleveland’s Terry Francona with nine.

He will be 66 in a few weeks, which makes him ancient compared to some of the 30-something managers in dugouts today. And he’s taking over a team that, despite one of MLB’s largest payrolls, hasn’t won a postseason game in more than a decade.

What do you say, Angels?

Can Joe pull off another minor miracle?

John Romano can be reached at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.