Commentary

Maddon leading the cultural revolution

Originally Published: October 13, 2008
By Howard Bryant | ESPN.com

Dave Cassarella wants to avoid being part of that growing menace to American safety, worse on a daily basis than the threat of al-Qaida or even the increasingly Dust Bowl characteristics being adopted by the nation's financial system. So, instead of endangering friends and strangers equally by driving with one hand on his cell phone and the other on the steering wheel, he pulls over to the side of the road to talk to me.

I ask him about one of his oldest friends, Joe Maddon, the manager who is doing a sudden star turn in front of a baseball nation that viewed his baseball club, the Tampa Bay Rays, as losers, if it held any view at all. Meanwhile, the MLB establishment, despite his three decades of service to the game, views Maddon with a certain amount of skepticism for his willingness to challenge the accepted baseball conventions. I found Cassarella by calling Casamato's, the Hazleton, Pa., restaurant he owns with his wife, Terri. The voice on the other end was helpful and unimpressed. "Hold on a second, hon. I got a number for him," she began. "Call this number. He won't mind."

A day earlier, before the Rays and the Red Sox commenced the American League Championship Series and St. Petersburg had been engulfed with the kind of October attention annually reserved for the Bronx, players were talking about Hazleton ("You ever been to Hazleton? I went to a wedding there once. It's right out of 'The Deer Hunter,'" someone says near the batting cage). Maddon is watching his young team on the biggest stage during the franchise's biggest moment, but the name Dave Cassarella brings Maddon back, mutes the flashbulbs, reduces the glitter. "Great restaurant. Great people. I used to drive with Dave in his 1970 Chevrolet, drinking Schlitz. That's how far back we go."

Cassarella pulls his car over, realizing he's idling in something of a symbolic spot, Carson and Tenth Streets. "Where I am right now? I'm a block from his mother's house and Hazleton High, where we went together. That story is true. I used to call it my 'Super Split.' Schlitz. He got that right, too. We used to drive around in my old car, looking for babes. But that's Joe for you. He's never too far from here."

[+] EnlargeJoe Maddon
Doug Pensinger/Getty ImagesJoe Maddon is in his third season as the manager of the Rays.
Less than an hour away from Hazleton, Democratic vice-presidential candidate Joe Biden is joined by the former first family, Bill and Hillary Clinton, at a rally for Barack Obama.

It is in towns like Hazleton where the future of the country likely will be decided, one doorstep at a time, and thus it seems only fitting that it is the Rays who stand suddenly on the national stage; Joe Maddon's team is beginning to embody the sensibilities of Hazleton's favorite son.

At an initial glance, Joe Maddon and Terry Francona, the Boston manager, stand as much in hard contrast to one another as do the polar opposites of the dynastic, century-plus old Red Sox and the Rays' decade-long existence headlining baseball's comedy club. Tito Francona, Terry's dad, played 14 years in the big leagues, made the American League All-Star team in 1961 and played with Henry Aaron, Bob Gibson, Lou Brock, Al Kaline and Jim Bunning. Terry Francona was obviously born into the baseball life. Maddon invested his entire life savings into one stock: the faith that one day he would have the opportunity to be a big league manager, to at last play the notes he had cultivated in his head for the better part of three decades.

"He never thought he wouldn't make it, even when he was waiting in the minor leagues for the chance," Cassarella says. "Then, he gets this opportunity, and I say to him, 'You're crazy. You're about to go into a division with the Yankees and the Red Sox?' And he looked at me and said, 'Everything will be all right.'"

But Maddon and Francona's similarities bring them closer than their differences separate them. Both are Pennsylvanians, carrying a rigid sensibility of right and wrong, of personal accountability and respect without airs or pretensions, common-sense virtues under constant assault by the ever-present enormous dollars and entitlement and fame. Neither is immune to the temptations of the life, of receiving credit for a job well done, but the denial of such impulses is the only way to maintain credibility. These are old-school characteristics that appear easily attainable, and yet are constantly at odds with the glittering multibillion-dollar sports motif, where a player taking batting practice while sporting two-carat diamond earrings can be less a fashion statement and more a message pitch to anyone attempting to impart homespun authority. Without the proper voice, the players are too rich to listen, too rich to care.

On Sunday, after a pressurized weekend during which both the Red Sox and Rays would claim momentum, their teams were tied at a game apiece in the ALCS, yet with vastly different positions: In Boston, Francona has outlasted the legendary Boston star system to quietly become the most successful manager in the history of the Red Sox, while Maddon has erased the culture of losing in Tampa Bay with an erudition and flourish often irksome to a baseball establishment still unsure just what to make of him.

A cultural revolution

There is a segment of the baseball establishment willing to listen to Joe Maddon, hungry for a new paradigm, and another segment that seems untrustworthy of the motivational speeches, the references to Sisyphus and the unorthodox methods that appear part Oprah and Dr. Phil, part Vince Lombardi and -- given the number of scrapes his team gets in and his baseball lineage -- part Leo Durocher.

And they are everywhere, says Rick Vaughn, the Rays communications director who has been with the club since the day they were born, in 1996. Vaughn has been here for every manager, from Larry Rothschild to Hal McRae to Lou Piniella. "Especially in Baltimore," he says. "They'll come down with bags of sandwiches. Some guys will yell out, 'Hey Joe, it's me, Sharky!' And Joe will walk over and they all know him and he remembers them. It happened everywhere, guys with names like Sharky, bringing Joe sandwiches, and yet, he relates to the modern player. Joe relates to the modern player better than anyone that's ever been here, and that includes Lou."

The Maddon backlash is part of the current of anti-intellectualism and conformity and fear that has existed in baseball since the days of college men like Christy Mathewson and Lou Gehrig. Maddon often challenges convention on the field, but the backlash was stronger off, such as when he left the team to fly to California to attend his fiancée's graduation from law school. To Maddon's supporters, it was another example of his perspective, a balanced world view too often missing in the incurious world of baseball; to the hard-liners uncomfortable that today's players routinely leave the club to attend childbirths, it was another sign of the apocalypse. (By contrast, on the day Charlie Manuel's mother died, he went to work, managing the Phillies in Game 2 of the National League Championship Series.)

The real story was perhaps even more indicative of Maddon's independence, even if it seems to border on incautious. Maddon had asked for the time off more than six months in advance. He was interviewing for the job and told owner Stu Sternberg, "If I get the job, I'm going to need a couple of days off."

"Did I worry that I killed myself in the interview by saying that? No," he said. "Actually, I think they were kind of amused by it because maybe it sounded a little cocky. But I felt like, 'this is the guy you're getting.' And, if something like that was enough to keep me from getting the job, it probably wasn't a job I was meant to have, anyway."

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.

--Joe Maddon

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.

ALCS: Red Sox vs. Rays

Complete coverage of the Red Sox-Rays matchup.
Series page
Scouting: Red Sox Insider | Rays Insider
"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 AL East gauntlet: 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.

People say, 'Aw, he's trying to reinvent the game,' and I say, 'Yes, he is.' … 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.

--TV broadcaster Buck Martinez on Joe Maddon

"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."

But herein lies the news flash: Maddon doesn't argue the point. When he arrived in Tampa Bay to begin the 2006 season, he was convinced the house needed to be gutted, retrofitted and renovated. Too many young players had brought a sense of entitlement to the big leagues, reinforced by big bonuses and infected by losing.

"All he asked of anyone was that they play the game the right way to the best of their abilities," said Rays outfielder Cliff Floyd. "If you can't do that, you shouldn't be up here anyway."

Floyd recalled and agreed with Maddon's philosophical approach, how Maddon appealed to the young players (especially players like B.J. Upton, who appears destined to be a star player for years) to heed his three stages of being a professional ballplayer.

Step 1: Be happy to be here.
Step 2: Put up numbers to make more money.
Step 3: Want to win.

"What he wanted," Floyd said, "was to get guys to go from Step 1 straight to Step 3. And it's starting to happen."

"The culture here had to be changed," Maddon said. "If you go to a different country, you have to learn to eat different food. You have to learn a different language, different dress, different customs. We had to change all of that. Why did I think it was going to work? I don't know. I just had a lot of confidence that everything I had thought about could work. That's what we had to do here. I mean, you have to remember, I've had a lot of this brewing in the kettle for 30 years."

Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN the Magazine. He is the author of "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball" and of "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston." He can be reached at Howard.Bryant@espn3.com.