Hazleton native Joe Maddon spent thirty-one years finding his niche in baseball

Hazleton native Joe Maddon spent thirty-one years finding his niche in baseball

William C. Kashatus
The Citizens’ Voice
Sunday, November 9, 2008

Joe Maddon is a great manager because he appeals to the intellect, spirit and emotions of his players by combining an old-school attitude with a new-age approach.  In the process, he’s built a strong sense of character in the young Tampa Bay Rays, a team that shocked the baseball world this season by going to the World Series.

Maddon believes in making his players accountable to the team concept.  Egos must be checked at the door when entering his clubhouse.  But once inside, it’s not unusual to hear the Rolling Stones blaring from the manager’s iPod, or see him sipping a chilled glass of wine as he sits beneath a quotation from William Faulkner

Maddon, who sports a Mohawk in accordance with the team-wide movement started by Rays’ centerfielder B.J. Upton, is not your run-of-the-mill major league manager.

Among some of the unorthodox moves he made during the recent World Series against the Philadelphia Phillies was using a bullpen by committee and a five-man infield.

Who cares about tradition when your methods have taken the team to the Fall Classic?  Besides, Maddon, at age 54, has earned the right to be eccentric. He struggled to find his niche in baseball, waiting 31 years for the opportunity to become a major league manager.  But folks in his hometown of Hazleton, where he is still known as   “Joey,” never doubted that he would realize his dream.

Joe Maddon was a star quarterback at Hazleton High School, where he earned the nickname “Broad Street Joe” for his cool, effective direction of the Mountaineers’ football team.   He was also an outstanding pitcher and shortstop.  In 1971, Maddon hurled a no-hitter against Marion Catholic to capture the Hughie McGeehan League title, and later pitched a complete game to win the District 11 championship.

In 1972, Maddon moved on to Lafayette College, where he majored in economics.  After quarterbacking the freshman football team, he left the gridiron to concentrate on baseball.  Recruited as a shortstop and pitcher, Maddon switched to catcher, where he enjoyed a productive career.  He also caught the attention of the California Angels, who signed him as a free agent in 1975. Maddon played for four years in the Angels’ farm system compiling a .267 batting average.  He remained with the organization for the next 27 years.

Between 1978 and 1993, Maddon served in several roles at the minor league level, including manager, director of player development, roving hitting instructor and the club’s coordinator of the Arizona Instructional league.  Others might have quit, feeling that they’d never get a crack at the big leagues.

“I knew he had some tough times,” said his 75-year-old mother, Albina Maddon, better known as “Beanie” at the Third Base Luncheonette in Hazleton, where she works. “But Joey always knew where he wanted to go. He’s patient, disciplined and determined, and isn’t afraid of hard work, either.”

Maddon finally made it to the majors in 1994 when he was promoted to Anaheim as a bullpen coach.  Four years later, he became a bench coach, a position that often serves as an apprenticeship for future big league managers.  A candidate for managerial jobs with the Arizona Diamondbacks and Boston Red Sox, Maddon twice served as the Angels interim manager before being hired as Tampa Bay’s manager on November 15, 2005, only the fourth individual to hold that position in the organizations’ history.

“I think I may have come relatively close the second time in Anaheim,” said Maddon, reflecting on the five occasions he was considered for a managerial position. “But I don’t think I met all of [Angel’s general manager] Bill Stoneman’s requirements. And that’s cool. I get all that. When Boston came along, I think I did meet a lot of their requirements, and I think it was the same with the Diamondbacks. I always believed it would happen. But I always knew it had to be the right spot, too.”

Tampa Bay proved to be the “right spot.” The Rays ownership was attracted by the fact that Maddon wasn’t a “re-tread” – someone who had already managed for three or four other clubs. He had never been a big league manager and that meant that he would be more flexible, more open to some of the new-age concepts in Tampa Bay’s front office.  “You could tell Joe would be a good communicator, and his intellect was apparent from the very start,” said executive vice president Andrew Friedman said.

In his first season as skipper Maddon’s Rays lost 106 games and was considered the worst team in Major League Baseball.  They lost another 96 the following season, finishing 30 games behind the division-winning Boston Red Sox.  Before the 2008 season began, the odds-makers put the Rays at 75-1 for winning the American League pennant, and an underwhelming 150-1 shot at winning the World Series. But Maddon never paid attention to Vegas.

Instead, he used his first two seasons with Tampa Bay to instill trust and discipline in his young players. “I was very cognizant of creating the right kind of atmosphere, one based on communication, openness and relationship-building,” he said.  It paid off, big time.

The Rays listened and learned. Tamp Bay went from worst to first in 2008, a season in which they collected a total of 95 wins and rode the momentum all the way to the World Series. “My philosophy is to listen to the players and to stay out of the way as much as possible,” Maddon explained.  “If you talk too much or too loud, they turn you off, so I pick my spots.”

With a total payroll of just $43.8 million – by the far the lowest in the American League – the Rays appeared to lack the superstar talent that carries a team deep into the postseason. But the team concept prevailed, or as Maddon puts it: “9 equals 8.”  That is, “nine players playing together for nine innings could end up as one of the eight teams to make the playoffs.”

The so-called “Rays’ Way” features a “small ball” approach to the game in which a sacrifice is just as good as a bae hit, and base stealing (something the Rays led the majors in this season with 142 thefts) is the preferred way of advancing.  There is no set closer.  Instead the Rays use a variety of relievers to close games, often a specific hurler for a specific hitter.

Maddon also preaches the need to make “productive outs” – generating runs by routine ground balls to the right side of the infield with a runner on second or third with less than two outs, or hitting deep sacrifice flies to score the runner from third.  It’s risky, but it works.

It might’ve taken Joe Maddon thirty-one years to make the major leagues, but the lessons he taught – and learned – along the way have made Tampa Bay one of the most successful franchises in baseball.