My wish for Joe Maddon is simple, a lot simpler than he is. I want him to end this quirky run as baseball’s groovy hipster skipper — you know, ditch the black glasses and unorthodox strategies and even the ’56 Chevy Bel-Air — and find a conventional baseball team to manage far, far away from downtown St. Petersburg, Fla.
That team will have money, resources, fans, a real ballpark.
That team will not have a 20-foot python and penguins in the clubhouse, a 10,000-gallon fish tank with live cownose rays, and stadium catwalks that are in play if a ball strikes one.
I think he would dig such a change, too, dig being his word.
It’s the only way Maddon will be perceived nationally as what he truly is — a wonderful manager and all-demographics ambassador of a sport that needs fun, smart characters — and not as that crazy old dude in Tampa Bay who loosens up his players with live animals and, in his latest stunt, uses a record nine pitchers in a futile try to survive a postseason series. The man has taken this adorable little puppy about as far he possibly can, and after yet another divisional-round elimination, it’s now been five years since the Rays played in their one and only World Series. Without local movement on the stadium issue, this franchise seems maxed out as a cost-efficient, shrewd-thinking miracle that makes the most from the least. One large reason for that consistent overachievement is Maddon, but after awhile, even he must wonder how he’d fare with a Boston payroll, a San Francisco ballpark, a Mike Trout in the lineup.
His latest October setback was a 3-1 loss to the Red Sox, who advance to the American League championship series, that can be viewed as either a chess match or a farce. Understandably showing little faith in Game 4 starter Jeremy Hellickson, whose talents are overwhelmed by his erratic streaks, Maddon yanked him at his first sign of trouble in the second inning — four-pitch walks of David Ortiz and Mike Napoli and a single by Daniel Nava. Maddon summoned 18-year veteran Jamey Wright, who made his manager look brilliant by getting an inning-ending double play. But this led to a calvalcade of relievers who performed well until the inevitable crash — Joel Peralta’s wild pitch in a two-run Boston seventh and Fernando Rodney’s latest failue in the ninth. In the end, the Rays simply don’t have the offense to mash the Boston mashers, and consider it a byproduct of having only a $62 million payroll. You can scratch out only so many victories before bigger lumber prevails.
“The way it was working at the beginning there, I could see it was just not going to work and we had to do something differently,” Maddon said of the Hellickson quick hook. “We hoped once he got through the order, maybe through (Dustin) Pedroia again. Just could see it wasn’t gonna work. We became a little more extemporaneous at that point.”
Wild improvisation doesn’t win championships. The norm still applies — a quality start, an effective relief performance, a closer with the lockdown — and Boston’s Jake Peavy, Craig Breslow and Koji Uehara were better than Maddon’s nine-man roll call. Crazier still, David Price was warming in the bullpen for a 10th-inning stint in case the Rays rallied. Other than Raymond, the team mascot, just who was going to be left to start Game 5?
The topic is moot. The Rays have been beaten, again.
Every time he is asked, Maddon says he has no interest in leaving the Rays. He is opening an Italian restaurant next year near his home in South Tampa, but he also still owns a home in southern California from his days as an Angels coach. Though it appears Mike Scioscia and Jerry Dipoto will remain as that franchise’s manager and general manager, the two have had disagreements and likely will have a short shelf life together. That could open a managerial job for Maddon if, say, Scioscia moves upstairs as GM. Imagine managing a team with 40,000 in the stands every night, a $165 million payroll, a lineup with Trout and Albert Pujols and a wayward soul named Josh Hamilton who could use faith-healing.
He wouldn’t have to be the Maddon Scientist anymore. But I do think his next team will keep Maddon Gnome Bobblehead Night.