Rays take comfort in Joe Maddon’s leadership

FT. MYERS, Fla. — Their morning in the visitors clubhouse began in an atypical way, but with Joe Maddon’s Tampa Bay Rays, there is, after all, no such thing. The sight was business as usual for this unique enclave, an exhibit of the laissez-faire atmosphere that has proven trust and results can be complementary in an emotional game.

Shortly after the Rays’ arrival at JetBlue Park on Monday, before a 5-1 loss to the Boston Red Sox, Maddon walked through the cramped space with a challenge. As players settled, the manager played T. Rex’s 1971 hit, “Bang A Gong” on his iPad and offered $100 to anyone who could name the artist of the club’s walk-on song. Young left-hander Adam Liberatore guessed The Rolling Stones, an admirable effort, but silence promptly followed the try.

“I saved 100 bucks,” Maddon said.

Such is life in Maddon’s orbit, an existence that includes daily examples of the humorous and spontaneous, intellectual and sometimes strange. It’s why he has become one of the most respected leaders in the major leagues as he prepares to begin his eighth season as manager of a franchise that he has come to personify. It’s why the Rays have established themselves as the American League East’s resilient upstart, stepping beyond shadows cast by big-city division rivals in Boston and New York with scant drama.

By now, Maddon’s vision has matured. It’s why the Rays have won at least 90 games in each of the past three seasons and in four of the past five, after he struggled to win a combined 127 in his first two campaigns with Tampa Bay in 2006 and ’07.

It’s why he has spoken this spring of losing right-hander James Shields and center fielder B.J. Upton, former major contributors who landed with the Kansas City Royals and Atlanta Braves, respectively, in the offseason, as obstacles but not impediments to achieving the club’s goal of reaching the postseason for the fourth time in six years.

It’s why life seems different within their walls — to players, to media, to observers who are familiar with more formal settings. Take last week, when Upton, still acclimating himself with the Braves, told FOX Sports Florida, “It’s night and day for me over here.” The Rays Way is like describing a fine smell or a satisfying meal: Words struggle to capture the meaning, but its power is found in the feeling.

“I have this real simplistic view of trust,” Maddon said. “I think trust permits constructive criticism to flow back and forth. If that’s part of your culture professionally, good things will happen. Without trust, you cannot have a free-and-easy flow, back and forth, of honest opinions. Can’t have it. It you can’t have that, you get pushback.”

“You get meetings after meetings, which means you get constant tearing at the fabric, which means it’s never going to be good,” he continued. “That’s what trust means to me. With our players, we speak to them about how we always have their best interests (in mind), that there are always pure intentions. I think they feel real free to throw it back at me, which I kind of like.”

Maddon’s view may be simplistic to him, but this is, of course, a complex game in which egos and individual interests must be tamed. For many in the major leagues, Maddon’s view is an elusive concept.

Boston’s failure to form cohesion during Bobby Valentine’s disastrous reign last summer led to the franchise’s worst season since 1965. Alex Rodriguez’s bizarre postseason benchings last fall were a distraction for the New York Yankees in a run that ended in a sweep by the Detroit Tigers in the AL Championship Series.

Such issues seem foreign to the Rays, in part, because Maddon understands even leadership produces even play. His loose style translates well with a young clubhouse — the lack of a dress code, the freedom of expression, the themed dress-up road trips, the fact that a boar head mounted on designated hitter Luke Scott’s stall can serve as a backdrop for a heated soccer game feet away.

Such sights have become part of the Rays’ identity in the Maddon era, and the manager’s tact is shown in his ability to cultivate — not suppress — it all. To him, everything goes back to trust.

“There are a lot of emotions that go into baseball,” Rays infielder Ryan Roberts said. “If you’re dealing with an emotional person, you’re going to become emotional. If you deal with a person who’s even-keeled all the time, then you can gauge your emotion off him. He’s even-keel, he’s always positive, he’s always in a good mood. So I’m always positive. I’m always in a good mood. I always stay even-keeled, because he is. The leader dictates how his players act.”

How does he do it?
 
“He wants everybody to feel comfortable and be comfortable, because he truly believes he gets the best out of you if it’s a pressure-free situation,” Rays catcher Chris Gimenez said. “The same type of approach that’s taken in the clubhouse is taken on the field. He’s not afraid for you to make mistakes. As a young player, I think that is especially huge.”

None of this is foolproof, though. The reason the Rays’ uncommon culture has worked under Maddon is because of their strong results on the field. Behind the fluid rules, the jokes, the Words of the Day, is a focused commitment revealed by approaching the diamond as a chess board: A five-man infield, creative shifts against power hitters such as David Ortiz and Jose Bautista, finding ways to compensate for Shields’ rotation-high 227.2 innings thrown last season.

It’s revealed in moments like the one shortly after Roberts arrived from the Arizona Diamondbacks last July, when Maddon sat down with the player and said, as Roberts remembers it, “I expect you to play the game hard, and that’s it. If you want to wear whatever you want and you want to do whatever you want, handle your own business and conduct yourself in however you want to conduct it. But as you play the game, you play hard and you play it the right way.”

In time, Maddon has achieved a balance at Tampa Bay: Inspire but also push. Nurture creativity but also draw the most from those under him. He’ll need to do so again as the Rays begin a new season if they expect to compete for their third AL East crown.

Such is the test of another spring. Such is the reality of a new beginning.

“They do a great job of getting the most out of players that may be part-time players elsewhere, but they seem to thrive under Joe,” Boston manager John Farrell said. “But I know going against them, you’ve got to be prepared for any number of things: They’re exceptional at running the base [paths], they play very good defense, he keeps everybody involved on their roster with the flexibility and the type of player that they bring into their system. You know every time you go into a series against them, they’re going to pitch very well, and it’s likely that it will be a low-scoring series.”

Trust and results. When approached with precision, they can lead to a positive outcome.

When approached well, as Maddon has shown, atypical results will become not so uncommon at all.

You can follow Andrew Astleford on Twitter @aastleford or email him at aastleford@gmail.com.