If you asked me for a list of baseball’s youngest managers, just off the top of my head, I wouldn’t include Joe Maddon. After all, the guy’s got white hair. But considering the freshness of his ideas and the spring in his step, I was sort of blindsided the other day by Maddon’s 60th birthday. That just doesn’t seem right, does it?
But it is.
Maddon got a late start. He managed the Angels briefly a couple of times in the 1990s, but didn’t become a real big-league skipper until 2006, when he was 52. That’s exceptionally late for a top manager. I looked at the last nine managers elected to the Hall of Fame, and they typically got their starts in their late 30s or early 40s. Tony La Russa began his career at 34, and Tommy Lasorda at 49. But the other seven were all between 36 and 41.
What about more recently? Jim Leyland, Davey Johnson, Bruce Bochy, Mike Scioscia, Lou Piniella, and Dusty Baker all debuted as major-league managers between the ages of 41 and 44. Terry Francona was 38. There’s just no way around it: 52 is exceptionally old for a first-time manager.
What I don’t know: Whether there aren’t many “old” first-time managers because a) potentially good managers are easy to spot well before turning 50, or b) teams just aren’t willing to hire someone who’s relatively old and hasn’t managed in the majors before. I suppose both are probably true, to one degree or another.
Somehow, the Rays managed to break the mold. "I think that the past eight years have shown everyone what was apparent to us during Joe’s interviews," general manager Andrew Friedman told me. "He has an outstanding baseball mind that’s fundamentally sound but also open to new ideas, and he’s a great person who communicates well and relates to everybody."
Sure, but why did it take so long? "There are a lot of tremendous people in this game," Friedman says, "and with only 30 of these jobs out there, timing and circumstances also play a role. We knew that Joe was very well regarded, and had been strongly considered before." Strongly considered, but never hired, even while various other candidates were hired, and fired, and hired again.
Maddon hardly represents a trend, though. If anything, the managers seem to be getting … well, if not younger, certainly more inexperienced. In just the last few years, a number of ex-players have been hired as managers despite having little experience at all, as managers or even coaches. Which isn’t to say there won’t be room for the occasional 52-year-old in the future, but Joe Maddon probably isn’t the pathfinder for a wagon train of rookie geezers.
Again, relatively speaking.
But I do wonder how Maddon’s late start might affect his Hall of Fame prospects. If you’re making a list of baseball’s top managers, Maddon’s at or near the top, and that’s been true for more than five years. I wonder how many managers have occupied that mental space for as long and didn’t wind up in Cooperstown.
This is completely subjective, but I can think of only two: Gene Mauch and Billy Martin. Mauch finished his career with a losing record, and Martin was nearly as famous for blowing teams up as building them.
But while Maddon’s late start will keep him from winning as many games as La Russa or Torre or Cox, it’s hardly going to keep him from the Hall of Fame if that’s where he wants to be and his teams help him out some. Whitey Herzog, Al Lopez, Earl Weaver, Miller Huggins, Dick Williams, and Tommy Lasorda all managed between 17 and 21 seasons. Maddon’s managed eight full seasons. While it was once highly uncommon for a manager to last into his late 60s or early 70s, in recent years it’s hardly unheard of. And if Maddon gets another eight or ten seasons in the books – which will probably be almost completely between him and his health – he’ll clearly have managed enough seasons to merit serious consideration.
One does wonder, though, if he’ll need a World Series ring to make it.
Maybe not. Al Lopez didn’t win one, nor did Wilbert Robinson. But both get some extra credit: Robinson for being the face of the Brooklyn Dodgers for many years, and Lopez for managing a bunch of the best non-Yankees teams in the American League in the 1950s and early ‘60s. In particular, Lopez’s .584 career winning percentage ranks eighth all-time, right between John McGraw and Earl Weaver.
So if Maddon doesn’t win at least one World Series, he’ll need a little extra oomph. Will managing the low-budget Rays to the playoffs so many times be enough? Yeah, I think it probably will. Especially if he does it a few more times. Maddon, I think is the 21st century’s Al Lopez. Which, considering Lopez grew up in Tampa, seems highly appropriate.