ARLINGTON, Texas — One has won American League Manager of the Year honors twice over the last four seasons and led his team to its first-ever World Series while the other guided his club to back-to-back American League championships, the first two pennants in franchise history.
The parties in question here are Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon and Texas manager Ron Washington. Not only have the Rays and Rangers met in the opening round of the playoffs in both 2010 and 2011, but there are more than a few similarities between these two clubs.
For one, neither franchise had experienced much in the way of playoff success until quite recently. Tampa earned its first trip to the postseason in 2008 by virtue of winning the AL East title and advanced all the way to the World Series before falling to Philadelphia in the Fall Classic. The Rays repeated as division champs in 2010 and made their third postseason in their short history last season in truly dramatic fashion, clinching the AL wild card on the final day of the regular season in most dramatic fashion, thanks to a walk-off home run by Evan Longoria.
But before winning their first playoff series in club history in 2010 and advancing to its first-ever World Series that same year, the Rangers too hadn’t experienced much in the way of playoff success. However, under Washington, who earned his 500th career win earlier this season, things have clearly turned for the better and Texas headed into the 2012 season as one of the favorites to not just win the AL flag for a third straight season, but also to possibly win the World Series, hype that the Rangers have definitely delivered on through their first 128 games.
However, the similarities between these two AL heavyweights doesn’t end there, especially since Maddon, the 2008 and 2011 AL Manager of the Year, and Washington both take similar approaches when it comes to how they manage their respective teams. Neither skipper is afraid to roll the dice and gamble here and there throughout the course of a game. Both of them also epitomize the definition of true players’ managers, guys who take a hands-off approach, giving their players enough freedom so they are in the best position to realize their maximum potential and win ballgames. Such an approach might not work for every roster in Major League Baseball, but it’s hard to argue with the results each manager has had over the last few years.
And the true mark of how effective this approach is lies in what the players say about their manager. It’s been well documented in the past and present how much the Ranger players love playing for the man they simply call “Wash” and it’s not surprising to hear the Rays players express similar sentiment when asked to sum up their feelings about their own outside-the-box thinking skipper in Maddon.
“It’s fun. Joe’s fun. He lets you play the game and he has as much fun as we do. He’s loose. Only thing he wants is for you to play hard and go out there and compete. He doesn’t ask for much,” Rays leadoff man Desmond Jennings said.
Rays infielder Ryan Roberts has only been playing for Maddon for a few months after coming over in a trade with Arizona in late July, but the Fort Worth, Texas, native has definitely enjoyed the experience thus far.
“There’s open communication. He lets you know if you’ve got a day off. He let me know what he expected right away when I got in [from Arizona]. The only rule is play the game hard. Everything else he kind of leaves up to you — your preparation, your work ethic, everything you do he leaves that up to you,” Roberts said. “All he cares about is playing the game hard.”
And after coming over from the National League, playing for a players’ manager like Maddon has definitely been a welcome change for the colorful veteran known as “Tatman.”
“That was perfect for me. It’s relaxing. There’s no pressure. He doesn’t expect you to go out and get four hits every night. He just expects you to put together good at bats and try your best. Knowing that, it frees you up,” he said. “You don’t feel there’s so much pressure on you to succeed because the game’s hard enough as it is.”
Roberts added: “You’re not going to hit every night and you’re not going to hit maybe one whole week but there’s just a different level of communication with him telling you this is what he expects. [He says] don’t be afraid to mess up and don’t be afraid to go into a slump, just keep working hard and let the season play itself out. That’s been one of the most relaxing things I’ve ever been a part of and one of the best things I’ve ever been a part of.”
In talking to several current Rangers in the past, he realizes that the vibe in the Texas clubhouse under Washington is very similar, if not almost identical, to the one the Rays have had under Maddon almost since he took the helm in 2006.
“The general theme over there seems to be the same as it is over here: Take care of your business and everything else is just kind of up to you. I feel like they’ve got the same thing going on there that we do,” Roberts said.
Since the Rays and Rangers have met in each of the last two postseasons, it seems like a big stretch to see them meet a third straight fall. But if they do square off yet again in 2012, it will be a match-up characterized by a lot of mutual respect on the part of both managers and numerous similarities in how each of them have guided their clubs to reach their maximum potential over the last few years.
“Have a lot of respect for Wash, have known him for a long time,” Maddon said. “Love his enthusiasm. He’s got a lot of dignity in how he does things. I think his players feel that, his players respond to that. They’ve got a great vibe going on over there. He provides I think the same amount of freedom for his guys that we do over here, meaning that you permit athletes to be themselves, play and utilize their abilities as well as they can. I see that with the Ranger players also. They’re good and Wash does a wonderful job of bringing it all together.”