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Blue-collar chic

Who is this guy, Maddon? He's from a shot-and-beer town but knows wines; he has a truck, Corvette and bicycle; he likes The Boss; he gardens; he digs young players; he's a lot of things.

Published November 16, 2005

ST. PETERSBURG - The ballpark was mostly empty, the way it often is. There were a few people milling around the outfield, not paying much attention to what was going on, the way Ben Grieve used to do. There was no one on the mound, nothing on the scoreboard.

Gee, Joe.

Welcome to the Devil Rays.

Joe Maddon stepped into the dugout, his dugout, for the first time Wednesday and it was heartening to note he did not scream in fear. After three days of accepting congratulations, after three hours of smiling through the flashbulbs, Maddon sat on the bench and looked out onto the field through those Buddy Holly glasses of his.

Yeah, he said. This can work.

Yeah, he said. The Rays have a chance.

Going in, they all say that. Larry said it, and Hal, and Lou, not to mention the last general to take over the Light Brigade. Going in, they seem unawed by the challenge, unafraid of the competition and undaunted by the odds against them. Going in, they seem blissfully unaware of the size of the beast they must slay.

What, then, is different about Maddon?

Aside from the notion that he has the best chance of any of those guys? Maybe even the guy with the Light Brigade?

Let's see. Maddon believes in the three-run homer. He stands firmly against rotator cuff injuries. He supports striking out the opposing cleanup hitter when the winning run is on third.

Also, he gardens. He cooks. He downloads music. He wears black-rimmed glasses his girlfriend bought for him. He knows the difference between a good glass of red wine and a bad one. He rides a bicycle, and he has the black Lycra shorts to prove it.

In the spit, scratch and swear world of the baseball manager, Maddon is a different cut of cloth. He reads. He e-mails. He uses the word "dig" as a verb.

He travels. He communicates. He relates. Walking through Tropicana Field, wearing his Rays jersey and cap, he reaches down to hold hands with his girlfriend, Jaye Sousoures.

Ask yourself this: Are the Rays sure Leo Durocher did it this way?

Even back in his hometown, a shot-and-beer place called Hazleton, Pa., old friends give Maddon a hard time about his California cool. He is the son of a plumber, for crying out loud. His mother, 72, still works as a waitress at the Third Base Dugout, even though she gets Wednesdays off. His grandparents were coal miners. He was a catcher. He was a quarterback. He said the word ""youse."

So who is this guy in charge of the Rays? He's a meld of old-fashioned hard work and new-age philosophy. His is a black-and-white background transposing into sunset at the vineyards. He's a bit of yesterday's ballyard and today's computers.

In the eyes of the Rays' new bosses, he is the best chance to turn promising kids into talented players.

More than anything, that's why Maddon was hired. He is not as acclaimed as Lou Piniella, and he is not as accomplished as Hal McRae, and the slate is not as clean as it was when Larry Rothschild was hired. Still, he may be a better fit than any of them.

Yeah, we all liked Piniella. But Piniella was never the right manager for a roster made of players on the rise. Maddon has a history of working with young players. If the Rays are going to get better, it's a vital skill.

"I really dig young guys," Maddon said.

Who is this guy?

He listens to Pavarotti. He says the two coolest things he has ever seen are the roof of the Sistine Chapel and a Rolling Stones concert. He reads Pat Conroy. His favorite baseball movie is Bull Durham, but no, he isn't the manager in that one. He's the catcher.

Also, he loves Springsteen, which seems to be a job requirement these days. It's good to listen to The Boss if the boss loves The Boss.

Who is this guy?

He owns a truck and a Corvette. He likes flowers. He likes the Arizona Cardinals, for goodness' sake. His Ipod is only 20 gig, but he wants a new one. Once, he tried to listen to 50 Cent, but he couldn't appreciate it. Given the team payroll, that's a shame.

"I think he's younger than I am," said team executive vice president Andrew Friedman, who just turned 29.

"He seems like a pretty cool cat," said pitcher Seth McClung.

For the record, Maddon is 51. "I hear 50 is the new 30," he said.

Who is this guy?

He was a minor-league catcher who never made it above Class A, although he was scheduled to play in AA one year before the Angels decided to let Danny Goodwin try to catch for another year. He hit .267, and he had soft hands and a good arm, but when the Angels dropped a Class A team, he was released. "They made a mistake," he said.

He was a college quarterback at Lafayette. In his final game, a freshman game against Lehigh, Maddon completed 14 of 17 passes for four touchdowns. Despite that game, Maddon decided he liked baseball better.

These days, he rides a bike. Four or five days a week, for 15 to 20 miles a trip, he rides his bike, a Track 77 FX.

Who is this guy?

As a minor league manager, he was once thrown out of seven of 70 games, a pace that would impress even Piniella. Three times he has been an interim manager for the Angels, winning 33 of 59 games. That's a pace for 91 victories a season. The Rays still haven't won more than 70.

As a bench coach, Maddon developed a reputation as knowledgeable, optimistic, communicative. Sometimes, that means taking a slumping player out for a beer. Sometimes, it means a subtle word in the clubhouse.

Who is this guy?

For the Rays, he's the latest nice hello in an offseason filled with good first impressions. For the Rays, he's the man in charge of tone, chemistry and playing time.

It is easy to debate the impact of a major-league manager as opposed to a football, basketball or hockey coach. Even Maddon won't guess whether a good manager wins 10 more games, or 20 more, than a bad one. (The basic difference, it seems, is that big-league managers wear uniforms, whereas we have no idea what size shoulder pads Jon Gruden wears).

What Maddon's job will be is "to tie it all together." He will have to decide how to motivate a player, when to kick dirt at an umpire, when to trust the feeling in his gut and when to go with the numbers on his laptop.

More than anything, Maddon's task will be communication. He has to smooth the ruffled feathers of Delmon Young and B.J. Upton. He has to nurture.

"I like to grow things," Maddon said, smiling at his own metaphor. "Wildflowers. I think I can do that."

Imagine it. What if he were to pull it off?

Wouldn't we all dig that?

[Last modified November 16, 2005, 01:10:16]

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