Is Maddon the man? Maybe

Published February 27, 2007

ST. PETERSBURG — There goes Captain Happy, spreading sunshine again.

Joe Maddon, Good Old Joe, is working the Rays’ dugout like a casino greeter. He bounds from person to person, grinning and gabbing, patting this shoulder and hugging that one. At any moment, you suspect, he is going to whip out a bubble wand and decorate the sky.

For Maddon, the Pied Piper of the Positive, this is an essential drill of spring training. He’s a happy guy, Maddon.

And by golly, he wants you to be happy, too.

Yes sir, if nothing else, last year taught us that Maddon is a great guy.

This year, we will find out if he is the right guy.

Even now, even as his second year is in its baby steps, it is not too soon to wonder. When the early talk of spring training has been about the team’s lack of professionalism a year ago,  when the roster is plump with budding stars who need direction, when Maddon’s contract is in its final year (with an option), the question begs asking. Is

Maddon the man to allow his players to deliver upon their promise?

Early answer: We’ll see.

First things first: Everyone wants Maddon to succeed. How can you help it? He is one of the good guys in sports, and there is nothing manufactured about his enthusiasm.

On the other hand, there has been a lot of talk, inside the clubhouse and out, about whether Maddon is tough enough, firm enough, intense enough for the role of manager. When Maddon admitted the other day that some of his players were unprofessional at times last year, it rekindled concerns that he might be too much of a players’ buddy to be a taskmaster.

Stuart Sternberg, the owner of the Rays, heard the talk of Maddon being soft, too. And while he says all the right things, Maddon’s contract situation suggests the team is in a wait-and-see position.

“We want to continue to see growth,” Sternberg said. “In him and in the way he handles the team. Last year was his first year. You can’t expect a manager to go from zero to 60 overnight. You can’t expect him to know everything in 10 games, or 20 games.

“But I liked what I saw, and I hope he’s here 10 years. Don’t read anything into his contract situation. Matt Silverman (the team president) doesn’t have a contract. Andrew (Friedman, the vice president) doesn’t have a contract. Look, if I didn’t have confidence in Joe, he wouldn’t be back this year.”

Perhaps, but when a manager is talking about a lack of professionalism in his clubhouse, some of it is bound to reflect on him. After all, isn’t that a manager’s job, to set the tone, to raise the standards? And if players aren’t mentally prepared to play, shouldn’t he take away their playing time?

Sternberg said most of the problems last year came from veteran players who are no longer here. Maddon said they came from young players who weren’t mentally ready for the major leagues.

Either way, it’s a concern. There were too many times last year when a player would look at a coach, as vapor locked as a fifth-grader who has been staring out the window, and ask a question about an opponent that had been covered in a team meeting moments earlier. No manager should tolerate that.

With the Rays, it is the progress of the young players that will determine Maddon’s future. More than his victory total, more than his bullpen rotation, more than whether he throws a good enough tantrum when arguing with umpires,  Maddon’s task is get his players to stardom.

If it takes it, yeah, Sternberg says Maddon can get into a player’s face.

“I think the easy thing is to come in here like a bull in a china shop and start demanding things,” Sternberg said.

“He could have screamed. He could have hit someone with a bat. The difficult thing is to be patient and get to know the team.”

Friedman says there were a half-dozen or so times a year ago that Maddon closed his door and reamed out a player.

“Joe and I agree that the more publicized those times, the less effective they are,” Friedman said.

Maddon says the perceptions of him as soft are false. But, yes, he says, there were lessons in his first year as a manager.

“I came from the Angels to the Rays, and I came from predominantly a veteran team to one that was not,” Maddon said. “In coming in, I assumed the way you handle veteran players as a group would apply to the way you handle those who aren’t.

“I probably made a mistake in regard to giving the younger players too much leeway early on. When you are dealing with young players, it is probably wiser to use a tighter rein with them. I want to treat them like men, but I want to make sure they’re ready for it.”

So what happens this year if the unprofessionalism continues? What happens if players continue ask questions that were covered in a meeting a few minutes earlier?

“That won’t happen this year,” Maddon said. “If it does, I’ll deal with it.”

Again, the big question: Is Maddon the right man for the job?

“The word is 'absolutely,’ ” Maddon said.

Gary Shelton can be reached at (727) 893-8805.