Salute Joe Maddon as he leaves Tampa Bay Rays

Written by Doug Fernandes on October 25, 2014 | Herald-Tribune

 

SARASOTA, Fla. – Say it ain't so, Joe.

 

You knew this day would come. The day Joe Maddon hopped in his RV, hand waving to all of Tampa Bay from the driver's-side window, the next chapter of his wonderful baseball life somewhere in front. He wasn't going to be ours forever.

 

But somehow we all expected a quirkier departure, a getaway more in line with Maddon himself. Not a simple announcement that the most successful manager/head coach in the history of professional Tampa Bay sports had exercised an out clause in his contract.

 

Too sterile. Too simple. In his nine years managing the Rays, Maddon never was these things. In a sport of Wonder bread, he was the caraway rye. He said things, used words, did things old-time baseball men looked upon with disdain.

 

He brought zoo animals into the Rays' locker room. He used a medicine man to snap a losing streak. This season, with the team struggling, he brought bottles of cologne into the clubhouse, a comical and relaxing ploy to stop the Rays from stinking.

 

That's what these old-time baseball men forgot a long time ago. Something Maddon never has. Take away the money, television, attention and all those things, and baseball remains, at its heart, a game.

 

Games are supposed to be fun. To Maddon, they always were.

 

He called the decision to leave “gut-wrenching.'' Maddon said he almost felt sick, the precise feeling Rays' fans should be experiencing this morning. In nine years managing the Rays, Maddon won 754 games, lost 705. He reached a World Series, and twice was named AL Manager of the Year.

 

Except for this season, since 2009, his Rays teams won at least 90 games.

 

Maybe it's been purged from your memory, but can you recall baseball at Tropicana Field before Maddon's arrival? He didn't do all the heavy lifting, of course, needed to raise the Rays' franchise from the goo of futility. The team got new management and better players and a winning attitude. The formula for success in any sport.

 

But day in and day out, in the middle of it all was the baseball lifer from Hazelton, Pennsylvania.

 

Sure, the Rays will find someone to occupy the manager's office at the Trop. They'll find someone to make out the lineup cards, organize a coaching staff, deal with the media, and handle personal relationships with his players in a firm yet fair fashion.

 

Become the face of the franchise. But whomever the Rays select, he won't be the Maddon package. The guy so comfortable in his own skin, he makes everyone around him comfortable as well. Players — heck, people — perform better in such an environment. The success he helped create with the Rays wasn't by accident.

 

He leaves as the best we've seen come through these parts. Who was better? John Tortorella won a Stanley Cup with the Lightning, but in his other six years in Tampa, only once did his team reach the second round of the playoffs.

 

Jon Gruden won a Super Bowl with the Bucs, taking the players accumulated by Tony Dungy, adding just the right message, getting just the right amount of luck necessary to win a championship. But after that magical season, the bottle in which Gruden captured this lightning was forever lost.

 

David Price left the Rays, as did Andrew Friedman. This departure feels more ominous, as if things with the Rays never will be the same. At age 60, Joe Maddon simply wants to see what's out there. And what's out there is a franchise that covets what he has to offer.

 

Maybe it's the Dodgers, maybe the Cubs. Maddon won't have to solicit anyone, cap in hand. Baseball knows what he accomplished, in a place that before him was nothing.

 

So, good luck, Joe Maddon. Rays fans everywhere raise their wine glasses to you

 

 

 

 

 

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