These Rays not built to be last
He waited 31 years for the chance to say yes. He would not say no, even to a team seemingly anchored to last place, seemingly doomed to eternal burial beneath the weight of baseball’s biggest spenders.
So Joe Maddon said yes to the Tampa Bay Rays three years ago. For his first managerial job in the major leagues -- and probably his last, if he fared no better than his predecessors -- he got the Rays.
The way he talks, this really was his dream job.
“The most unattractive job would have been the Yankees,” Maddon said.
Heresy or delusion? Hear him out.
“I wanted to be someplace you had to build,” he said. “You hear about this as being a graveyard. I saw it as the exact opposite. What better place to build a reputation?”
Maddon gave his life to the Angels over those 31 years. He played for minor league teams that no longer exist. He shepherded Garret Anderson and Tim Salmon and Troy Percival from the minors to the majors. He ran spring training, when the world was watching, and instructional league, when no one was watching.
The Angels passed him over for manager, twice. He’ll greet his old team in Florida on Monday, for a three-game series between the clubs with the two best records in the American League.
The Rays blew past the club record for victories last week, en route to their first winning season. In their first 10 seasons, they finished last in the AL East nine times, fourth once.
The Angels will not recognize Tropicana Field, not with noise resonating beneath the dome. When the Angels played there before, the only noise came from the family of Chone Figgins.
On the last homestand, the Tampa Bay coaches yelled out to their fielders, to move them up or back, or to one side. The players could not hear.
That, Maddon said, was a first. Yes, Virginia, the Rays have fans, bandwagon or otherwise.
“They’ve suffered a lot the last 10 years,” said Andrew Friedman, the Rays’ executive vice president of baseball operations. “You can see it in their face when they come up and thank us for what we’ve done.”
Friedman is barely 30, and he came to baseball from Wall Street. He cherishes and crunches numbers but not to the exclusion of subjective analysis.
When Maddon suggested last year that the Rays pursue Percival, Friedman dispatched scout Larry Doughty to evaluate Percival’s final month with the St. Louis Cardinals.
“We got glowing reports,” Friedman said. “We needed reports like that to make us as aggressive as we were.”
Percival, the Angels’ longtime closer, helped the Rays shore up their most glaring weakness. The Rays’ relievers posted a 6.16 ERA last year, the highest for a bullpen in 50 years.
The Rays have disposed of every reliever on their opening-day roster last year, and they have acquired Percival, Dan Wheeler, Trever Miller, Grant Balfour and Chad Bradford since then. They rank second in the league in bullpen ERA, at 3.32.
Their starters rank fifth, at 3.95. Andy Sonnanstine, with the highest ERA in the rotation at 4.35, leads the team with 12 victories, ahead of All-Star Scott Kazmir, Newhall Hart High alum James Shields, Fresno State product Matt Garza and ex-Dodger Edwin Jackson.
The Rays made the second-most errors last year; they have made the third-fewest this year.
“I think we have the best infield defense in the league,” Maddon said. “I don’t think anybody can argue that.”
The Rays play Carlos Pena at first base, Akinori Iwamura at second, Jason Bartlett at shortstop and Evan Longoria at third. Longoria, the All-Star from Long Beach State, leads all rookies with 22 home runs. The Rays signed him through 2013, for less than what the Dodgers will pay Andruw Jones this year.
Yet the Rays have no .300 hitters, no one on pace to hit 30 home runs, or score 100 runs, or drive in 100. The Rays are pitching and defense -- and chemistry.
Scoff if you will. Maddon does not. He wanted Percival for the ninth inning, and for the clubhouse.
To Maddon, the young players needed to see Percival explaining himself after a tough loss, without pointing fingers at a teammate or umpire.
They needed veterans and coaches that teach how to best track a fly ball and how to take an effective lead off first base, rather than veterans and coaches that simply complain about what young players cannot do. They gave the young players a hand, and they asked for an ear in return.
“People don’t accept constructive criticism until trust has been established,” Maddon said. “Otherwise, they become defensive.”
So, when Maddon benched B.J. Upton for not running out a ground ball, Upton did not complain. Maddon had warned him twice, after similar incidents, in private.
And, when Upton failed to run out another ball Friday, Maddon let him return to center field, then yanked him off the field, in full view of his teammates.
It is not coincidental that Elijah Dukes and Delmon Young were traded last winter, or that Cliff Floyd was signed.
“The accountability level has been raised,” Maddon said. “We’ve been more consistent. We’ve developed trust.
“Those are the ways you build chemistry within the clubhouse. I believe winning follows. If you’ve never won before, to expect to win just because you want to? I believe that is a ridiculous thought.”
This might be too: The Rays lead the AL East, ahead of the Yankees and the Boston Red Sox. The Rays could go to the playoffs, maybe against the Angels, with Maddon against his mentor in Mike Scioscia, Percival against his protege in Francisco Rodriguez.
October is a long way away for Tampa Bay, what with Percival, Longoria and Carl Crawford all on the disabled list. Yet the Rays can dream. After all, they play three home games every year at Disney World.
When the Rays signed Percival, they clinched the deal by throwing in a vintage automobile as a bonus. Percival selected a black 1970 Chevelle, then shipped it to his home in Riverside.
Would he ship it to Florida and ride in it should the Rays stage a parade?
“If we do something worth parading for,” Percival said.
If the Rays did win the World Series, perhaps they could route the parade past the Yankees’ headquarters in Tampa. That would make the Yankees’ managerial job a most unattractive one indeed.