On the day in 1989 he signed with the team for which he became a cornerstone, Tim Salmon sat in his Arizona living room with a bespectacled man who oozed charisma, charm and, perhaps most importantly, empathy.
The man would sign Salmon, then the Angels’ third-round draft pick and eventually a World Series champion, to his first professional baseball contract. He would shepherd Salmon through the minor leagues. He would follow the young outfielder to the major leagues as a coach, lend him an ear and offer encouragement as they blazed a path out of obscurity together.
Now that man, Joe Maddon, will return to Angel Stadium to try the same thing with a new generation of Angels.
Maddon, 65, was hired Wednesday to replace fired manager Brad Ausmus. His arrival is a homecoming and was met with applause from many in the organization who got to know him during his tenure with the Angels from 1975 to 2005.
“He has the ability to kind of crawl into people’s heads and make people excel,” said Mark Langston, the Angels broadcaster and former pitcher who first met Maddon at the beginning of Maddon’s coaching career in a summer league in 1980. “Not that they didn’t have the ability, but to all of a sudden make them believe, push them into something and open that door they didn’t realize they could open [is special].”
What stood out to a younger Salmon was what made Maddon successful in Tampa Bay, where Maddon turned around the losing Rays and helped make them a perennial postseason contender by showcasing his eccentric personality. Maddon is known for gimmicks — concocting themed-attire trips, bringing in musicians and DJs, inviting a medicine man and setting up a zoo, among a long list of stunts — that allowed his players to feel at ease while also being pushed to succeed.
Langston, an Angels starter from 1990 to 1997, saw it decades ago when Maddon reached the major leagues as a first base coach in 1994. A bit ahead of his time on the analytics front, Maddon carried a stopwatch in his back pocket and pulled it out during practice. He timed hitters’ sprints to first base and posted the results on a whiteboard in the clubhouse. The simple technique encouraged players to outdo themselves.
While fostering a positive learning environment, Maddon also was keen on bringing his charges back to earth. The sideshows he erected in Tampa Bay and Chicago, where he managed the 2016 Cubs to their first World Series in 108 years, were vehicles for his philosophy.
“He was the kind of guy that came on and said, ‘Hold on a second. There’s more to life than this,’” said Salmon, who played his whole 14-year carer with the Angels. “He just had a way of drawing us back to that course, finding a way to tap back into the core of every payer. ‘Why’d you play? Because it was fun.’
“That’s part of his genius. He’s always out there looking for a new way to put the game in perspective around you.”
It was how Maddon built strong relationships that helped spawn a long period of success for the Angels.
“He didn’t just talk baseball to me,” said Gary DiSarcina, the former Angels shortstop who has recently coached on the major league staffs of the Boston Red Sox and New York Mets. “He talked about other things, your family, traveling, Italy, where’d you go on vacation. He was eclectic in his way of thinking and sometimes baseball players need that to decompress and get away from constant talk about mechanics and the negative side of baseball.”
Before Mike Scioscia took the helm in 2000, ushering in 19 years of stability at the manager’s position, Maddon was the anchor of the coaching staff. He remained when others left. After Terry Collins’ resignation as manager in 1999, Maddon was interim manager for the second time in his Angels tenure. With his mellow personality and ability to connect with every player, he brought together a clubhouse that had become toxic. The Angels went 19-10 during the season’s final month, salvaging a miserable year that nonetheless ended in 92 losses.
Yet, the foundation Maddon created persisted for years. Those who were around then are glad to know the Angels are getting their guy back.
So are those who are around now. Top prospect Jo Adell, who will spend next month playing on the Olympic qualifying team in the Premier 12 Tournament and could join the Angels’ outfield next year, posted a message on Twitter offering support.
“Now we go!” he wrote. “Welcome home Joe! This is gunna be a fun ride! 2020 [where you at]?”
Tommy La Stella, who played for Maddon with the Cubs and became an All-Star in his first season with the Angels, said in a statement to The Times, “I’m excited to play for Joe again. He’s a great manager and I’m happy he’s getting the chance to come back to the place where it all started for him.”
Times staff writer Mike DiGiovanna contributed to this report.