MLB.com Columnist

Hal Bodley

Maddon big reason for Rays' recent success

Bodley: Maddon big reason for Rays' success

Maddon big reason for Rays' recent success
ST. PETERSBURG -- Phillies manager Charlie Manuel was saying the other day that it's often much more difficult to win when you're expected to. Opponents are gunning for you and there's much more stress and tension.

That's the pleasant predicament Rays skipper Joe Maddon finds himself in for 2012 as Spring Training nears. Anything short of the postseason will be a disappointment. To put in bluntly, the Rays are loaded with great young pitching and a much-improved offense.

This time last year, about the only person who truly thought Tampa Bay would return to the postseason after winning the American League East in 2010 was the always-optimistic Maddon. He kept repeating the expected demise of the Rays was greatly exaggerated. The skeptics turned a deaf ear -- until September.

The club had been decimated by the loss of several impact players via free agency and trades, not to mention a 40 percent reduction in payroll. Yet with a storybook September coupled with the Red Sox's collapse, the Rays won the AL Wild Card.

Much of the credit goes to Maddon and his uncanny ability to motivate his players. Whether it's his wacky -- sometimes hilarious -- dress themes for road trips or his intense preparation, he makes his players believe in themselves.

It's difficult to find a Major League clubhouse with more trust -- for each other and the manager. This is all part of the formula that has propelled the Rays to the postseason three of the past four seasons. Only the Phillies and Yankees have achieved that.

It's also a huge reason why Tampa Bay management rewarded the 58-year-old Maddon with a three-year contract extension on Wednesday. That guarantees he'll be managing the Rays through 2015.

This was a wise move for Tampa Bay, because 2012 was final year of Maddon's current contract. Not only would he have been a lame duck in the eyes of his players, but as a free agent after the season, he would have been in great demand.

There was speculation this offseason that teams with managerial openings -- the Red Sox, Cardinals and Cubs -- might have been interested. The fact Maddon grew up a devoted St. Louis Cardinals fan made that opening even more attractive.

Maddon said Wednesday during a media session he never wanted/wants to leave the Rays.

"I believe I have the best spot in all of Major League Baseball," Maddon said. "I know the grass isn't any greener, the turf isn't any greener [elsewhere]."

Maddon is pleased with the extension, but he said in a sense it wasn't that important to him personally. He reasoned had it not been done before the start of Spring Training, it would have been a distraction for the players.

"My motivation isn't the dollar sign -- never has been, never will be," he said

Maddon will earn around $6 million during the extension. The $2 million annual average is about in the middle of salaries for the 30 managers.

Last season was Maddon's finest managerial work and why he won the AL Manager of the Year Award for the second time. That will be followed with his biggest challenge.

There will be a huge difference this season, because the Rays are expected to win in 2012. They should be every bit as good as the Yankees and Red Sox.

Isn't it more difficult to motivate a team favored to go to the postseason? Maddon disagrees. After returning from a European vacation this week, Maddon said Tropicana Field seemed it was like in the midst of Spring Training.

"Just about everyone on the team was on the field working out," Maddon said. "This is a unique group of players. They are self-starters, and as far as motivation goes, they motivate themselves. We enjoy the challenge."

To make his point, Maddon refused to sidestep the bright outlook for 2012.

"We're going to talk a lot about the World Series this year," he said. "We've come up short the last two years in the playoffs, but we did get there. We've got to extend that a little bit further as we move further into our marriage here, which is exactly what it is. But our players do believe that. Nobody just shows up any more."

As Maddon talked, down on the Tropicana Field turf, scores of players were going through voluntary workouts, a fact their manager kept referring to. Spring Training in Port Charlotte, Fla., doesn't officially begin until Tuesday. All-Star third baseman Evan Longoria said Maddon "has changed our culture as an organization."

Rays executive vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman, in announcing the contract extension, said Maddon spends countless hours getting to know his players one-on-one.

"He sits down with each of them, and that is one of the reasons there is so much trust," Friedman said. "I have tremendous respect for Joe's leadership and for his unwavering belief in our players and the entire Rays organization."

Maddon said one of his most memorable moments last season was after a game against the Red Sox at Fenway Park.

"We were walking out of the park when a Boston TV person came up to me and said, 'Your team really gets it,'" Maddon related, adding the comment "meant so much to me. This came from a man who obviously was rooting for the Red Sox."

Nothing better sums up this young Tampa Bay juggernaut. They do get it, and Maddon is the reason why.

Hal Bodley is the senior correspondent for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.