ST. PETERSBURG -- Joe Maddon is a walking oxymoron, corny but cool.
Cool in the sense that he is an outside-the-box thinker for baseball, he can discuss pop culture with conviction, reads interesting books, knows good wine and likes to have fun. Corny comes into play when Maddon takes his slogans into the clubhouse.
When Maddon worked in the Angels' organization, where he spent 31 years (including four years as a Minor League player), he once had a gig as the Minor League hitting instructor.
"Whenever I was in town as the Minor League hitting instructor, whoever hit the ball the loudest got a T-shirt that said: 'I got loud on it,'" Maddon said. "Every year I did something different in that regard. I know it can be corny, but it was my attempt to try and motivate or bring a theme together for the group."
Flash forward to 2008, when Maddon wheeled out T-shirts for the Rays that said: 9=8.
Maddon explained to the group that 9=8 meant nine guys playing hard for nine innings would earn one of Major League Baseball's eight postseason spots. More than a few eyes rolled in the clubhouse. But sometime during the 2008 season, corny became cool.
The team embraced the slogan, and so has the Tampa Bay area.
"When you win, 9=8 looks a lot better," said Maddon, enjoying a smile.
Truth be known, Maddon's face rarely is without one.
"I just think he's a positive guy in general, staying upbeat all the time no matter what, which is a good thing for a baseball club, because you're going to have tough times," Eric Hinske said. "Like during that seven-game losing streak this season. He said things like, 'I've been on teams that went to the World Series and had two seven-game losing streaks.' Things like that. He's always staying positive. That's his biggest strength, and it helps the team for sure."
Maddon might never have become a full-time Major League manager -- he was the Angels' interim skipper for parts of the 1996 and '99 seasons -- had he not served as the bench coach for Angels manager Mike Scioscia. Many who hold the position of bench coach are close confidants and old buddies of the manager. That wasn't the case with Maddon and Scioscia when they first began working together.
"I'd never really talked to Joe or met him," Scioscia said. "When I was hired by the Angels [before the 2000 season], [GM] Bill Stoneman said, `This is a guy you should talk to, a guy we should think about for your staff.' Joe had worked for the Angels for years and was interviewed for the job [Scioscia got].
"I talked to Joe for probably an hour on the phone. After about 10 minutes, we really meshed. His philosophy is right in line with what I believe is important. We hit it off. Joe wanted the position, sure, but he felt a strong attachment to the Angels, that team. He wanted to see it through."
Maddon went on to spend six seasons as the Angels' bench coach before accepting the Rays' manager's post in the fall of 2005.
"I thought all along he could be a good manager," Scioscia said. "No question. I could see how bright he was, how he saw the game, what he believed in. There certainly wasn't any doubt in my mind that if the guy got an opportunity, he'd do a great job."
Once Maddon had taken the Rays' helm, managing a game was about the last duty on his plate given the developmental factor to his job, which included grooming youngsters so they could succeed at the Major League level.
"The last couple of years, my job dealt with so many micro things in regard to the method of play, the people who didn't get signs, the lack of execution -- general things -- the players' immaturity in a lot of cases," Maddon said. "I did a lot of other things aside from just managing. So it felt a lot like running a Minor League system in a sense."
Now Maddon shows up at the park with a lot more time to focus on that night's game, and he's happier because of it.
"When I come in through the door now, I'm able to focus just on what my job is," Maddon said. "There may be some conversations involved with the coaching staff, but really just preparing for the game.
"We're still concerned about correcting mistakes, but there are fewer mistakes to correct. Plus, the coaching staff has done a great job of that, so I leave a lot of that in their hands. Now I come into the office and I really am focused on the game. Whatever that entails, there's still talking to the media, but I can really focus on what's going to happen."
In addition to being able to manage the games to win now, rather than managing to develop players, the players are more accustomed to Maddon's easy-rider style, which came as a stark contrast to the Rays' previous manager, Lou Piniella.
"I think it took all of us a while to [take Maddon seriously], because he just has that personality where nothing can bother him," Scott Kazmir said. "A 180 from what Lou was like. Most managers always seem to have a reason to get on someone or lose their cool."
Kazmir credits Maddon for changing the culture in the clubhouse.
"He really did just put positive thoughts in everyone's heads," Kazmir said. "A game like this is more of a mental game. When you're thinking positive, you just have more confidence."
Maddon and the Rays have also changed the culture of the Tampa Bay area as judged by the Maddon litmus test applied during his daily bicycle ride along Tampa's Bayshore Boulevard. In the past, he would ride along in obscurity, observing the front-runners wearing Yankees and Red Sox hats.
"Now it's different," Maddon said. "You ride along there, and you see so many Rays hats and T-shirts. It's just so different.
"You may think I'm nuts, but I envisioned this years ago, when I would say I wanted to see someone wearing a Rays hat in Europe. It's going to happen. I'll be walking through Europe sometime this winter on my honeymoon and I'm going to see a Tampa Bay Rays hat and I'm going to take a photo of that."
Maddon has noticed a change of gear for those fans who like to hop on the bandwagon, but he's fine with anybody hopping on, as long as it's the Rays' bandwagon.
"Come on aboard, there's a lot of room," Maddon said. "This is how it had to happen in the first place. We've come from nowhere to this particular juncture. We want to build as big of a bandwagon as possible. Then the idea or concept is to keep them on it."
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less