Jesse Rogers, ESPN Staff Writer 395d

Without Rays' leap, Joe Maddon's way might not have made it to Chicago

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- It all began in a hotel in Houston, during the 2005 World Series.

While the baseball world descended on the city to watch the White Sox put the finishing touches on a sweep of the Astros, Andrew Friedman and Joe Maddon sat down for the interview that would change the course of two franchises.

“It went four to five hours, and he came prepared with a binder of information,” Friedman said. “By the end of it, it was pretty clear that he was a fit for what we were looking for.

“His approach was challenging conventional wisdom and I liked that.”

Before the Chicago Cubs would benefit from hiring Maddon in their own history-making way, it was Friedman, then an executive with the Tampa Bay Rays, who first took the leap to make Maddon a major league manager.

What Maddon did with practically no payroll in front of a small fan base in that strange-looking ballpark in St. Petersburg was no small miracle. But what attracted the Rays to him in the first place?

“The two things that were most important to us, with the young team that we had, was someone with an extensive player development background as well as someone who was intellectually curious,” Friedman recalled this week from Los Angeles, where he is now the president of the Dodgers. “As far as what we were looking for at that point in time, Joe fit it to a T. He checked all the boxes on paper, and even more so when we sat down and had a chance to exchange ideas and thoughts.”

What Friedman saw in that first interview with Maddon helped make the Rays something few thought the franchise could become: contenders in the big-spending AL East.

“We were competing against the Red Sox and Yankees with far less resources and we thought approaching it with a different perspective would give us the best chance,” Friedman recalled. “We wanted someone that would look at things in an unconventional way. That was Joe.”

Riding that unconventional approach, the once-lowly Rays made four playoff appearances -- including a World Series run in 2008 -- before Maddon left for the Cubs before the 2015 season.

Now, as Maddon returns to Tampa Bay for the first time, his former franchise honored him with a video montage before the top of the second inning on Tuesday night, which resulted in a standing ovation.

Maddon knew immediately the changes he wanted to implement if he ever got a big league managing job after years of coaching in the Angels organization. It began with something small: eliminating the dress code.

“That was possibly No. 1,” Maddon said. “The theme dress trips. Part of it, at that time, was poking fun of the entire method [of dressing up].

“[Also], the lack of batting practice, altering the workday prior to a game. It was important to me to alter the method on a daily basis just so the guys would not get mentally bored with the whole thing. If I learned one thing in economics class, it’s the point of diminishing returns. … You can’t constantly repeat the same method and believe it’s always going to be good.

“The other point would be showing up at the ballpark. It’s absurd, first one there, last one to leave. It’s an incredibly inane concept. Work smart, don’t just work. Those are the things I wanted to eradicate.”

Getting Friedman’s buy-in was important, but how would the players react? In short, they loved the freedom Maddon’s approach allowed -- right from the start.

Current Cub Ben Zobrist arrived in Tampa Bay at the same time Maddon did. He experienced the culture change first-hand.

“I could see the difference just from where I came from in Houston,” Zobrist said. “How they were more open, relaxed and not so much about the rules. It was very different than anything I had ever experienced in pro ball. … They started the change at the big league level and let it trickle down. The minor leagues were pretty strict at that point, but that changed as well.”

While the dividends weren’t immediately evident on the field -- the Rays lost over 100 games in 2006 and 2007 -- the payoff became clear as a host of talented young players made their way through the system and the franchise’s run of success began with the manager readying his young stars for the biggest moments.

Sound familiar? That’s exactly what Maddon thrived at upon arriving in Chicago, where he had to guide a young team through the pressure that comes with a century-plus of heartache.

“He had a tremendous ability to know when a player needed a pat on the back,” Friedman explained. “Observing that, watching that, then seeing the pretty immediate benefits from it, that’s something that really stuck with me.

“And one thing that Joe did really well when being mired in something, human instinct is X and he had a tremendous ability to rise above it and do the opposite. I feel like it benefited our players in a lot of different ways and often times they didn’t realize it in the moment, didn’t necessarily appreciate it in the moment, but that over time was wildly beneficial.”

Moving from a small market to a big market didn’t change his unorthodox ways. The same kinds of things have gone on in Chicago, from Maddon’s strategy of batting Addison Russell ninth when he first arrived and backing off his starting pitchers -- even over their protests -- to his insisting on unconventional practices to keep his team fresh through the grinds of the long season.

"We tried things other groups [teams] weren't willing to try," Maddon said. “I never understood why it was so important to go from a clubhouse, to a bus, to a tarmac, to a plane, to a tarmac, to a bus, to a hotel lobby, to your room and why it was so important to dress up. If I leave any kind of legacy within this game, I would be pointed at in regards to changing the dress code. Seriously.”

Another Chicago staple -- the Maddonism -- got its roots in Tampa Bay. When asked to pick from Maddon’s famous sayings, Friedman said there were “too many to remember.”

“Anytime he had some time away, whether it was the offseason or the All-Star break, he often came back with really interesting ones,” Friedman said with a laugh.

Zobrist added: “Things he said back then made a huge difference to me. Still does. There was a definite culture shift that I was kind of privy to at the big league level. I was there for two years when we lost 100 games, but Joe had to find a way to keep it positive and keep it going.”

Maddon never had to go through the same growing pains with the Cubs, and what he developed in Tampa Bay was perfected by the time he got to Chicago. The results have been nothing short of stunning: Maddon's team has finished above .500 in nine of his past 10 seasons as a manager, and if the Cubs can close out the NL Central in the next two weeks, it’ll make seven playoff appearances in 10 years for him.

Now, as October approaches, it’s time to see if Maddon’s touch can lead to something even he has never experienced before: a World Series repeat.

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