The Tampa Bay Rays' Bad Month - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
The Tampa Bay Rays’ Bad Month
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TAMPA
I was made uneasy even before the baseball season began, when the “experts” started predicting that the Tampa Bay Rays were a dead-bang certainty to be in the World Series this year. Having this lot whoop up your certain success is almost as much bad juju as being on the cover of Sports Illustrated.

Not only did the Rays not make it to the championship series this year, they finished 77-85, the team’s first losing season since 2007. Very bad medicine. But after the players packed their gear and dispersed, 2014 kept getting worse for the Rays.

The play-offs had hardly started to take shape when, on October 15, then-Rays GM Andy Friedman announced he was taking the GM’s job with the Los Angeles Dodgers. The 37-year-old Friedman is the wunderkind credited with fielding the small-market, bargain-basement Rays teams that have won more games for more years than they should have.

There’s no baseball statistic called bang-for-the-salary-buck. If there were, Friedman would have led the universe in it for most of his Rays years. He filled the roster for an American League champion in 2008 with the smallest player payroll in the league.      

While Rays fans were still taking a standing eight-count from the unwelcome news of Friedman’s departure, came the shocker Friday that Joe Maddon is opting out of his contract and will no longer be field manager of the team he took from baseball’s sad-sacks to respectability, even to a World Series in his third year. You could have knocked me over with a rosin bag. No one saw this coming. Sports fans in the Other Bay Area are shocked-shocked, without the Claude Rains irony.

Shocked because Maddon was not only successful on the field with a team many doubted belonged in the Major Leagues before he arrived, but was also very popular with fans and players. He has a sunny temperament that suits him to the area. And shocked because all during his tenure Maddon has repeatedly said he loves the Tampa Bay Area and the Rays and wished to finish his baseball career here.

So what happened between now and two weeks ago when Maddon told Chip Carter, head sports guy with WTVT-Channel 13, Tampa’s Fox affiliate, that he wanted ten more years here? Or a week ago when Maddon told Tampa Bay Times sports writer Marc Topkin that the Tampa Bay Area is “the best place in all of baseball to work”?

What happened were the contract negotiations between Maddon and the Rays’ new GM Matt Silverman, with Rays’ owner Stuart Sternberg and Maddon’s agent, Alan Nero, looking over the shoulders of the two principals. Could it be that Maddon’s abrupt change of tune and sudden departure came simply because the Rays didn’t offer enough money to keep him? At the moment there is no better explanation. Friedman and Maddon worked closely together and respected each other, but they were not joined at the hip. And Maddon will not be following Friedman to La-La Land. After arriving in his new baseball home, Friedman said Don Mattingly will continue to manage the Dodgers in 2015.

Tampa Bay may be the best place in baseball to work, but it’s hardly the flushest. Small-market Tampa Bay, with its small TV contract and anemic attendance, assures all Rays managers that they will have to compete with monster franchises the likes of the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox with home-grown youngsters and cast offs from the baseball encore store. Friedman and Maddon have been very good at turning such unpromising fodder into wins. We will soon see what Friedman can do with the Dodgers when he has almost unlimited money to work with. We may also find out if a team with both Maddon and money can prosper.

With Friedman stocking the roster, and Maddon handling the Xs and Os and preparing his players to give what they have, the Rays won an American League pennant in 2008, won two AL East division titles, and were in the playoffs four times between 2008 and 2013. Definite over-achievement for a team on poverty row (as these things are measured in major league sports). Maddon’s win-loss percentage for his nine years with the Rays is .517. Not spectacular, but still good, as this includes three losing seasons, which included Maddon’s first two Rays seasons when new ownership was still rebuilding the team. All of the Rays’ preceding managers had a combined win-loss percentage of .401.

So where will Joe fetch up next year? Speculation among baseball writers and talking heads, here and in Chicago, is that Maddon is next in line to take up the challenge of making a winner out of the Chicago Cubs. This makes sense. Maddon likes Chicago and Wrigley (changing one’s workplace from the Trop to Wrigley Field is a no-brainer — except maybe in April). The Cubs have way more money than the Rays. Checkbook GM Theo Epstein has the resources to amply reward the players Maddon would need to succeed, and, not least, Maddon himself. Maddon’s $2 million annual consideration with the Rays — more than enough to keep body and soul together, most would agree — could be a multiple of that in Chicago.  

For all this, it may a bit soon for current Cubs manager Rick Renteria to start trying to break his lease. Many of the folks assigning Maddon to Chicago and the Cubs are the same ones who were sure the Rays would be in the World Series this year. But Renteria was not successful with the Cubs last year — which doesn’t exactly put him in a select fraternity. Many Cubs ex-managers can say the same. A 73-89 season and last again in the NL Central does not exactly beg for an encore. An available Maddon is hardly employment insurance for Renteria. But we’ll have to wait and see.

The Cubs, who have been in an almost continual rebuilding phase since the end of World War II —  with teases, followed by disappointment, in 1969, 1989, 2003 — present a different kind of challenge than the Rays, only in the bigs since 1998, and who just stayed an expansion team longer than most. If Maddon does wind up in working in Wrigley and makes a winner of the Cubs, he would be a consensus genius, a magician, a miracle-worker. There would be statues of the man all over the North Side. Joseph would once again be a popular name for Chicago boy children born north of Madison Avenue. If he lived to be a hundred, Maddon would never have to pay for his own drinks again.

Meanwhile, there is many a broken heart in the Tampa Bay Area. Maddon was truly well liked here, and will be missed. Many a local sports fan, after speculating on Maddon’s next career step over the weekend, has then said to himself, “Hey, wait a minute. Who the hell is going to manage the Rays next year?” 

Who, indeed? The Leading candidate is Dave Martinez, Maddon’s bench coach for all of the Maddon years here. But certainly others will be flying in for interviews. Perhaps even Renteria?

Nah.

Larry Thornberry
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Larry Thornberry is a writer in Tampa.
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