Friday, April 6, 2007

Why the Rays?

I went to St. Petersburg in February 2006 looking for Josh Paul. Intrigued by the idea of a catcher writing a book on the game, my hope was to convince him to sit for an extended interview. He consented, and a fascinating conversation followed. Successful, I flew back north, wrote my feature, and was done with the Devil Rays.

Except that I wasn’t. I couldn’t be; I’d met Joe Maddon. My first morning in camp, while I idled in the clubhouse, waiting for my subject to arrive, the second-day manager hurried around the corner from his office, beaming. His white hair stood tall, his gait was practically bouncy. On his way past the lockers, en route to the field, he stopped in front of me, looked me in the eye, and said, “good morning, sir.” He patted me on the arm and was gone.

Wait a minute. That was the manager? His glee was almost visible, floating in the air behind him and infecting the players, clubhouse staff, me.

You have to remember: this was the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. Given their history, it was no certainty that the mood at spring training would be light. They had just lost ninety-plus games, again, and were reeling from three years of being berated by just-departed Lou Piniella.

For two days, though, players talked to me about “a complete one-eighty” on the team (Carl Crawford), shooting for the playoffs (nearly everyone), and having a “deep gut feeling” that things would be better in Tampa Bay (Jorge Cantu). Maddon himself, in addition to the charisma that created immediate buy-in with the team, spoke of his job in a fresh way.

From that first week, he discussed the psychological work required to reverse the course of his team. He was launching a long-term project to create a Rays culture, informed by a lifetime of nontraditional baseball thinking. The problems ran deep, and required radical ideas. Maddon, as we will examine consistently on this site, was making it his life’s work to fix the Rays.

And it wasn’t just Maddon. New owner Stuart Sternberg had hired the precocious Andrew Friedman to run baseball operations, and Friedman, in lockstep with Maddon on the team’s direction, immediately set to work on the roster. The Rays were, and are, at a fascinating moment in terms of upcoming talent.

In addition to the talent, though, the thing that became clear to me in spring training last year was their organizational focus, which is different from anything that has come before.

Friedman, who makes the moves, and Maddon, who sets the tone, are committed to interesting and innovative strategies. They are not dogmatic, understanding the importance of the traditional and interpersonal in baseball, but willing to consider—and in some cases pioneer—the statistical, unproven, and weird.

So I found myself unable to walk away from this story. When I was scrutinizing the scouting reports of infielders in Double-A, I knew I was hooked.

This project is all about following an organization through a time of growth and development. Where does it go? ESPN’s Keith Law recently wrote that the Rays should contend by 2009. Others have said tough luck, they’ll never roll with the big boys in the East. No one knows where this regime will take the Devil Rays, but it will be interesting, and should be observed and recorded. That’s what we’re doing here.

The team is full of characters: Maddon, the brainy, iridescent manager; Paul, the backup catcher who writes; Crawford, the budding superstar; Elijah Dukes, the mercurial, troubled talent from the inner city; Kazmir, the phenom still trying to put his game together; Delmon Young, the formerly bat-throwing, former #1 prospect in baseball hoping to become a superstar in right field; Friedman, the boy GM living his wildest dreams. We’ll follow the development of these human dramas.

We’ll also follow the development of the ideas—for example, Maddon uses data and psychology in ever-more innovative ways—and the roster. How will the unconventional leadership combine with the talented nucleus to create an improving team?

We know, basically, how the Yankees will fare this year and next; ditto the Red Sox. We don’t know how things will go in Tampa, where a different kind of baseball story will unfold. We do know that it will be interesting.


Ray said...

Although I'm a diehard Yankees fan, I love following the Rays since Joe Maddon took the reins. Piniella was wrong for the team. This group of young talent is what baseball is all about. I hope they come in second in the AL East. I will enjoy checking out your blog Solid writing.

Patrick said...

Good to see you blogging about the Rays, Andy, I look forward to seeing more of your work. That is an excellent story to tell, and I hope to hear more from you in the future.

raysfan02 said...

Good stuff, Andy. Keep it going.