Joe Maddon stirs the sauce, sprinkles in brown sugar. "You gotta get the acidic taste out of the tomatoes," he says. All around him in this large commercial kitchen at Tropicana Field, home of the Tampa Bay Rays, Joe's sous chefs are chopping vegetables, frying sausages, molding ground beef into meatballs the size of baseballs. Joe sprinkles Parmesan cheese into the sauce, stirs, tastes, smiles, and hands the spoon to Jaye, his wife of four years. "She hates to cook," he says. "I love it." Joe's a stocky little man, with a pug's jaw and the short, studiously punked-out white hair and old-fashioned black-rimmed eyeglasses of a man conflicted, uncertain if he's rooted in the generation of his youth – he's 59 – or today's hipsters.

Maddon manages the Rays, who are again expected to be contenders for the postseason, if not to win the pennant outright. His "sous chefs" work for the team as well and include its third-base coach, Tom Foley; the pitching coach, Jim Hickey; and Don Zimmer, Maddon's 82-year-old adviser and baseball guru, who will join them later to help distribute the food to 1,000 homeless people in Tampa Bay in the days before Christmas. It's Maddon's way of paying back the community that changed his life. For 30 years, Maddon was a journeyman minor-league player, coach, and manager, before coming to the Rays in 2006. It was a job nobody wanted except Maddon: a payroll under $50 million a year and a history of fielding losing teams. By his third year, he had managed the team to the World Series (where they lost to the Philadelphia Phillies), and they have been to the playoffs two more times since then, with Maddon named American League Manager of the Year in 2008 and 2011.

Maddon has been called "the best small-market manager" in baseball, and praised as a genius for turning young players into stars and aging retreads into productive players. A 2012 Men's Journal survey of more than 100 MLB players found him to be "the smartest manager" in the league, although, considering the competition, this seems a backhanded compliment.

Given his success, it's hard to criticize Maddon as a manager, although some baseball people still do. One of the most consistent barbs is that he is a show-off, that his in-game tactics are designed to draw attention to himself. There's his unorthodox use of extreme overshifts, for example, where he moves all his infield players onto one side of the field against dead pull hitters, as well as the fact that he doesn't settle on a conventional set lineup from game to game, always juggling players and batting order. "They think I'm doing it to show how smart I am," Maddon says. "But we build our lineups on a lot of computer information. One year a computer told us that right-handed hitters hit Mike Mussina better than lefties." Most managers would stick with conventional baseball strategy and still send up the left-handers. Maddon loaded the lineup with righties. "They say I don't manage by the book," he says, "but the book was written back in the day."

Maddon grew up in a blue-collar immigrant neighborhood in Hazleton, Pennsylvania. His grandfather, born Maddonini in Italy, changed the family name to Maddon in America so he could get more plumbing work from his Polish and Slovak neighbors. Maddon's father, Joe Sr., who died in 2002, was a plumber too; his Polish mother, Albina, whom everyone calls "Beanie," still waits tables in a diner in town. The whole family lived over Joe Sr.'s plumbing shop in an apartment building housing at least 20 relatives. "There was always someone to play with," Maddon says. "But if one person got sick, we all did."

Joe Sr. didn't want his son to be a plumber, but an athlete. "He always had time to have a catch with me," says Maddon. By the time he was a teenager, Maddon was a talented catcher and quarterback. He knew his parents wouldn't be able to afford to send him to college, so he made sure he got good grades, which, along with his baseball and football skills, earned him a scholarship to Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania. He soon decided to quit football and concentrate on his first love, baseball. "My father called me a quitter," says Maddon. "He didn't speak to me for months."

After college, Maddon spent four mediocre seasons in the lowest rungs of the minor leagues. During his best year, 1977, he hit three home runs and had 24 RBIs for the Salinas Angels of the Class A California League. It was soon apparent to everyone but him that he'd never be a big-league player. Eventually Maddon accepted the hard reality of his baseball life and became a minor-league coach, then a minor-league manager. Thus began his seemingly interminable odyssey toward the major leagues, with stops in Peoria, Idaho Falls, and Midland, among many others.

Maddon insists that long years in the minors helped him as a manager, particularly for the Rays. "It was like college, where I had to survive intellectually, emotionally, and socially with people from a higher level. It elevated me to be with people who were superior to me. I needed the minors to understand the game, the political nature of it, relationships in the clubhouse." He learned how to use "kids" (he always calls them kids), who were often one-dimensional – a pitcher with a blistering fastball but no command, a power hitter who couldn't touch the curve – to boost their self-confidence, even if it cost him games. "It was about developing them to reach the majors, not about winning." And because his best players would be promoted to other teams, he had to juggle a changing set of talents, like a chef who has to improvise because he never has the right ingredients.

In the early 1980s, Maddon was managing an off-season minor-league team for the Angels, working mostly with young prospects. Gene Mauch, the Angels' manager at the time, came over to him one day and said, "You created a great atmosphere around here," and walked away.

"I thought, What is he talking about? I was just doing what was natural for me," Maddon says. "But I realized I had to think about what I was doing only instinctively so I could re-create it all the time."

A couple of days later I'm waiting outside my hotel for Maddon when I hear the rumble of heavy metal. Chevy V-8, dual exhausts. Crager chrome mags. A two-tone gray-and-black 1956 Chevy Bel Air stops, and Joe waves at me to get in. The car has been restored to perfection, but it is no longer really a Chevy, except for its body and interior. Under the hood sits a new 550-horsepower Camaro engine, transmission, suspension, and brakes. It's a retro-rod, like Maddon himself: half classic, half modern hot rod.

"I thought you might like this, being an old guy," Maddon says. I nod, say, "Cool, Joe. Like 'American Graffiti.'"

We leave the hotel, heading for a Salvation Army homeless shelter in Clearwater, where Joe will hand out the food he prepared. We come to a stop at the first red light. When it turns green, Maddon nails it, tires squealing, the exhaust thumping. We roar down Bayshore Boulevard, which overlooks the bay to our left and big, expensive homes to our right.

"Jeez, Joe, you're still a kid," I say.

He smiles. "Like my players. I never considered myself an adult. I never think of myself as the adult in the room. I always look for the old guy."

"Well, you're only old once, Joe, but you can be immature forever."

He smiles, says, "I like that."

Maddon is famous for keeping it fast and light in his clubhouse and on road trips. Once, after a tough loss, his veteran first baseman, Carlos Peña, brought a mariachi band into the clubhouse. The players all glanced at Maddon to see if he'd be angry. "I thought it was great," Maddon says. "After a few minutes of mariachi music, everyone had forgotten the game."

I ask Maddon what role Zimmer plays with the team. During his years as a coach and manager, Zimmer was known as a throwback to another era. "If I have a problem with a player," Maddon says, "I send them to see Mr. Zimmerman." Still, he seems an odd fit for the computer-centric Maddon. "Maddon has his fun," says Zimmer, "but when the game starts, he's the best prepared of any manager I ever saw, and he handles the game as good as any manager ever."

Maddon likes to do what he calls "theme road trips." There was the pajama road trip, the nerd road trip. For the nerd one, he had the players pose for a photo outside their chartered flight dressed in high-water pants, bow ties, and suspenders. "Some guys won't do it," Maddon says. "They think it's not big-league. They can't laugh at themselves." David Price, the Rays' Cy Young Award-winning left-hander, says, "He asks us for theme ideas. Once, we dressed as cowboys. It's fun." Ben Zobrist, a utility player for the Rays, adds, "Joe wants us to do one wearing skinny jeans. Never gonna happen."

"You couldn't do theme days with Alex Rodriguez," I say.

Maddon shakes his head. "I dunno. I hope I could convince A-Rod to wear onesies. He's not a bad guy." He looks over at me. "I hear a lot of Yankees like him better than Jeter."

Maddon says the most important thing he has to do as manager is listen to the players. "I coached for a manager once who told his guys, 'There's 25 of you and one of me, so you have to adjust to me.' I hope I'm never like that guy. The days of dictatorial managers are over."

When I tell him the hotdogging and emotional outbursts of B.J. Upton (the former Rays center fielder, now with the Atlanta Braves) offend my sense of the way the game should be played, Maddon says, "Aw, he's a good kid. He was brought to the big leagues too soon. He had to make his mistakes in front of a lot of people and the media. He's learning mental stuff he should have learned in the minors."

Comments like this demonstrate Maddon's success better than any on-field managerial moves. He understands players. "Joe respects us," says Price. "He gives us our space. When I first came up, I'd be shagging balls in batting practice in the outfield and Joe would be making the rounds. When he got to me, he just talked to me, and not about baseball."

"Less is more with a talent like David," says Maddon. "I just leave him alone a lot. Once in a while I'll tell him to throw more fastballs." Or James Shields, a 15-game winner with the Rays last year and the only Ray to win a World Series game: Maddon calls him a "bulldog," adding, "but he can be a bitch. He hates to come out of a game." How does he deal with Shields? Gingerly. "I tell him to throw more fastballs, too." Zobrist, unlike Price and Shields, had bumped around the minors before sticking with the Rays. "I thought the best way to break him in was as a utility player," says Maddon. "That way he felt he was contributing to the team while getting comfortable being in the majors."

"He told me to bring extra gloves so he could find more at-bats for me," says Zobrist. "But I didn't want to embarrass myself in the field. Joe said, 'Don't worry, you'll be fine.' He instills confidence in you."

When the Rays acquired relief pitcher Fernando Rodney from the Los Angeles Angels last year, he was coming off a disastrous three-save, 4.50-ERA season. After one year with Maddon: 48 saves and a 0.60 ERA. How did Maddon do it? "It wasn't complicated," he says. "We just let him know how good we thought he was. We respected him and embraced him. It was that simple."

"Joe's as good as it gets," says Andrew Friedman, the Rays' Executive VP of Baseball Operations. "He's a serial optimist. That can be his worst quality, too. Joe is almost too loyal. He has patience with guys that maybe we should move on from. Other managers move on from players quicker than we do. But Joe's attitude is, 'We're dealing with human beings here.'"

Maddon turns onto a side street. We move past old Key West-type homes and small businesses. He points to a little car-detailing shop: "That's where I got my Bel Air detailed yesterday." He looks over at me and grins, "The only lesbian car detailer in Tampa." He moves slowly now over a rough street. "Notice how tight it is," he says. "Not a rattle. And the air's cool." I tell him I'm freezing. He jacks up the air.

Joe isn't afraid to rely on his intuition, either. Last year, for example, the Rays hit well against the Blue Jays' lefty pitcher, Ricky Romero, largely because Maddon again broke with traditional baseball practice and batted lefties against him. When I ask Maddon why he chose to attack Romero this way, he just says he "noticed something about him." What that "something" is can be hard for him to define, which bothers him. Maddon is constantly conflicted about whether he should rely on data or use his instincts. That's his biggest challenge as a manager: when to abandon the security of computer information and trust his gut. "I worry if I do too many things by intuition," he says. "I feel it's guessing. But I'm beginning to realize intuition is thinking in advance of the moment."

Money, or rather the Rays' lack of it, also has a major impact on the way Maddon manages, on the players he signs, and, perhaps most important, on the players the team deals away. The day after I met Joe, the Rays shipped Shields to Kansas City for four guys you've never heard of. The team couldn't afford to pay Shields the many millions of dollars that his status as a pretty-good-but-not-great right-hander commands. The Rays let Upton walk (Atlanta Braves, five years, $75 million), too, as well as Peña (Chicago Cubs, one year, $10 million), and Carl Crawford (Red Sox, seven years, $142 million), all for the same reason.

We get to the Salvation Army shelter, where Maddon will be meeting his sous chefs and his wife. I ask him if he ever tried to keep these high-priced players. "I never would have said no. This job came my way in 2006 because I was in tune with the organization's philosophy about spending money. I would never demand they give me a $100 million team. The same lineup every day like Joe Girardi? We're not supposed to win like the Yankees. That would be a boring concept to me. This is the right team for me. It's an intellectual experience for me every day to go to the park."