Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon has learned to outthink his rivals to build one of MLB's best teams.
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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."