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."