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