ST. PETERSBURG -- Jeff Keppinger had never experienced a manager like Joe Maddon until he joined the Rays.
"I haven't seen anything like this," Keppinger said. "I've been around on a few teams, but nothing like this. [Maddon] lets guys relax. He lets guys focus on playing rather than focusing on not making mistakes. Because when you play this game to not make mistakes, you're going to get eaten up.
"This is a good atmosphere here. Joe makes it really easy on us. There's no yelling or people getting upset with you if you make a mistake or do something wrong -- on-the-field stuff. But off-the-field stuff ..."
Maddon always has encouraged his teams to have fun. Like themed road trips where players dress up in anything from pajamas to grunge wear. Yeah, some of the players have rolled their eyes from time to time about the trips, but they have been fun and they are just one of the many options Maddon has employed seeking fun for his team.
"He really believes the more fun you have and the looser you are, the better you are going to play," bench coach Davey Martinez said. "Since I've been here, it's been true to fact."
In the eyes of some "old school" baseball heads, Maddon is a nincompoop, the great velvet hand of baseball. You're not supposed to have fun. You're supposed to be a fire-breathing dragon. If a player messes up, the manager is supposed to be in his grill, letting him know just how badly he messed up.
While that's obviously not Maddon's way, he is not exactly the pussycat everybody believes he is, either.
"He can be a disciplinarian when he has to be," James Shields said. "He definitely gets on you when he needs to get on you, but he's always trying to keep things really positive. For the most part, he'll take you aside and let you know what's going on with you personally, individually. I think that's the sign of a good manager."
Maddon won't get pushed around. A good example came during the 2011 season when Shields and some of the other starting pitchers let Maddon know that they did not care for the six-man rotation that was implemented for part of the season. If the players had their way, the rotation would have continued as a five-man rotation.
"We didn't win that one," said Shields, allowing himself a little chuckle. "He's the manager, he makes the decisions."
B.J. Upton acknowledged that Maddon has discipline, but quickly added, "For the most part, he doesn't have to."
"He comes in the first day of Spring Training and says, 'You guys are grown men. You guys police yourselves,'" Upton said. "He has respect from the team. And guys on the team know right from wrong."
Martinez noted that Maddon's discipline is administered in "his own way."
"He truly believes you can't babysit 25 guys," Martinez said. "But when push comes to shove, if something happens, he does have rules that he abides by."
And when those rules are breached, Maddon is not opposed to bringing a player into his office to clear the air.
"He's had players in there before, unknown to the media," Martinez said. "But when something needs to be discussed, he has an open-door policy. If you have a problem or he has a problem, you go to his office.
"When you can handle things internally and not let it get out of hand, I think it's the best way. And then you go about your business. And everybody's good. He gets it off his chest, the players know what to expect and it's all done."
Much of what Maddon believes stems from his days playing sports -- whether in high school, college or professionally. He didn't like being humiliated by the coach in the name of discipline. Now that he's the guy in charge, Maddon believes that if he's doing his job correctly, the perception of him should be as a cupcake/good guy/players' manager, because anything combustible is taking place behind closed doors.
"The one thought I like to utilize is to praise publicly and criticize privately," Maddon said. "Nobody hears about any kind of disciplinary moments. I don't need it to be expressed publicly to be accepted by a large group of people that I am that person just for validation. I don't need that.
"I know what I do. I know what we do in the clubhouse. That's just part of society. There's a group that either needs the validation or people to understand the perception. I don't necessarily need that when it comes to the discipline."
While Maddon isn't afraid of discipline, being heavy handed is not his way. He is not the guy who will throw the bats in the shower and call his players lolly-gaggers.
And if he did?
"We would just go, 'What's going on?'" Sam Fuld said. "'What is he taking? Is he playing a practical joke on us?'"
Fuld smiled at the thought, then added: "He demands respect just because he treats us all with respect. We know he has a fiery side in him. We see it with the way he is with umpires at times. But because he's so respectful of us, he treats us like men, we never want to put him in a position where he has to act that way with us."
So what does the Rays' skipper think when somebody says that he is a cupcake?
Maddon smiled at the question, then answered: "With a lot of chocolate icing on it."
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.