09/10/08 10:00 AM ET
Maddon looks like hands-down winner
Rays skipper clearly top candidate for AL Manager of the Year
By Tom Singer / MLB.com
That allegory will be appreciated by the American League's apparent 2008 winner, Joe Maddon, who reads Miguel de Cervantes -- as well as Albert Camus and Alan Greenspan.The bespectacled 54-year-old is the bookworm in the Animal House of baseball managers. He is erudite. He drops quotes the way Jenny Craig drops pounds. He is eclectic. And despite also being a Renaissance Man, what he has given the Tampa Bay Rays isn't a rebirth, but its first signs of life. Maddon's professorial-yet-tough approach has been a key ingredient in the turnaround season of an 11-year-old team that never before had won more than 70 games. Heck, the Rays had that many by this Aug. 9, which is essentially when the polls closed. The closest precedent to the Rays' instant reversal was set by the 1969 Mets, who, after being National League doormats for their first seven seasons, won the World Series in the eighth. Was their manager, Gil Hodges, rewarded with a Manager of the Year Award? Sort of: The official baseball writers' award wasn't instituted until '83, but Hodges did receive a forerunner version presented by The Sporting News. With his head in the AL East Division race, the last thing on Maddon's mind is campaigning for awards. But, in a sense, he already gave his campaign speech when he said: "I'm looking at 'Why not?' Why can't the Rays be a force in the American League East this year? I know, on appearance, people are going to argue with that and stomp on that, but why not? Why can't we accelerate the curve here? Why not?" Joe Maddon said that on April 2 -- in 2006, before taking his first Rays lineup to the pregame meeting at home plate. But even in elections in which candidates run unopposed, there's got to be a ballot, so ... THE FAVORITE Joe Maddon, Rays: With apologies to the late Bill Walsh, Maddon lit a fire under the Rays with his own version of the West Coast Offense. He has flattered the Angels, his previous employer as bench coach, by imitating their aggressive style, especially on the basepaths. In addition to nearing a postseason berth -- their hold on the division lead may have slipped, but the fallback is a huge Wild Card edge with only 19 games left -- the Rays have already eclipsed last season's attendance at Tropicana Field by more than 200,000. How far has Maddon brought them? Lou Piniella got 13 points in Manager of the Year balloting in '03 -- for guiding them to a record of 63-99. After all, that was an improvement of eight games over the previous season. Maddon should break the East's slump in this award. The last manager of an AL East club to take it was Jimy Williams, in '99 with the Red Sox. THE CONTENDERS Mike Scioscia, Angels: One of Scioscia's claims to infamy as a player is having been the catcher on the '88 Dodgers, who took out Oakland in the Fall Classic after being introduced on TV as "perhaps the worst World Series team ever." What goes around ... the Angels are "perhaps the worst runaway team ever." Any given lineup includes batting averages such as .192, .237, .l93 and .183. No one has more than 24 homers or more than 82 RBIs -- only Toronto has lower team-leading numbers in the AL. As a team, they rank in the league's bottom half in most departments. The neutralizing factor (besides obviously superior pitching) is Scioscia's creativity, daring and checkered flag -- he extolls his players to run the opposition into mistakes. The Angels create more runs than any other team in the Majors, and the proof of their manager's impact is in the standings. Ron Gardenhire, Twins: They have fewer household names but more wins than they did last season. The withstood departures of Johan Santana, Torii Hunter, Carlos Silva and Matt Garza have been recited ad nauseam, but repetition does not lessen the wonder of this team, which is chasing the White Sox to the AL Central wire. It is, of course, the doing of Gardenhire, who is more at ease with a team of gamers ("piranhas," in Twins-speak) than with headliners. They give him a blank canvas which he can fashion into a true team, which is what he has done again. THE DARK HORSES Terry Francona, Red Sox: His players adore him, and he has outlasted the Yankees, which is worth big points in The Nation. But the truth is, no manager of a defending World Series champion has ever taken this award (see paragraph No. 1). Cito Gaston, Blue Jays: There's precedent for midseason replacements who engineer turnarounds (Jack McKeon won the NL award with the '03 Marlins, and the Mets' Jerry Manuel could get serious consideration this year in the National League). But the prodigal son returned in too deep a hole for even his own 42-27 record since June 20 to have much impact.
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.