Unedited excerpt from Rays Book Pitch first draft. Errors are OK.
We all sat in a huddled half moon on outfield grass, Joe Maddon at our core with a few coaches and staffers in a deep orbit behind him. He wore white rimmed sunglass with a designer inlay and held a fungo bat like some general might hold a jockey’s whip. He addressed the status of the team, the reasons for so many new faces. and his expectations for the coming year. He confessed that last year’s club was talented, specifically its bullpen, and that much of that talent had priced itself outside the Rays’ budget. He was reluctant to say goodbye to his core relief arms, but was confident that, here, assembled before him, were excellent replacements, if not upgrades.
I can’t speak for every team in baseball, but I imagine that most spring training meetings go like this. All the ones I’ve ever been apart of have. A manager stands in front of his squad and gives a state of the union. Some confession, some expectation, some inspiration. Hear it a couple times and it becomes a triviality in the face of the one, great truth all players know: be excellent and everything will take care of itself.
What the player does get from these meetings, besides a recitation of facts his agent has already informed him off before he signed the contract to show up, is a chance to get a feel for the manager. For many of us, this was our first encounter with Maddon, his candor, and his statesmanship. He’d been heralded as one of the most dynamic and magnetizing personalities in baseball, and I was about to find out why.
“Men,” Said Joe, “I believe there are five stages to being a big leaguer. Stage one, you’re just happy to be there. You get to the top, you’ve done it, you’ve arrived and you’re just happy you’ve made it.”
“Stage two is survival. When you realize you’ve got to fight to stay.”
“Stage three is a great one, that’s when you realize you’re good enough to there and you feel like you belong. You start focusing on your play and embrace the title.”
“Stage four is when you start to think about making as much money as you can possible make. You know you can do this, you know you have value, you proven it, and now you want to get paid. There is nothing wrong with stage four. You put your time in, you want to get paid what you’re worth.”
“Then there is stage five. The stage where all you want to do is win. You know you belong, you’ve made your money, now it’s time to win.”
Joe said players can arrive at those stages differently, but stage five was what he wanted us to get too.
Of course it was. Every manager loves players who only care about team victory. But the great managers are the ones who know how to work with players who aren’t there yet, and make no mistake; Maddon was a great manager.
Winning has a way of making people look smarter then they actually are. The meager budget of the Rays versus the massive budgets of their division rivals inflated Maddon’s success to near super human proportions. It was said he could skipper a team of little leaguers to an AL division title like some kind of managerial McGyver. It was said that he understood the game so well he felt it in a metaphysical baseball sense; baseball in relation to the ebb and flow of the universe or something. The truth, however, was that Joe Maddon was simply an excellent salesman.
Skippering a winning team is about squeezing all the talent out of your club that you possible can. To accomplish that, you have to know the players better than they know themselves. Understand what makes the team tick and then use that knowledge to motivate your players no matter where they are on the big league development track. You don’t have to tell the team they need to win, or that winning is better than losing. That’s understood. You need to sell the player on a belief in something greater than themselves. Money, fame, glory, confidence, image, sex life— whatever it is that the player wants as a result of winning—that is the language you must speak if you’re the manager.
A lot of managers assume that telling a player to win is enough. It’s not. Not when contracts are guaranteed and you get paid the same whether you finish below or above .500. Of course, players aren’t motivated by the same things so speeches made to one appeal often backfire or get old, which is why Joe went on to say he wanted us to engage him individually when we saw him around the complex. He said he hated what he called, “cone of silence”—a common behavior among players to go silent around their managers for fear negative judgment. He said he’d be setting up private meetings with us, so we could get to know him better, one on one. Comfortable players, said Maddon, play better. True, but they are also more opt to reveal the things that move them, a handy byproduct.
To many, Maddon was outside the box. But a lot of that had to do with the fact that “the box”, as it pertains to baseball, is an easy container to spill out of. Most of the techniques Joe used were used by managers in the business world and had been around for years. Managers talking with players one-on-one was only unique because so few managers did it. Baseball, so slow to change and adapt, has a way of making geniuses out of people who do things folks in the real world have been doing for ages. Managerial decisions based on big data? That’s not new. Neither are ice-breaker meetings, team building exercises, or fun group functions based around building team identity. Joe Maddon just dressed it all up in a baseball uniform and taught it how to speak the lexicon of a major league athlete. He was charismatic and a natural leader. He read people well and understood the games value system. But if he’s a genius, it’s only because he had the courage and foresight to breakaway from the draconian rules that have governed baseball’s social morays for decades.