PORT CHARLOTTE — Spring has sprung has no better spokesperson than Rays drum major Joseph John Maddon.
Opening game, Orioles at Charlotte Sports Park. Rays lose, 4-2. Who cares?
“I get jacked up every spring,” Joe Maddon said Friday morning. “I love this. I do. You know, everybody says it’s too long. I think it’s just the right amount of time. I don’t want to rush.”
Maddon can’t get enough of it, even at 60, entering his ninth season as Rays manager and his 40th in professional baseball. The sun was out Friday. It’s always out with Maddon.
“You can’t beat this,” Maddon said. “Tell me: How?”
He didn’t hit the majors until he was 40. He didn’t become a big-league manager until he was 51. Twice he has been voted the best manager in his league. If he left, he’d have his pick of managing jobs.
But here is Maddon, all dug in — the house on Bayshore Boulevard (former Bucs coach John McKay’s old place), recent site of his first Gasparilla party, Pirate Joe. He held his eighth “Thanksmas” at area relief shelters. He’s opening a restaurant in South Tampa in June. And there’s the RV he’s living in during spring training, a 40-footer. Hundreds of thousands of dollars, it cost. It’s good to be Joey Baseball.
“I’m not lying to you. I get up every morning ... my first thought that comes to me every morning is ‘Thank you,’ ” Maddon said. “Every morning. It’s not lost on me. It’s not taken for granted. I’m very fortunate. But I do believe I worked to become fortunate. I don’t think it was just given to me. But to be in this moment, to be with this organization, with these guys, to be able to live where I live, it’s a big ‘Thank you.’ ”
Maddon always goes back to his first spring training game, the one that put the hooks in him. He always tells the story, and we always listen this time of year, because spring has sprung. It goes back 41 years? He was a kid from Hazleton, Pa., heading down the road with his Lafayette College teammates for a Florida tournament. Joey Freshman.
“Air Greyhound, all the way,” Maddon said. “I think it was like a 24-hour bus ride to play down here at the University of Tampa. We get there and we’re staying in these little huts. I still have to ride my bike over there one day to recapture the exact spot. We stayed in these little huts behind the baseball field. Huts.”
He took the mound shortly after the bus pulled into Tampa, against Columbia University.
“I was a pitcher then. Columbia. They kicked my butt, they beat me 7-0 … 24-hour bus ride. Give me a break.
“Of course, my Cardinals are training at Al Lang. Against the Mets. My Cardinals. You have no idea the level of Cardinals fan I was at that point in my life. So I had to go to a spring training game, had to. But I didn’t want to ruin the experience by going with anybody else. They’d be ‘Let’s go, this is boring ... let’s go have a beer somewhere.’
“I didn’t have any money. I’m in college, I have no money. So I got out and I hitchhiked, from the University of Tampa to Al Lang Field. I think it might have been in the back of a pick-up, because I remember lying down and seeing the green street signs.
“I get down there to Al Lang. I had enough for the ticket, of course. I walked up on the first base side, the opening, I came up out of that, and I saw this place and I couldn’t believe it. You watch “Field of Dreams,” that kind of stuff. And it was truly that kind of moment. I’d always thought it was what I wanted to do. But you talk about validation or whatever you want to call it, galvanizing, cementing ... that this is absolutely what I want to be doing.”
It’s 41 years later.
“You know how exciting it was to go out there today and watch the outfielders work out?” Maddon asked.
You can’t beat this. Tell him: How?