Behind the Buddy Holly glasses, the thoughtful baseball comments and the realistic belief that the Tampa Bay Rays are a World Series contender again, Joe Maddon respects the Yankees. He respects the defending champions, but the manager of the Rays doesn’t fear them. No way.
Maddon is as honest as any manager in baseball. If the Rays had no chance to compete for a title in 2010, Maddon would admit it and then he would repeat his words an hour later. But the Rays, who are flush with superb athletes and stellar young pitchers, believe they are running alongside the Yankees, not behind them.
“I think you begin with a clean slate, but there’s still respect for the defending champions,” Maddon said. “I’ve always felt the Yankees and the Red Sox have got it a little tougher than everybody else because, regardless of the team and their perceived spot in the game, everybody wants to beat them. So they have to bring it every night, based on that thought alone.”
Maddon wants opponents to feel that way about the Rays, too. He wants teams to react to the Rays in the same way that they react to the Yankees and the Red Sox, with a mixture of respect, disdain and vengeance. The Rays weren’t universally treated that way when they ended a decade of misery by reaching the World Series in 2008. A year later, the Rays hobbled to an 84-78 record and watched the Yankees and the Red Sox compete in the playoffs. Same old, same old, many observers surmised.
Now the Rays are trying to return to the postseason, trying to climb back to the World Series and win it this time. Terry Francona, the manager of the Red Sox, called the Rays a “scary team” and sounded as concerned about them as he was about the Yankees. Maddon likes hearing that chatter because he wants the Rays bundled with the Red Sox and the Yankees, who they play on Friday night in St. Petersburg, Fla.
The Rays are a dangerous team. Young, talented and feisty, the Rays could easily destroy the Yankees-Red Sox alignment that has happened at the top of the American League East across 10 of the last 12 seasons. In James Shields, Matt Garza, Jeff Niemann, David Price and Wade Davis, the Rays have five starters who Maddon has targeted to throw 200 innings. In Evan Longoria, the Rays have a perennial Most Valuable Player Award candidate. In Ben Zobrist, the Rays have an All-Everything player. In Rafael Soriano, the Rays have the closer that they were lacking last season.
“I think from the inner circle, with true baseball people, our name is always included with the Yankees and the Red Sox,” said Maddon, in a telephone interview. “I think, on a national level, real baseball fans know how good we are and know that we can compete with these guys and we can play in this division. All of that really doesn’t matter. What matters is that we believe that we can. As long as all the Rays in that room believe that we belong with these guys, that’s all that matters.”
While Maddon and the Rays preach about an optimistic future, the future is coming fast. Both left fielder Carl Crawford and first baseman Carlos Pena can be free agents after the season. It seems doubtful that the Rays, whose payroll is around $72 million, will be able to retain the marquee players. Crawford has been connected to the Yankees so often that he could start searching for an apartment in Manhattan now.
Maddon called the Rays a focused team and he had better hope that they are not a sluggish team. If the Rays are buried behind the Yankees and the Red Sox before the July 31 non-waiver trading deadline, there is a good chance that Crawford and Pena could be traded. Still, despite the challenge of succeeding in the A.L. East, Maddon loves hanging out in a division where the third-place team might end up being the third-best team in the league.
“For me, I want to be in this division,” Maddon said. “This is the best division in baseball. Where else can you get better quicker than playing here?”
When Maddon studies the Yankees, he marvels at how Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada and Mariano Rivera, the players who he called “the trio,” have been so good for so long. Maddon lauded the addition of Curtis Granderson, but said he wasn’t sure that necessarily improved the Yankees because they lost Johnny Damon.
The more that the bespectacled and eloquent Maddon discussed the Rays and the Yankees, the more apparent it became that he deeply respects the Yankees. But he doesn’t fear them, stressing that he likes “our names” against the 25 names from any other team. This is a new tussle, not an old rout.
“The Yankees are easily as strong as last year,” Maddon said. “I don’t know if they’re better or not, but I believe that they’re as good, which is pretty good for what? One hundred and three wins last year? With us, among all the teams, they’ve probably given us our hardest time. We just have not matched up well with them. For us to get over the hump this year, we got to be better against the Yankees.”
Follow Jack Curry on Twitter all season long at @JackCurryYES.