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03/30/12 10:00 AM ET

Maddon's unconventional methods work

Rays skipper unafraid to buck convention to help club win

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- When the Rays were 1-8 at the start of last season, manager Joe Maddon went down the aisle of a team flight and poured each player a shot of whiskey. Afterward, he stood at the front of the plane and proposed a toast.

"To the best 1-8 team in the history of baseball," he announced.

Shrewd move there, Joe. Just trying to take a little pressure off, huh?

"See, the typical thing to do is stand in front of the locker room and start talking about everything they've heard the last 10-15 years when something goes bad," he said. "I really don't believe in that stuff."

Now he's off and running, weaving together a series of anecdotes and core beliefs, with some good old-fashioned common sense sprinkled in. Interviews with Maddon sometimes turn into tours of his curious mind, with a quote from Malcom Gladwell here and one from John Wooden there.

During a brief chat last summer, he recommended two restaurants, three novels and a wine, and he did it all with such enthusiasm that it was impossible not to buy in.

For instance, there's coconut chocolate milk. Maddon began one recent news conference by singing its praises.

"I dare anyone who likes chocolate milk not to absolutely love it," he said.

Now back to our regularly scheduled program.

"I much prefer having my meetings after a win, when maybe I'm upset about someone not caring or something we're doing that's philosophically wrong," he said. "That's the time you have a meeting. When they've lost a couple of games is when they need your support, not your anger.

"It's not being upset. It's not being angry at anybody. What do you do to make this better? What's the right tact? Coach Bob Rute, my backfield coach at Lafayette [College], was probably one of the most positive, influential coaches I ever had. When things weren't going right, this guy would sit you down and talk to you about how to make it better. He had a way that if I screwed up, he would fix it by talking to me. I really appreciated that."

As for that whiskey toast, after the Rays had recovered from that bad start and made the playoffs for the third time in four years, this gesture was one of the things Maddon's players remembered.

"We just relaxed and kept playing baseball," pitcher David Price said. "He never presses, and I feel like that rubs off on us."

There are several reasons the Rays are so successful. There's smart, stable management led by Stu Sternberg and Matt Silverman, and the brilliant Andrew Friedman, Tampa Bay's executive vice president of baseball operations. There's an excellent player development system.

And there's the manager, Joe Maddon.

"He's created a way around here that builds good chemistry," pitcher James Shields said. "His attitude is contagious. That keeps us loose in here. We've got a lot of young guys, and the atmosphere around them is a big deal."

Let us count the ways Joe Maddon is unique. On the first day of spring training, he essentially told his players he had two hard and fast rules: play hard, play defense.

He seems willing to negotiate everything else.

"It just feels like he trusts us," rookie pitcher Matt Moore said. "He doesn't always need to be telling us the little things. We understand the small things are what makes this team better than a lot of other teams."

He doesn't sweat the small stuff. There's no dress code on the road. OK, there's occasionally a dress code. Through the years, he has mandated certain attire, from western wear to beach wear to all white for South Florida.

Those trips have gotten some laughs and created camaraderie among players. They raise eyebrows around the game. There was one day a couple of years ago when the Rays found themselves at an airport beside another Major League team. That team was decked out in designer suits while the Rays were in jeans and T-shirts.

"Look, it's about focusing on what's important," he said.

For those who say the lack of a dress code results in undisciplined play, there's this: The Rays committed 73 errors in 2011, the fifth-fewest ever by an American League team.

Maddon believes those theme trips are important for getting players out of their comfort zone. He likes the idea of challenging them, of getting them to both think and look differently.

There's also the clubhouse environment. After games, it's wild and loud, a mini-World Series celebration.

New players occasionally are taken aback by the postgame craziness. Maddon believes having fun is part of the deal, too, as long as his rules about playing hard and playing defense aren't compromised.

"You've got to bring back the childhood a little bit and have a little fun," Shields said. "I believe that brings the best out of everybody when you're having fun and relaxed."

There's one other thing that makes Joe Maddon unique. At a time when Moneyball has become a divisive topic, with disciples of traditional scouting methods blasting the data-driven analytics that began with Billy Beane and the A's, Maddon embraces the new-school stuff heart and soul.

Friedman and his staff give Maddon volumes of information on opposing players, teams and managers to help him prepare his defense, lineups and game strategy.

The Rays will not discuss any aspect of what is in these reports, but when Maddon runs an odd lineup out or when his defense seems positioned differently than almost any in the league, it's a product of information passed along by the front office.

"Honestly, I was into the prehistoric metrics in the '80s and '90s," he said. "I tried to look at stat sheets and tried to glean information on my own. Nobody was into it. I had three heads back then. No one wanted to talk to me about it.

"I really didn't want guys to walk in and look at their batting average. Even back then, I knew there was something deeper and better that would evaluate offensive performance. When you come here and all the boys upstairs, spearheaded by Andrew, start feeding you all this great stuff, it's the kind of stuff you've been looking for."

Friedman said Maddon's 20 years in Minor League baseball intrigued him because the Rays needed someone with a background in player development. Once the two men sat down and talked, he was sold.

"He was incredibly positive, really bright, very open minded," Friedman said. "For us as an organization, we have to look at things differently to overcome some of the disparity in resources. He was a perfect fit in that respect. That's what motivates us and drives us as a front office. Having that in the dugout was something that was extremely attractive to us."

Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.