The inspiring story behind the Tampa Bay Rays' journey to the playoffs
Posted in , Dec 11, 2008
As the Tampa Bay Rays ran out of the dugout, eager to celebrate the first playoff berth in the team's 10-year history, up in an ownership suite general manager Andrew Friedman handed out T-shirts to the front office personnel.
Commemorative shirts and caps, of course, are standard practice for accomplishment in professional sports these days. No championship team goes without the official garb that trumpets its achievement.
But on this memorable night, the T-shirts Friedman handed out didn't proclaim a year or title. They simply read, "9 = 8."
The motto was the brainchild of Rays manager Joe Maddon, and it translates to "Nine guys, playing hard every day, equals being one of the eight elite teams to play in baseball's postseason."
On the field below, many of the players wore the T-shirt under their game jerseys. To a man they had bought into the concept of "9 = 8" and the manager who had led them to the national pastime's Promised Land.
After going 66-96 last season—the worst record in the major leagues—many predicted that Maddon's crew would be lucky to finish above .500 record this year. But the 54-year-old journeyman, a guy who spent 15 years in the minor leagues, decided his ballclub was ready for loftier heights.
Still, few expected the Rays to surpass the world champion Boston Red Sox and the big-market New York Yankees in the highly competitive American League East.
First baseman Carlos Pena attributes a good deal of that success to his manager, who, he says, "has incredible instincts for the game; he goes with his gut and he believes in us."
Maddon's positive affirmations go far beyond "9 = 8." Tampa Bay's scouting staff still talks about when he visited the team's baseball academy in Venezuela last winter.
Some managers turn such excursions into vacations, reserving blocks of time for golf or sight-seeing. But Maddon arrived at the ballclub's academy by 7:30 every morning. He worked out with the prospects and got to know many of them.
When one batter struck out with men on base during an exhibition game, Maddon sat down next to him. The big-league manager told a kid who many never make his team that his approach at the plate had been picture perfect.
"Stick with it," Maddon said. "It's going to work." The next time up, the kid laced a single up the middle.
Baseball can often be a game of failure, and few know that better than Maddon. As a player, he never made the big leagues. Although he won raves as the bench coach for the Los Angeles Angels, he had to bide his time before getting the chance to manage a major league team.
Adversity can make some people bitter. In Maddon's case, such obstacles became opportunities for personal growth.
He earned a degree in economics from Lafayette, where he became an avid reader. Quotations from philosopher Albert Camus ("Integrity has no need of rules.") and legendary basketball coach John Wooden ("Discipline yourself so no one else has to.") adorn the walls of the Rays' clubhouse.
Maddon's hobbies include gourmet cooking, Corvette cars and fine wines. He takes his mountain bike on team road trips and regularly logs 100 miles a week. In fact, it was on a bike ride that he dreamed up "9 = 8." In fact, Maddon comes up some his best baseball mantras while on two wheels.
As a manager, Maddon insists that "it's OK to be unconventional."
He's played five players, instead of the normal allotment of three, in the outfield, against top sluggers like Boston's David Ortiz. In addition, he's ordered an opposing hitter walked, even with the bases loaded, if he believes that's the best way to avoid a big inning.
While "9 = 8" has become T-shirt script in Tampa, perhaps Maddon's most important affirmation, what has ultimately helped propel the once lowly Rays to such heights is his motto about effort.
To play for the guy who's a shoo-in for American League manager of the year honors this season, one has to hustle.
"When it comes down to individual effort," Maddon says, "it take absolutely zero talent, zero talent to try hard or play hard every day." As a team, that's what the Rays have done this season.
Still, entering the playoffs, Maddon and his ballclub are far from satisfied. "I haven't given myself a whole lot of time to take it all in yet," Maddon says. "Like the rest of the guys on this team, we know there's a whole lot more on the table."
Tim Wendel is a freelance sportswriter from Vienna Virginia.