This piece is part of an On Leadership roundtable on the best managers in baseball today.
There I was, in the middle of the hotel bar at the Baseball Winter Meetings, proposing the seemingly imaginable: a woman throwing batting practice to a major league team. Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon listened intently as I explained to him how it would help show girls and boys that baseball really is a game for all. He asked about my qualifications; then gave me his contact info and said he wanted to help.
And that’s when I joined the ‘cult’ of Joe Maddon.
Joe Maddon lives an authentic life, one where he is true to himself regardless of the external pressures to conform. This authenticity translates into his successful work as a baseball manager. He is able to remain balanced in a sports world that often feeds on the frenzied state of wins and losses, salary wars and unsolicited opinions.
As the manager of the Rays, Joe has built a community. There is a sense of togetherness in the clubhouse, which makes for a unified team that can play well through both the highs and lows of a marathon-like season. To create a culture of fun, he surprises his players with different experiences: homemade hoagies, team letterman sweaters, wearing a Bucs helmet to a postgame press conference.
Beyond the fun, Joe Maddon also wins games. Many thought the Rays would be rebuilding during the 2011 season, but instead they made the playoffs – the third time in four years. The Rays led the league with a .988 team fielding average and are second in the American League in earned run average. With a team payroll of just $40 million, the 2011 Rays won without a roster of bought superstars.
Going into September, down by 8.5 games in the American League wild card chase, the Rays never gave up. Joe Maddon’s balanced approach to managing kept his team loose but focused. The result was a month of peak performance in an atmosphere where every game meant something. The team finished the season with a five-game winning streak, and clinched the wild card win in the 12th inning of the final game, after trailing 7-0 in the 8th to the Yankees. The team never gave up; they kept believing. That belief is the result of Joe’s authentic leadership.
Joe’s tweets alone give a sense of his managerial style:
September 7: “We want to be like the guys in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Relentless pursuers who prompted the line: Who are those guys?”
September 11: “We’re kinda fun to watch right now. Our guys believe. They don’t need any speeches from me. I need to get out of the way and let them play.”
September 15: “Now it’s about Friday. We have to think in those terms. It’s the only way we are going to do this. We need to stay in the present tense.”
October 3: “Joel Peralta’s wife made some great Dominican food for the spread today. She’s a great cook.”
October 4: “Had a postgame toast in the clubhouse. Told them I couldn’t be more proud. Back in April I toasted to the best 0-6 team ever. I was right.”
The day I pitched batting practice to the Rays, Joe Maddon and his team were amazing. Johnny Damon came over to introduce himself and Sam Fuld stopped to tell me how great he thought my batting practice journey was. Joe spent half an hour with me and my daughter Jasmine making sure we felt welcomed. The whole team culture was supportive and inspiring.
The authenticity that Joe puts forth, and that his players model, is what drives the Rays and what made them one of the best and most exciting teams in baseball. The ‘cult’ of Joe Maddon now has one more proud member.
Justine Siegal is the founder and executive director of Baseball for All and the director of sports partnerships for Sport in Society. She is also the first woman to throw batting practice to a MLB team.
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