Joe-bama: Is Joe Maddon the Obama of Baseball?

The blogosphere is rife with sarcasm as soon as Rays Manager Joe Maddon's lineup is posted on the Internet for a game against the listless Seattle Mariners. Maddon is resting Carl Crawford and Evan Longoria, both All-Star players, even though the team hasn't quite clinched a playoff spot yet. In their place come Willie Aybar and Desmond Jennings, while behind the plate is the light-hitting Kelly Shoppach.

Jennings is hitting .190, Aybar .236, and Shoppach .200. Among the other starters are BJ Upton at .239, Carlos Pena at .199 and Rocco Baldelli at .200. None of the other starters is hitting higher than .259. It isn't a lineup that strikes fear in the opposition. In fact, without Crawford and Longoria it's a lineup comparable to the 1962 Mets — one of the worst teams in baseball history.

"Why not rest Crawford after we clinch a playoff spot?" blogged someone who calls himself "Rayball fan." "I like Maddon, but today's lineup was senseless."

Smart, successful, scorned: Is Joe Maddon the Obama of baseball?

Commented a blogger named "d.wig," "How is he even manager?"

In the sixth inning, after a Seattle single, a sacrifice bunt and a strikeout, pitcher James Shields faces Josh Wilson, a terrible hitter. Wilson has a hole in his swing. He upper cuts, strikes out a lot and rarely makes contact. His .234 average attests to that. The only pitch Wilson can hit is a fastball inside, waist high, and that's exactly what Big Game James throws him. Bye bye baseball into the left field bleachers. Bye bye ballgame.

After the 6-2 loss I turn on the Rays' post-game show hosted by Rich Herrera. Rich, who takes it personally if anyone criticizes the Rays, fields phone calls from Rays fans. The first caller barely gives his name before wailing, "Why did Maddon play so many second stringers? Doesn't he want to win the American League East?" Herrera starts to sputter.

On the blogosphere the vituperation begins.

"Thanks a lot Big Lame James," writes "sternfan10."

Chimes in "doug09," about Joe Maddon, "He's Mad Dumb for a reason."

The next afternoon I tune into 620 WDAE, the Rays network station, to listen to Steve Duemig, one of Joe Maddon's most vocal critics. The Big Dog, as he calls himself, is railing, criticizing Maddon's loyalty to his players and his use of numbers to make up his lineups. He posits that Maddon is sure to tap Shields as one of his four starters in the playoffs even though, as Duemig sees it, Shields sucks.

"Shields will be in the rotation," Duemig says. "This is supposed to happen because of the numbers," Duemig says sarcastically. "Incredible."

What the bloggers, the fans in the stands and Duemig aren't acknowledging is that, as this story goes to print, Maddon and the Rays are American League East champs after compiling a 96-66 record — the best in the American League. Sheesh. Won't anybody give this guy a break? Despite taking the Rays to the American League championship in 2008 and leading Tampa Bay to another playoff berth this year, for many fans Maddon is the enemy, a cross between Rodney Dangerfield and Barack Obama, our Socialist Muslim President whose big crime is saving America from financial ruin and providing a lot of people with needed health insurance.

Maddon, who never utters a negative word, is the Maharishi of baseball, Mr. Kumbaya. Like Phil Jackson, Maddon has a Zen-like approach to the game that a lot of the old-timey fans despise. He's the Little League coach all he-man fathers hate, the candy-ass spoilsport who refuses to allow parents to talk to or yell at their kids or umpires during games. He's a manager who believes in giving all his players an opportunity, a manager who will never utter a negative word of criticism, a manager who believes in hard work, loyalty and character. He's also an egghead. He was accepted into Princeton but went to Lafayette to be closer to home. He prefers a good merlot to a glass of Bud. It's no wonder so many fans revile him.

In every way Maddon is the complete opposite of the fiery, profane Lou Piniella, the most popular manager in Rays history — never mind that in his three seasons as Rays manager Piniella never won more than 70 games. But who could forget a Lou Piniella on-field tantrum? His was memorable theater.

Andrew Friedman, the man responsible for hiring Maddon, is the brain behind the Rays' success. Friedman, a brilliant numbers guy, was Rays' owner Stuart Sternberg's right-hand man at Goldman Sachs while Sternberg was making $3 billion doing whatever it is that security traders do. It turns out that there's a lot more behind Maddon's constant tinkering with lineups than meets the eye.

According to Friedman, a team of number-crunchers in the front office came up with the criteria for what statistics to use in making out the lineup card and, in consultation with Maddon, those numbers determine who plays.

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