In the Rays clubhouse Sunday morning, there was pregame hand-wringing.
"I know everyone's talking about the Raiders' receiver, Denarius Moore," said outfielder Johnny Damon, "but he’s going against the Jets' defense."
In the Rays clubhouse Sunday morning, there was intensive study.
"This is a really good book," said catcher John Jaso, flipping a page of The Da Vinci Code.
In the Rays clubhouse Sunday morning, there was a pitcher obsessing over accuracy.
"That's my son," reliever Kyle Farnsworth said, watching his boy, Stone, aim and fire his Nerf gun.
The book has been written -- literally -- on how the Tampa Bay Rays are the modern-day Moneyball, using any possible edge to turn a tiny payroll into a big-time contender. And much has been said about the faltering Florida fan base, a far cry (and yell and scream) from the din of American League East powers Boston and New York.
But never before has all of that come together so neatly: the blissful youth of the team, the lack of a media pressure cooker, and the zen-like guidance of American League Manager of the Year candidate Joe Maddon. While the Red Sox have imploded under the weight of every conceivable circumstance -- expectations, injuries, the Yankees rivalry -- the Rays chug along as a team almost taken out of context. While the baseball world looked to the northeast, the Gulf Coast boys have gone from out of the race to the doorstep of the playoffs in a month. Sure, that's the Sox losing more than the Rays winning, but one ingredient in this September melodrama is the steadiness of the team with the Devil-Rays-may-care skipper.
Pennant race tension? Not in the land of perpetual spring training.
Not in the land of Maddonball.
Let's go back a month. The Rays manager makes a decision. Joe Maddon tells his team to stop coming to the ballpark so early. Stop taking extra batting practice. That cherished notion of being the first to the stadium every day? Rubbish. Take your girlfriend to a movie instead.
Crazy to an outsider, sure. But that's Maddonball, where the leader tries to make the game as comfortable as possible for his players. That means theme road trips – Dress like a hockey player! Dress like a grunge band! Dress in all white! That means no dress code at all. That means no rules at all.
"He really doesn't have any rules for us," says team ace David Price. "He treats us as grown men."
"Rules can't take the place of character," reads one sign in the Rays' clubhouse.
"Discipline yourself so no one else has to," reads a second.
"Integrity has no need of rules," reads a third.
You get the idea.
Wouldn't a young team need more hand-holding, not less? The Rays are young only in age, and that's by design. The payroll is only $41 million -- second to last in the league and a fraction of what's thrown at Red Sox and Yankees talent -- but the players assembled are almost completely free of complications. (Many don’t even have tattoos.)
"[GM Andrew] Friedman does a good job getting people who take care of themselves," says Price. "I'm the most immature person in here." (Price, the miscreant that he is, went to Vanderbilt on an academic scholarship. The only thing greasy about him is his time with the Double-A Montgomery Biscuits.)
"I can have a conversation in here with anyone," Price says. "Not a lot of players on teams can say that -- especially in September."
By the last month of the regular season, older players often break down. The Moneyball era has bequeathed a stupefying amount of statistical categories, but Maddonball, although certainly a byproduct of sabrmetrics, depends to a certain extent on one demographic: age. When John Jaso looks around the room and feels old at 28, you know you have a team that’s probably going to withstand a full season better than Boston, where even boyish hurler Jonathan Papelbon is 30. (For those who insist on using Moneyball lingo to understand this argument, a player’s WAR -- wins above replacement -- is zero when the player needs to be replaced.)
"Youth helps out over a full year," says B.J. Upton, a star at 27. "We have more guys in shape than other teams."
It's not all kids, though. Johnny Damon has been a huge part of the team’s success. He’s been a regular Maddon-in-waiting, speaking to the team several times after tough losses and reminding teammates how hard it is to win a single baseball game, let alone 90. "Enjoy the journey that we're on," Damon says, wearing a sleeveless T-shirt that reads “These guns have no safety."
Damon's played in the crucibles -- Boston and New York. He says he first thought coming to Boston might have been "a mistake" because it was "the most boring clubhouse I've ever been around." That got better, of course, but Damon needed no adjustment in Tampa. "The vibe here is pretty awesome," he says.
It was pretty awesome even before Maddon told the players to take their wives and girlfriends to the movies instead of smashing an extra 20 baseballs into a net. Since then, the Rays have won 22 of 37. Not a torrid pace, but that stretch included seven of eight over the Red Sox. And that right there is why we have a real pennant race.
"Joe makes you not want to quit," says reliever Andy Sonnanstine. "He's an inspiring individual."
He's inspired the team to mix its youth and his calm to come up with something he calls "unconscious competence." What's that, you ask? Let Evan Longoria show you:
That video was as acted as any scene in the Moneyball movie, but Maddonball is as real as any documentary. The Rays are kids playing like vets and the Sox are vets looking as jittery as rookies. And if Tampa does make the postseason, it will be better built to go the distance than any Billy Beane ballclub.
In the Rays' clubhouse Sunday night, there was much anticipation. After the team beat Toronto to pull within a half-game of Boston for the wild card, the Sox still had their nightcap against the Yankees later on in the evening. A Boston loss would put Tampa Bay in a tie for first place, and everyone knew it.
Joe Maddon decided to send out a tweet.
"Big nite tonite," he typed. "Season premier of Boardwalk Empire."