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The Gnome

MORNING

"C'mon in, fellas. I apologize if it's a little warm, but I'm having a problem with the transfer switch."

At 11 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2013, Rays manager Joe Maddon is sitting in the dining area of his brand-new 40-foot Phaeton motor home, nursing his grande Pike Place from Starbucks, staring at his well-worn iPad (he's literally torn the cover off it) and contemplating the lineup for tonight's game against the Red Sox.

While two guys from TRC Engineering are outside, trying to fix the transfer switch which supplies the electricity to the RV, Joe is inside, trying to fix the Rays' own power outage: They lost 2-0 to Boston last night, on the heels of a troubling 3-7 West Coast trip that gave hope to the teams chasing them down in the AL Wild Card race.

You might wonder why the third-longest-tenured manager in baseball is living in an RV at the rustic Fort DeSoto Park campground near St. Petersburg. Joe and wife Jaye, who teaches law online and oversees their charitable activities, are planning to take a cross-country trip in the Phaeton this offseason, and then live in it during spring training in Port Charlotte next year. So, right after the West Coast swing, the skipper decided to give the RV a shakedown cruise.

He drove the behemoth from his home in South Tampa to Fort DeSoto, navigated it through the narrow roads and overhanging trees of the campground, and painstakingly backed it into his assigned site. Maddon had planned on staying there a few nights this September week, but then he found out the transfer switch wasn't working.

He spent last night at home instead, woke up at around 8:15, said goodbye to Jaye and their two dogs, stopped at his usual Starbucks for oatmeal and coffee -- "I keep telling them it's okay to talk about the game after a loss" -- and drove Bella, his 1956 Chevrolet Bel-Air, to meet the repairmen at Fort DeSoto. That didn't go so well, either. "Halfway across the Howard Frankland Bridge, I remembered I forgot to bring the keys to the RV, so I had to drive clear across the bay, turn around, and do the whole trip all over again."

You might also wonder how the manager of a team that is in a historic tailspin (the Rays lost 8 1/2 games in the standings in 16 days) can be so cheerful. But that's Maddon for you: The lenses in his iconic horned rim glasses are always rose-colored. "We'll come out of it, and we'll be the better for it. Now let's see what the lineup will be for tonight."

The lineup is almost never the same for the Rays. Because the roster is built for versatility, and Maddon is wired for creativity, they've had 128 different ones in 141 games, and this one is about to be No. 129. "Hmmm, James Loney is 2-for-21 against Ryan Dempster," he says, thinking out loud. "Dempster is a reverse split, a righty who's better against lefties, so that doesn't totally surprise me. Good as James has been, I'd rest him; but because our starter Alex Cobb is a groundball pitcher, I need him at first. Wow, this is difficult. I might need a lifeline, maybe phone a friend."

Using the kid-friendly Penultimate app, he scribbles in red the 10 players who will be in the starting lineup, and then assembles a batting order that will alternate between lefty and righty hitters: DeJesus (L) LF, Myers (R) RF, Zobrist (S) 2B, Longoria (R) 3B, Joyce (L) DH, Jennings (R) CF, Loney (L) 1B, Lobaton (S) C, Escobar (R) SS.

Aesthetically, the lineup is a thing of beauty, especially so when Maddon scrolls through the collage of lineups he's made previously this season. Sometimes, he'll use a photo as a backdrop -- at Kansas City, it was the city's statue of Winston and Lady Churchill called "Married Love." Once he's satisfied, he'll email it to bullpen coach Stan Boroski, who posts it in the clubhouse.

"If there's a big surprise," says Maddon, "I'll usually let the affected players know beforehand. A day off is not a day off if you find out at 4 o'clock you're not playing."

Maddon then conducts a tour of the Phaeton, a Class A automotive marvel made by Tiffin Motorhomes of Red Bay, Ala. "Roughing It Smoothly" say the decals, and they're right. The RV can magically expand when parked. There's the bedroom with a ceiling fan, the bathroom with a shower, the kitchen with a dishwasher, the washer and dryer and extra toilet, the living and dining areas, the two wide-screen TVs with a satellite dish … and on the couch next to the airplane-worthy cockpit, a paperback copy of "The Sun Also Rises." "We're going to start off the trip in Key West, so I thought I should bone up on Hemingway," he says.

That's also Maddon for you. This Italian-American plumber's son from Hazleton, Pa., is determined to get as much out of life as he can, to make as many friendships and do as much good and see as many places and read as many books and win as many games as time and circumstance will allow. Asked to give a scouting report on him, Rays special advisor Don Zimmer says, "Great mind, great heart."

Rays fans and Hazleton residents generally agree. Every year, he hosts Thanksmas feasts for the less fortunate at Salvation Army shelters in the Tampa area. His Hazleton Integration Project has helped foster better relations in a town that had been divided by its white and Hispanic communities. He has more than 134,000 Twitter followers; even his bulldog, Winston, has 1,579 at last look.

The giveaway of a Joe Maddon Garden Gnome was such a hit at the ballpark earlier this season that the Rays had to do it again in August, in part because of his popularity, in part because he has a storybook quality to him, even beyond his record of success with a modest payroll.

A single conversation with Maddon takes you on a ride in a time machine to places far away: the Third Base Luncheonette in Hazleton, where his 80-year-old mother Beanie still works; or Lafayette College, where he played football and baseball; or one of the minor league towns he stopped at in his epic odyssey to the majors.

When he finds out the photographer is from Boulder, Colo., Joe leads you back to his days as a Boulder Collegian, playing for the legendary Bauldie Moschetti's powerhouse amateur summer team while working at Bauldie's Baseline Liquors.

"Bauldie used to write out his lineup cards on the insides of cigarette cartons," he says. "His wife made these great breakfasts, complete with beer. Great times, beautiful place, Boulder. In fact, that's where I proposed to Jaye when I took her back there. In the parking lot of Baseline Liquors!"

Then he's off to Idaho Falls in 1981, where the California Angels gave a 27-year-old powerless catcher a chance to manage a Class A Pioneer League team of raw prospects that included four future major leaguers. One of them was Devon White, a three-time All-Star centerfielder who played 17 years in the bigs. "Man, he was raw," says Maddon. "He came to us as a third baseman, believe it or not. Couldn't hit a lick. Good thing we put him in the outfield and stuck with him."

The next thing you know, you're transported into the future, June of 2014, when he plans to open a new restaurant in South Tampa with his friend Michael Stewart. "Ava, or Ava Dolce," he says. "'Inspired Italian Cuisine' will be our motto. We've already bought the pizza oven in Italy. I'm trying to talk the cook into coming over with it."

There's a knock at the door. It's Sean and John from TRC, and they have fixed the problem with the transfer switch. Sean explains that when you hook up the RV to the campsite power, you need to turn off all the power in the RV first. He suggests a surge protector for the Phaeton and wonders if Joe might pose for a photo.

"Absolutely," says Joe.

If only there were a surge protector for the Wild Card.

AFTERNOON

Time for the daily bike ride. Whenever he's home in Tampa, or back at his Anaheim house (he was in the Angels organization for three decades), Maddon likes to work up a sweat on his bike; and today he's looking forward to riding past Fort DeSoto and down to North Beach, an area that was surveyed in 1849 by a U.S. Army colonel named Robert E. Lee.

So he slides out a tray underneath the Freightliner chassis of the Phaeton, and voila!, his Giant Rapid road bike is ready for launch. "I'll never forget the first time I rode a bike with pedal straps. I stopped at a traffic light and fell over like Arte Johnson in 'Laugh-In.' This helmet, I bought a few years ago in Minneapolis after my old boss with the Angels, Bill Bavasi, told me I was nuts if I didn't go out and buy one right away."

Maddon takes off, and we drive on ahead to photograph him on the move. And he's moving at a nice clip, maybe 16 mph, as he passes the huge American flag, flying at half-staff on this day of remembrance. Anticipating his route, we stop just beyond the fort, about a mile up the road. But there's no sign of Joe. Maybe he took another path.

"We need to get out of this funk naturally. No more gimmicks. No meetings. No magicians or animals. This time, it has to be organic."

Joe Maddon

Then the cellphone rings. It's Rick Vaughn, the Rays' nonpareil PR man.

"Joe just blew a back tire," says Vaughn. "Can you go back and pick him up?"

He's smiling when we arrive. "Sorry, men," he says as we load the bike into the back of the SUV. "That's the way it's been going lately."

There really is never a dull moment with Maddon. He is famous for his theme road trips and clubhouse surprises. He had a waddle of penguins visit in April, and brought in a 20-foot python from Busch Gardens in mid-August.

"I preferred the snake, actually," says Rays outfielder Sam Fuld. "One of the penguins pooped in front of my locker."

"I hid out in his office when the snake was here," says Zimmer. "Can you imagine Walter Alston or Charlie Dressen having a snake in the clubhouse? They would have shot it, and then shot the guy who brought it in."

Sensing a tiring ballclub on the last homestand, Maddon had declared it "American Legion Week," forbidding batting practice so the team could return to the days of Legion ball, when they would show up just before game time. (He also picked up the bar tab for a local Legion post.)

But he has no such surprises planned for the Red Sox series.

"We need to get out of this funk naturally," he says. "No more gimmicks. No meetings. No magicians or animals. This time, it has to be organic."

His bike ride cut short, Maddon does some old-fashioned exercises instead, then showers and dresses for the drive to the ballpark -- a 15-minute trip to the Trop and a 57-year trip back in time.

Bella is a beautiful throwback, a gray and white saddle shoe on wheels, with a pair of fuzzy dice hanging from the rear-view mirror. But she's also freeway-ready with an IROC Camaro engine. In a way, she's like her owner, who's both old school (59 years of age) and new school. (Maddon also has a 1972 Chevelle, called Babaloo after his late Angels mentor, Bob Clear, and a classic Ford Galaxy named after his Aunt Hanna.)

He's certainly the only person on I-275 driving a '56 Bel Air while listening to the Talking Heads channel on his Sirius radio. The song is "Once In A Lifetime," and as one of the verses goes, "You may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile, And you may find yourself in a beautiful house, with a beautiful wife, And you may ask yourself, Well ... How did I get here?"

How did he get here?

"When I look back," Maddon says, "my journey isn't about a small-town kid from Hazleton traveling around the country, but about the years I put in to get to this place in my life. Playing and finding out you're not good enough, managing in the minors, working in player development, coaching and learning from the best minds in baseball. The Angels were a superb organization that way. Preston Gomez, Larry Himes, Gene Mauch, Bob Clear, Terry Collins, Mike Scioscia -- they helped me get here."

He was also lucky that when the brain trust that took over the Rays seven years ago -- owner Stu Sternberg, president Matt Silverman and general manager Andrew Friedman – was looking for a replacement for Lou Piniella, it was willing to take a chance on an unknown who blew them away in his interview.

"I hid out in his office when the snake was here. Can you imagine Walter Alston or Charlie Dressen having a snake in the clubhouse? They would have shot it, and then shot the guy who brought it in."

Don Zimmer

"He was everything we were looking for," says Friedman. "Smart, passionate, a background in player development and an understanding of objective decision-making. His positive attitude was the antidote for years of negativity."

Will Forte, Maddon's old friend and the keyboardist for the B Street Band ("the world's longest-running Springsteen cover band"), says, "He's always been the eternal optimist, even when we were 9-year-olds in pee-wee football. It must've been '76, his first year in the minors in Iowa, and I was passing through with a band. Joe told me then he was thinking of going into coaching, and he said, 'Will, I think I can be a manager in the major leagues.'"

On game day, some managers get to the ballpark ridiculously early, but Maddon doesn't see the point of sitting around doing nothing; so on this particular afternoon, he arrives at 3:45.

He gets into a T-shirt inspired by shortstop Yunel Escobar: "Be Yorselv" on the front, "WOW!" on the back.

He gives a pep talk to Desmond Jennings, his centerfielder who's in a bit of a fielding and hitting slump. "I told him, number one, that he's really, really good. And two, don't ever worry about making a mistake here … I only worry when they're worried."

He tweets out: "For this to end, it just has to happen. Has to be organic, not contrived. Our confidence is nicked."

He meets with the crew from ESPN's "Wednesday Night Baseball," and the Rays' radio broadcasters.

And he cradles a new miniature Rawlings mitt meant for his daughter Sarah's 3-year-old son Trey.

"He's all boy," he says, pointing to the screen saver on his iPad. A photo of Trey from behind shows him peeing into a bucket.

Just around the corner from his office -- the one with the blowup photo of the Garden Gnome on the door -- reliever Joel Peralta talks about what Maddon means to the Rays.

"I got to the team in 2011," says Peralta, "and we lose our first six games. On the plane to Chicago, Joe starts passing around shots of liquor, then gets up in the front, takes the microphone and says, 'Here's a toast to the best 0-6 team in the history of baseball.' I knew then that I was in a different place."

That was the season the Rays made an epic September run to qualify for their third postseason in four years.

But the task this year is entirely different. Instead of coming from behind, the Rays are just trying to hold on, and Maddon has to reassure not only his players, but also a media corps serving a fearful fan base that dearly loves their Rays even if they don't actually show up for the games -- 18,605 the night before, and about 9,000 of them were rooting for the Red Sox.

At 4:44, Maddon pops out for his daily pre-game press conference, and takes his usual spot in front of the Rays dugout, leaning back against the railing as the cameras and recorders and notebooks surround him. Most managers do something like this, and most briefings are as enjoyable as root canals. But Maddon's are almost always fun because he's thoughtful and honest -- "You're supposed to be stealing signs!" -- and liable to go off on a tangent about author Pat Conroy or country singer Maggie Rose or his wife Jaye taking their dog Athena to Great Dane Day at Fort DeSoto. (Asked what that is, he says, "I believe it's a celebration of Great Danes.")

"I have never gone into his office with an empty notebook, and come out with an empty notebook. I know some people think he's an act, but he's totally genuine."

Marc Topkin

Maddon's deadpan sidekick for these sessions is Tampa Bay Times staff writer Marc Topkin, who has covered baseball in the area since 1987. Says Topkin, "I have never gone into his office with an empty notebook, and come out with an empty notebook. I know some people think he's an act, but he's totally genuine. He has friends at every ballpark we visit, not just players and coaches, but clubhouse guys and ushers and the people from Hazleton whose names he always remembers. And he's thoroughly enjoying this stage of his life."

At this briefing, Maddon talks about his conversation with Jennings, the reasons for the unusual lineup for tonight, the new RV and the aborted bike ride. Because it's 9/11, the conversation turns somber, to his own remembrances of that day, when he lost his college fraternity buddy, Neil Levin, who was the head of the New York Port Authority.

"I had talked to him that August for the first time in about 25 years," he says. "We talked about him coming to see the Angels against the Yankees, but it never happened. Riding my bike today, with the flag at half-staff, I thought of Neil."

After the press conference, Red Sox radio broadcaster Joe Castiglione stops by to kid him about Lafayette's football loss the previous Saturday -- 26-24 to Sacred Heart University, whose athletic director is Bobby Valentine. "Seriously," says Maddon. "Pass on my congratulations to Bobby."

"I'll do that," says Castiglione. "Listen, I hope we're back here in October."

"I would so dig that," says Maddon.

NIGHT

The Rays' promotional theme this season is "One More Game," but this game is not just another one. There's a tribute to honor local EMS, police and fire personnel, a first pitch by former Army medic Andrew Harriman representing the Wounded Warrior Project, and a 9/11 brand at the back of the pitching mound. From a baseball standpoint, a national television audience is watching the Rays host the Red Sox, as they try not so much to catch Boston but to keep from being caught by the Rangers, A's, Orioles, Yankees, Indians or Royals.

Big game, small crowd: 19,215. Whenever the Rays host the Red Sox or Yankees, it's anybody's guess who the crowd is rooting for. So when the Red Sox score three off Cobb in the top of the third on a two-RBI double by Mike Napoli and an RBI groundout by Daniel Nava, the cheers are a little disconcerting. The Rays come back with consecutive doubles off Dempster by Escobar and David DeJesus, but they end up leaving three men on base -- a disturbing and continuing trend.

Maddon, meanwhile, is stoic at his perch behind the rail at the near side of the dugout, intently watching the game in his hoodie while sharing his observations with bench coach Dave Martinez or pitching coach Jim Hickey. Occasionally, he'll reach into the giant bag of popcorn behind him, or sip his orange drink; but for the most part, he's about as animated as an ordinary garden gnome.

Unless, of course, he spots an injustice. In his eight years as skipper, Maddon has been ejected 31 times, four times this year. (He once turned the tables on the umpires by throwing all four of them out of the game.) In this game, he comes out to argue with third base ump Angel Hernandez twice, once in the bottom of the second on a tie-goes-to-the-runner call at third, and then again in bottom of the fifth. Napoli had hit a chopper down the third base line, but the umps bought his act that the ball hit his foot. (Replays show it did not.) Maddon and Hernandez discuss it, then each turns away smiling.

"Angel and I go way back," Maddon says later. "I'm always okay when the ump admits he was wrong."

Dempster has to leave with a 3-1 lead after five innings and 106 pitches. The Rays get another run in the bottom of the seventh when Evan Longoria doubles in Ben Zobrist with two outs off reliever Brandon Workman. 3-2.

The lineup that Maddon made out in his trailer 11 hours earlier pays an unexpected dividend in the bottom of the eighth, when Loney, who has no business batting seventh with a .790 OPS, sends a Workman pitch into the seats in right field. Tie game, maybe the game that will reverse the Rays' run of bad luck.

The closers, Fernando Rodney and Koji Uehara, trade blowaway ninth innings. For the top of the 10th, Maddon sends out Peralta, who walks Dustin Pedroia, setting up a sacrifice bunt by Shane Victorino and necessitating an intentional pass to David Ortiz. At this point, Maddon goes out to the mound, signaling for right-hander Roberto Hernandez, who walks Napoli to load the bases.

Boston manager John Farrell sends up lefthanded bat Mike Carp to pinch-hit.

After a victory, the Rays will turn their clubhouse into a disco, complete with a glimmer ball, and dance and play their own instruments to the tune of Pitbull's "Don't Stop The Party." No such party tonight.

Carp turns on the very first pitch from Hernandez, and for once, the Rays and Red Sox fans share a reaction: a gasp. The ball disappears into deep center for a grand slam and a 7-3 lead.

And that's the way the game ends. The Rays trudge into the clubhouse, as the media wait in respectful silence. Well, not that respectful. Referring to Hernandez, one writer mutters, "The arsonist formerly known as Fausto Carmona."

When the doors finally open, the media procession marches through the silent clubhouse and past the door with the poster of the Joe Gnome.

Herein lies the real magic of Maddon.

It's not on the walls, though what's on them is pretty cool: John Wooden's Pyramid of Success, a Springsteen album cover ("The Wild, The Innocent and the E Street Shuffle"), an autographed photo from Larry David, the thermometer advertising Hazle Club sodas, the Doctor of Letters citation from Lafayette, the photo of 1917 White Sox manager Pants Rowland.

It's not in the rack of impressive wines in the corner, either, or on the exquisite chessboard on his desk, and it's not hanging alongside the autographed jerseys of Joe Namath and Kevin Costner and Vincent LeCavalier.

No, it's in the way Maddon takes the heat off Hernandez by blaming himself for not bringing him in to start the 10th. It's in the way he refuses to push the panic button. "We're still the No. 1 wild card team," he says. "I don't want our guys to go out there and worry about sharp objects. We're not winning the battle of inches now, but we will."

It's in the way he always is. Hopeful about tomorrow.

At midnight, Maddon heads home, stopping at his favorite service station to fill up Bella. Then he goes to bed, watching TV.

No, not the MLB Network. The Food Network.

POSTSCRIPT

The Rays won the battle of inches the next night when Will Myers' looper landed just inside the right field line for a go-ahead RBI double in a 4-3 victory over the Red Sox. That started an 11-3 run that included sweeps of the Orioles and Yankees and justified Maddon's faith. While in New York on Sept. 25, he tweeted, "Sat in the back pew at St. Patrick's Cathedral today looking for help making out the lineup."

But the Indians and Rangers also kept winning. When the Rays dropped the first two games of a three-game series with the Blue Jays on the final weekend, they found themselves tied with the Rangers for the No. 2 spot. Both teams won on Sunday, forcing a Game No. 163 at Texas.

The rest was an erasure of history: The Rays won 5-2 in that tiebreaker game to avenge ALDS losses to the Rangers in 2010 and 2011, as ace David Price, who came into the game with a 1-7 record against the Rangers, threw a gutsy seven-hitter and Evan Longoria hit a two-run home run that gave him a major league record seven home runs on the last days of regular seasons.

As for Maddon, he went old school, riding Price as if he were Mickey Lolich and this was 1968; new school, sending Kevin Kiermaier out to play center field in the ninth even though Kiermaier had never before been in a major league game; and cool school, not making a big deal out of a blown call that cost his team a run in the top of the seventh because he wanted the Rays to stay focused on the task at hand. Ever the optimist, Maddon looked beyond the wild card game in Cleveland on Wednesday.

"I packed for Boston," he said.