To understand the soaring, stratospheric rise of the Tampa Bay Rays, the numbers don't quite suffice. To go from 10 consecutive seasons that never rose much above the level of dismal, to losing 96 games in 2007 and winning 97 this year and to now be in Game 3 of the World Series with no worse than an even chance of winning it all, there is more going on than runs, hits, errors and on-base percentage.
The catchphrase for the fundamental alteration of a baseball team's intangibles is "changing the culture." This is a job as large as the phrase suggests.
The primary architect in the case of the Rays' culture change is manager Joe Maddon. He has already won some American League Manager of the Year Awards. He will win more. Other skippers will vote for him. Baseball writers will vote for him. Members of the American electorate at large might write him in for the presidential election if they don't like the major-party candidates. He doesn't seek out accolades, but they are finding him anyway. Three more victories for the Rays this week, and there should be a definitive biography, a movie, at least a miniseries, dealing with Maddon, a blend of working-class values and the tireless pursuit of better information.
Maddon knew when he took over the Rays that there had to be more at work than just the obvious physical improvements.
"First of all, for me to change the culture, again, it goes so much further than, 'Well, we played a good game last night, a nice defensive game, we caught the ball and threw to the right bases primarily and good at-bats,'" Maddon said. "But it comes down, when you've been so bad for so long, that if you just try to become better physically, I think, is absolutely insane.
"We needed to change the way we think, period. And for me, that is the accountability. That is about trust. Nothing, nothing, no group or organization works without trust. So I thought we totally were a low-trust organization. There was no accountability whatsoever. There was no consistency from what I can gather. So for me, if I wanted to create a mission statement, it would be about accountability, consistency, trust, and those are the factors that permit you in a relationship ... permit you to take something to turn it into something good.
"I kept talking about fundamentals, which I totally believe in, you know that. I really knew that to get it to change, you had to change people and the way people thought. So that was our biggest challenge, I thought."
His task was helped immeasurably, Maddon said, by the arrival this year of two veterans -- Troy Percival and Cliff Floyd -- who came on board practicing exactly what the manager was preaching. They had automatic standing, they had notable careers, and they were about the same kind of accountability and professionalism that the manager wanted.
|"I didn't envision 2008. I'm not going to sit here and pretend. I knew we'd be better this year, but to be here today was not a part of my original thought of what we could do."|
|-- Manager Joe Maddon, on Rays' quick success|
"So all of a sudden you have these two guys with great pedigrees that walk into your clubhouse and validate most everything you're attempting to do," Maddon said.
For the players who were with the Rays last season, the change in attitude was already occurring in 2007, but it wasn't translating into results.
"Even though we were not doing so well in the standings, I saw that there were many good things going on as far as that was concerned," first baseman Carlos Pena said on Friday before the Rays' workout at Citizens Bank Park. "But it started last year, just the way we got along, the way we played together, how much fun we had and the young energy of this ballclub. And that's where it all started.
"And it's only a matter of time before it actually materializes on the field as wins. And this year is proof of that. So it's very satisfying to actually see it come into being."
After the culture of the Rays was changed, with accountability and trust replacing a built-in defeatism, the tangible improvements could make their presence felt. And they made their presence felt more rapidly and more completely than anybody could have anticipated.
"Honestly, I didn't think it was going to happen this quickly," Maddon said in his Citizens Bank Park session with the media on Friday. "I thought, maybe by 2009, you'd see some really significant changes, and hopefully by 2010, I'd be here, I'd be talking to you like this.
"It came a lot more quickly. The pitching really took off. I mean, the pitching really got a lot better, a lot sooner. The bullpen was phenomenal this year. You know about the athletes offensively and on defense, etc., but the pitching side of the game really came along a lot more quickly and effectively. And that's why we're sitting here today, because of the starting and the bullpen and, of course, the defense, which you saw the other day. We scored runs and we played good defense and pitched.
"I didn't envision 2008. I'm not going to sit here and pretend. I knew we'd be better this year, but to be here today was not a part of my original thought of what we could do."
And yet, this is what the 2008 Rays can do. There is no doubt that they are better in every tangible category than they used to be, particularly in the most important one, pitching.
But they are also three victories away from a World Series championship, because they changed the way they thought of themselves as a unit. They found the trust, the accountability, the collective will -- the characteristics that separate winners from wannabes, just as surely as pitching, hitting and defense.
Now, with all of this positive movement being generated, Maddon, with a transformed team on his hands, can, as he suggests, largely stay out of the way.
"It was a matter of identifying what needed to be changed, and going about attempting to change it, from our perspective -- manager, coaching staff, front office. But then you need the guys within the [locker] room," Maddon said. "I'm a big believer in letting that room function as it wants to in a positive direction. You've got to keep grounded as you're spinning the right way. But you need the right kind of people to make it happen.
"I truly try to stay out of their way as much as I possibly can. I don't want to impact the clubhouse when it's running this well. I attempted to impact it when it was running poorly, but when it's running well, it's because of the people in that group and the impact they have.
"And that's where we're at. It's no big secret. It's not brain surgery, brain science, rocket science. It's just about some good old-fashioned, I think, work ethic and values, and being cognizant of it and then getting the right people to make it turn."
It may sound simple, but this can be one of the most difficult aspects of any team undertaking. What puts the Rays on the doorstep of a World Series championship, what makes "Joe Maddon, Manager of the Year," is the shared understanding that having the right intangible qualities are as important to a baseball team as having the necessary tangible talent.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.