Friendship of Maddon, Wakamatsu Goes Far Beyond Managing Fraternity
Wakamatsu was barely a month into his first big-league managerial season when Maddon asked. Normally the All-Star coaches are managers with much more lengthy and stellar pedigrees.
But this was about friendship much more than about experience. Maddon and Wakamatsu's personal histories go back more than a quarter of a century to the time when Maddon was learning the ropes as a scout and Wakamatsu was a promising young catcher at Arizona State.
They've since worked together in clinics and in the Angels organization, and on Tuesday they'll see each other for the first time this year when the Rays visit the Mariners for the first of a three-game set.
"To me, it made perfect sense picking Wak there,'' Maddon said. "I first got to know him at Arizona State when Coach [Jim] Brock permitted me to make some visits there as part of my work. Don was an impressive player and I could tell right from the start that he really understood the game the way that not everybody does.''
Still, Wakamatsu was a little taken aback when Maddon came to him during a Tampa Bay-Seattle series to ask if he'd be one of his All-Star coaches (Another fledgling skipper, Trey Hillman of the Royals, was the other).
"It's a huge compliment to me for a guy I've learned so much baseball from to ask me,'' Wakamatsu said. "I mean, just look at what Joe has done at Tampa Bay. He's probably as aggressive as a manager as [the Angels'] Mike Scioscia, and his style and relational skills with his players is something I try to emulate.
"He's a great communicator, and you'll have to go a long way to find someone with a greater thirst for knowledge. He got to the World Series as a manager just about as quickly as anybody, and that says it all.''
Maddon, who took the Rays to the World Series in 2008, his third year at the helm, seems to think that Wakamatsu will get there sooner rather than later, although that was before Seattle got off to an 11-14 start that has the Mariners in last place in the AL West coming into the series.
"When you look at the Mariners, you see what a nice thing they've started with [Wakamatsu and general manager Jack Zduriencik] the last couple of years,'' Maddon said. "Their park is all about pitching and playing defense, and they're building a team that can do those things as well as anybody.''
Hearing that compliment, Wakamatsu almost blushed over the telephone.
"Joe understands the concepts of what we're trying to do here,'' Wakamatsu said. "Joe is a teacher, and that's what makes him special. He has a strong one-on-one relationship with his players. I've had to learn to do that, too. You can't just sit on the sidelines as a manager.''
While the Mariners are still trying to find the other part of the baseball equation -- Seattle's offense has been just brutal in the first four weeks of the season, Maddon has had no such problem.
The Rays are off to an 18-7 start that is simply the best in baseball. In a division so long dominated by the Yankees and Red Sox, the AL East has had to reckon with the fact that Maddon's Rays may be as good as anybody in the game.
"We're trying to build something here that will be competitive for a long, long time,'' Maddon said. "We've got a lot of good pieces that our front office has put together over time, and these are guys who have learned to play together.''
Although the two men are close, it's not like they pick up the phone and call each other every day. When they meet up Tuesday, it'll be the first time they've talked since spring training.
"We have a very close relationship, but it's more about when we see each other,'' Wakamatsu said. "It's always a great reunion. I owe him a lot, starting with everything I learned from him about how to coach and then how to manage.
"He gave me and Trey the opportunity last year to put something special on our resumes. It was very classy of him to offer. But then, I think he's a guy who thinks a lot more about other people than about himself. He's a giver, that's what he did for Trey and me. There were lot more experienced guys he could have gone to.''
But none that Maddon could have felt more comfortable with.
"I like the way Wak approaches his job,'' Maddon said. "In football, they have the West Coast offense. In baseball I think you're going to the West Coast style of play coming out of Seattle. They have flipped things around up there with their reliance on pitching and defense. It's going to pay off.''
Whether it pays off this week, however, is yet to be determined.