ANAHEIM, Calif. – The preference, of course, is not to be 5½ games out of first place with 26 games to play, and not to be only two games clear of the playoffs, and not to have an offense that shut down about the time the school buses started to roll.
That would be the first choice.
Were all that to be true, however, if indeed the Boston Red Sox were running off with the AL East and the Baltimore Orioles were a bit too close and Evan Longoria was hitting .170 over the past two weeks, you'd want the man out in front to quote Sister Suzanne from seventh grade as often as he did Winston Churchill from "The Great War." You'd want him to wear a T-shirt that ordered, "Be Yorselv", exactly like that, the way it sounds when his shortstop gleefully shouts it out, and to admit he doesn't read the papers when he's losing, explaining, "I'm not a masochist."
You'd want him to have rehabbed half the men on the roster, or so it sometimes seems, taken them off other rosters and shined 'em up and told them to go out and have fun and just, yeah, be yorselv and it'll all work out.
That's the guy you'd want. Not some mope who'd squeeze the life out of a lineup card and rub your nose in the screw-ups that come with the game whether you're 5½ up and pulling away or 5½ back and losing ground.
So Joe Maddon is sitting in the visitor's dugout an hour before game time Tuesday night here, his Tampa Bay Rays having lost eight of nine, his boys struggling to score two runs a game, his bullpen the night before consisting of four pitchers and one situational outfielder. The Rays had had themselves a good week-and-a-half of free fall, the sort of thing other teams do in September, but generally not the Rays.
[Related: 2013 MLB postseason schedule]
And there is, he's saying, only one way to slow it down, to get it turned, to push this all out of their heads.
"This has happened before, is my point," he says, meaning it happens plenty, but it happened significantly two years ago, when the Red Sox were way ahead and the Rays famously made them pay for that. "You just keep going, keep going through it. You just don't stop. If you do, then eventually you're speaking German."
That's where Churchill comes in, actually, a reference to the quote, "If you're going through hell, just keep on going." This, as Maddon points out, is not intended to lay baseball beside war, not at all, not ever. He's a Churchill guy, is all. Named his English Bulldog Winston. When he gets a female bulldog, he's going to name her Clementine, after Sir Winston's wife of 56 years. Until then ol' Winston's on his own.
So, keep going. And point no fingers. This is where Sister Suzanne appears in the story, as she taught young Joey back in Hazleton, Pa. that a finger directed at a culprit meant three pointed back at oneself.
"She was outstanding," Maddon says.
These are the rules of the Rays' clubhouse in the best of times, and so they of course apply today, when the whole thing might be going to pieces. And they lead to Maddon summoning outfielder Sam Fuld – part Tony Fossas, part Craig Breslow – for the final out Monday night, when the deficit was 11-2 and, given the results of the previous 10 days, seemed worse.
Fuld had gone to the bullpen to warm up thinking there was no way he would pitch and then the phone rang and, he said, "My heart raced."
As he covered the ground from the left-field warning track to the mound with all those people staring, he said, "For the first time in my life I was concerned with how I looked running."
With his grinning teammates looking on, Fuld threw five pitches, enough of them for strikes, the last of which was popped into center field for an out. Given now that his career ERA after one career batter was 0.00, he was asked if he was tempted to offer tips to the real pitchers, and Fuld said, "No. Because I don't want pitchers giving me advice if they happen to run into one."
He laughed, just like everyone had at the end of a brutal day, even if it's against the baseball code to do anything but eat and brood after a loss. Because alongside what Maddon does on the top step, where he's had a lead role in turning a pathetic franchise into something far more dignified, he's also brought wonderful perspective. The game is important. It does not define you.
"It's easy to fall into that trap," Fuld said. "We all understand how much it means to people and it means to us to win. In baseball, though, you do better when you try easier."
Maddon would love that, undoubtedly. Try easier.
It's worked before, and in this very clubhouse. He expects it will again.
"I mean, you never know," he says. "You're just looking for that thing that does turn things around."