Senior Baseball Columnist

What might have been: Rays' Maddon almost became Sparky's understudy

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Mike Scioscia managed the Angels to a World Series title in 2002 with Joe Maddon at his side. (Getty Images)  
Mike Scioscia managed the Angels to a World Series title in 2002 with Joe Maddon at his side. (Getty Images)  

Here come the Rays, baseball's most creative club, streaking down the stretch again, guided by one of the game's most erudite managers toward what would be an astounding fourth postseason in five years.

Think Tampa Bay was a hopeless outfit before it hired Joe Maddon in 2006?

Oh, what might have been.

It is one of baseball's greatest untold stories: How the California Angels took a run at hiring Sparky Anderson in 1996, post-Tigers, with the idea that a promising but little-known coach would become Sparky's apprentice and the Angels' manager-in-waiting.

Yep, he of the chunky glasses and cheeky sasses.

"I didn't know about it" at the time, Maddon said. "I've heard about it since."

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And what of the Angels, who won a World Series in 2002 under Mike Scioscia?

"You just never know," Scioscia said. "I'll tell you what, if Sparky did have the energy to get back into the dugout, or did have the passion ... I think it would have been incredible for this organization at a time when they definitely were searching for direction.

"Because they had a lot of good young players coming up. But I don't know if you can deal with what-ifs. Things happen for a reason."

They sure do. And those things lead to other things, and the chain lengthens as one season links with the next.

It was in the autumn of 1996, one season having passed since Anderson's bitter split with Tigers owner Mike Ilitch, that a foundering Angels club was conducting another managerial search. Marcel Lachemann had been fired during the season and replaced by interim John McNamara.

As Anderson's friend and business manager Dan Ewald recounts in Sparky and Me, published earlier this year, then-Angels general manager Bill Bavasi and two of his assistants visited Anderson's Southern California home to gauge his interest.

"When the three-hour meeting finally ended," Ewald writes, "Bavasi felt he had landed the perfect man to execute his long-range managerial plan. Bavasi wanted coach Joe Maddon to serve and learn as a coach under Sparky for two years before replacing him as a manager. All that remained to finalize the deal was for Sparky to be interviewed by Tony Tavares. Taveres was the former head of Disney Sports Enterprises that belonged to the Walt Disney Company, which owned the Angels and the Anaheim Ducks of the National Hockey League."

Maddon was in his third season on the Angels' staff and in his 22nd season in professional baseball. He was promoted to the majors in May 1994 as Angels bullpen coach, spent '95 as first-base coach and '96 as bench coach. When McNamara was sidelined with a blood clot in his leg, Maddon became the Angels' second interim manager of the season, during which time the club went 8-14.

Clearly, Bavasi was a visionary when assessing the still-raw Maddon and cooking up a scenario that would put the young pup learning at the feet of the old master.

"I knew him enough to have good conversation," Maddon said of Anderson, who was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2000 and died in 2010. "I knew him enough to know he was beloved. His baseball acumen was among the best, I knew all of that. But I didn't know him in a social setting. To go out and have either a drink or a dinner, I never did that with him. But I knew you could really enjoy his company."

Under Tavares, Ewald writes, the Angels were more inclined to hire a long-term option.

"When he asked me how I would handle a certain player situation, I leaned over and put my arms on his desk," Anderson told Ewald of Tavares, according to the book. "I told him I couldn't give him an answer to that till I knew who the player was and what the situation was. ...

"But let me tell you something. I ain't afraid of no players ... and I ain't afraid of you."

Continues Ewald: "Sparky, of course, meant no disrespect. He was simply being Sparky."

Anderson would have been 63 had he been hired to manage the Angels in 1997.

Instead, they picked Terry Collins.

Maddon was retained as one of Collins' coaches ... then became interim manager again late in 1999 (going 19-10) when Collins was fired after a clubhouse mutiny. Maddon remained on staff when Scioscia was hired before the 2000 season.

"A lot of his ideas were formulating, and he was looking for an avenue to implement some of them," Scioscia said. "As our whole group formed, a lot of ideas flowed, and he got his chance with Tampa Bay to do a lot of things he wanted to do.

"He was ready, no doubt."

Maddon says he thinks he was ready when the Rays came calling, and history unquestionably has proven him correct.

In '97 under Sparky, he's not so sure.

"I don't know," he said. "Because I never played in the big leagues. Not that I think that's a prerequisite, but I do think understanding how the big leagues work is a prerequisite.

"I think by coaching as many years in Anaheim as I did, that's what prepared me to be able to do what I'm doing today best.

"Even more than maybe [working with] the greatest teacher who ever lived."

It's cool to think about what might have happened, Maddon says, but it's also impossible to think of himself today as something other than Tampa Bay's manager.

"Everything always works out for a particular reason," he said. "I couldn't be more grateful, sincerely, for how things have worked out for me in my baseball career. I've always been a big believer in not having anything happen to you before it's time. In other words, I had to earn this opportunity and I felt like I did by 2006.

"Having said that, when you get a chance to work below the best professor and earn your doctorate degree with this kind of Aristotle, or Socrates, whoever this man was as a baseball manager, it would have been outstanding.

"But, at the end of the day, I'm really pleased. I got to work with T.C., I got to work with Sosh, and I got to go to the World Series in Anaheim, which helped me understand how to do this better."

Maddon's stock has skyrocketed since. When he took the Rays' reins, the club had finished below .500 in every one of its eight seasons. He has returned to the World Series, directing Tampa Bay's shocking AL championship run in 2008.

Yes, things have worked out exceedingly well, both for the Rays under Maddon, and for the Angels under Scioscia.

Entertaining, though, still, to imagine what might have been.

"I love Sparky," Maddon said. "He treated me like he treated everybody: Great. He made you feel like you're the smartest guy in baseball. He was excellent. His people skills were outstanding.

"I didn't know any of that."

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