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Joe Maddon eager to reunite with first love — the Rays — at Wrigley

When Joe Maddon first donned a Devil Rays uniform in 2006, he looked down at the colors and lettering and felt a bit like an impostor.

‘‘I had been with the Angels [organization] for 30 years prior to going to the Rays, so that was really awkward,’’ Maddon recalled about his early days with a then-moribund team. ‘‘Wearing that one uniform since when I first began in ’76 and then in 2006 wearing a different uniform — strange.’’

Yet the work Maddon did from then on made his reputation. The Rays were 121-197 in his first two seasons. By 2008, though, they were outfighting the Yankees and Red Sox in the American League East — and the White Sox in the AL Division Series — and landing in the World Series as Cinderellas gone wild. Maddon’s Rays teams made the playoffs three more times after that.

On Tuesday at Wrigley Field, Maddon will face the Rays for the first time as manager of the Cubs.

New Cubs manager Joe Maddon speaks at the Chicago Cubs Convention at the Sheraton Hotel on January 17, 2015, shortly after opting out of his contract with the Tampa Bay Rays. | Al Podgorski / Sun-Times Media

‘‘I’m looking forward to it; I really am,’’ he said. ‘‘I’ve got a lot of good friends there from top to bottom — ownership, players, clubhouse, front office — and they’re hanging in there pretty well, just like we’re trying to hang in there. So they’re a very interesting team right now.’’

The Rays, managed by Maddon’s replacement, Kevin Cash, are a surprisingly competitive 43-41. Like the Cubs, they haven’t been more than four games above or below .500 all season. Unlike the Cubs, they’re widely perceived to be overachieving — fueled by one of the top home-run-hitting offenses in baseball, with first baseman Logan Morrison riding high with 24 blasts.

Maddon has the more complete team. No one would question his decision to leave the Rays for the bounteous possibilities with the Cubs, a move that was made possible when the Rays’ then-general manager, Andrew Friedman, took over the Dodgers after the 2014 season, triggering an opt-out clause in Maddon’s contract.

Still, the Rays were the first organization that believed wholeheartedly in Maddon’s potential as a manager. He had interviewed with the
Angels, Red Sox, Diamondbacks and Mariners, but it was the Rays who bought in.

They were on board with Maddon’s inclination toward sabermetrics. They trusted him as a teacher of fundamentals and a culture-builder. Each side liked the cut of the other’s jib.

‘‘That would’ve been the first time, had I not gotten the job, that I’d have been really disappointed,’’ Maddon said. ‘‘Of course, you’re disappointed in the previous ‘nos.’ But that’s OK. I thought the Devil Rays were the perfect fit for me.’’

More than a decade later, Maddon was touched last weekend in Cincinnati by the hearty presence of Cubs fans who amassed outside the team’s hotel and cheered on the players as they boarded the bus to take on the Reds. Cubs fandom is a phenomenon of which a Rays manager couldn’t even conceive.

‘‘Our fans demonstrate daily how big a part of our success — and who we are — that they are,’’ Maddon said. ‘‘It’s different. I’ve never been a part of it before.’’

But there’s only one first love for a manager. For Maddon, it’ll always be the Rays.

Follow me on Twitter @SLGreenberg.

Email: sgreenberg@suntimes.com

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