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Joe Maddon gets warm reception in return to the Trop

ST. PETERSBURG — The night was arranged to honor former Rays manager Joe Maddon in his first visit back to the Trop, and the warm response from the bipartisan crowd and scoreboard video tribute were proper acknowledgments of his hefty role in the Rays' success during his nine-year stint.

But for a while, it looked like his current Cubs team — and specifically starter Mike Montgomery, a former Rays minor-leaguer at that — might provide an even more fitting souvenir representative of Maddon's tenure, no-hitting the Rays into the sixth inning. For all the Rays won under Maddon, making the playoffs four times in six years, they also were no-hit four times.

Overall, it was a good Tuesday night for Maddon, who got a 2-1 victory, a video showing some — though certainly not all — of his offbeat antics (snakes in the clubhouse, themed dress-up trips) and a welcome back from Rays players, staff and most of the crowd of 25,046 (at some hiked prices, with the cheapest ticket $44.)

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Maddon insisted reporting to work as a visitor at the dome he called home for nine years was not a bit awkward.

He cruised over from his Tampa home in his 2016 Dodge Challenger Hellcat, the purple one with 700 horsepower under the hood, chatted with attendant Vinny Paolozzi at the parking lot gate like he used to, pulled into a spot at the far end.

Then he headed in for the first time since the last game of the 2014 season, stopping to talk to security guards and staff along the way, noticing the neon-style sign added above the Rays clubhouse before heading down the hall.

Though Guy Gallagher's visiting clubhouse staff didn't do anything special, someone with the Rays did put two inflated pink flamingo pool floaties (stocked with Bud Light) in his office.

Maddon looked good for 63 and 5½ months through a season of grand expectations after winning the World Series.

And he looked, well, like he usually tries to look: Joe cool.

He had a black SMOKIN' JOE T-shirt (for the famous boxer's gym in Philadelphia, not himself), leather backpack, jeans and hair that was, well, different, the "blue steel" color the result of using Just For Men's Control GX shampoo that he seems angling to endorse. (The Cubs have gone 25-12 since he started, so get used to it.) He switched in the clubhouse to a green Joe Namath No. 12 Jets jersey (7-0 wearing that), a late arrival after their football-themed road trip, then pulled on his trademark hoodie, though in Cubs blue, before heading out on the field.

"It was very cool walking in," he said.

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Though some of Maddon's former Rays bosses were unhappy with how he left, opting out of the final year of his contract, he did some bidding for them Tuesday, coming out strong for the need for a new stadium, and on the Tampa side.

"I think a more vibrant building that fans can get to more readily would be very important moving it forward," Maddon said.

"Quite frankly, when I worked here I couldn't say that because people did not want to hear that. People would get upset with me because I said that. But it's true. Those who argue against it, that's just a bad argument.

"You need a better facility. You need a facility that's more readily available to the general population when they get off from work. They need a place that's more baseball oriented. You don't need an erector set. You don't need stuff hanging from the ceiling. It was a great place. And it's a great place to start. For this organization to really get to where they want to on an annual basis, you need a better building in a better spot."

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Maddon actually kicked off the homecoming Monday night, hosting Cubs staff (including boss Theo Epstein), coaches and nearly half the players at his Ava Italian restaurant in south Tampa, and his relaxed manner made it clear he was going to enjoy his return. "Joe's personality, he's outgoing. He's like life's maître d'," Epstein said. "I think he'll be unfazed by the next couple days."

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Maddon had all nice things to say about his nine years with the Rays, ticking off his favorite memories as they made the playoffs four times in six years, being extremely inclusive in mentioning and/or thanking principal owner Stuart Sternberg, former baseball operations chief Andrew Friedman and current president Matt Silverman, the scouting and player development staffs and, of course, the players. He also made several references to the late Don Zimmer, whose grandson, Beau, will throw out the first pitch tonight.

The only shade Maddon threw was at some critics, pointing out that though he and Friedman had some "loud" and "great" arguments over how best to do things and how much weight to assign the numbers favored by the front office, he was given a lot of freedom and few restraints. "Contrary to popular belief," Maddon said, "nobody ever wrote a lineup for me."

In comparing notes with Friedman, who left at the same time for the Dodgers, Maddon realized in being a couple years removed how impressive the Rays' accomplishments were given the circumstances and competition.

"Looking back at it, man, it's pretty special how it all came together at one time based on the history previous to that point," Maddon said. "Really proud to be part of that, feel very fortunate to be part of that."

Marc Topkin can be reached at mtopkin@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Rays

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