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Jones: Rays' Kevin Cash doesn't mind following in Joe Maddon's steps

ST. PETERSBURG — On this particular night, he's the other guy. He's like a talk-show guest scooted to the end of the couch. He is Kevin Cash. And the Rays manager is standing in the home dugout at Tropicana Field.

But all eyes are on the manager in the opposing dugout. Cubs and former Rays manager Joe Maddon is back in town.

Maddon: Baseball's Most Interesting Man. Maddon: hip, smart, funny, cultured. He's unlike anyone baseball has ever seen. He meditates. Listens to Springsteen. Drives antique cars. And he drinks wine. When they're not calling him a genius, they are calling him Merlot Joe.

Cash laughs.

"I can't stand wine," Cash said. "I think I've had one glass of wine in my entire life."

Cash ain't Joe Maddon. Then again, who is?

Imagine trying to follow Maddon. He's a rock star. Not only is Maddon the darling of baseball fans and media, he just might be the best manager in baseball. He certainly is the best manager the Rays have ever had. He might even be the most popular figure in franchise history.

"People said this when I got the job and I still believe it: Everything I do is going to be compared to him," Cash said. "And justifiably so."

For now, that's a hard comparison. The Rays were a joke before Maddon arrived. But in nine seasons, Maddon led the Rays to the playoffs four times, including the 2008 World Series. They became respectable, baseball's rags-to-riches, small-market success story. And most of the credit went to Maddon and his unorthodox ways.

You would think Cash sees that as a burden. He doesn't. The way he figures it, it was a blessing, not a curse, to step into a franchise that wasn't in shambles because the previous manager couldn't do his job. Still, Cash, in his third season, has yet to have a winning record. Meantime, Maddon was breaking baseball's biggest curse in Chicago.

It's hard to see the Rays being any better if Maddon had the exact same roster as Cash, but the comparisons continue. Perhaps unfairly, says Maddon.

Maddon didn't become a manager until he was 52. That was after 25 years of either managing in the minors or serving as a major-league coach. Cash was only 37 with no managerial experience at any level when he was named to manage the Rays.

"To be thrust into that situation like he was without that benefit of making mistakes in Midland, Texas or Peoria, Illinois — that's not easy to do, man," Maddon said. "He's cutting his teeth right here in front of the whole baseball world to see. Something I don't think I could have done, quite frankly. So I give him a lot of respect."

And forget the success Maddon had; what's a guy to do when the last skipper was such a cool cat? Cash doesn't bring snakes or penguins into the clubhouse. He doesn't play dress-up for road trips. He doesn't come up with catchy slogans to slap on T-shirts.

"I got to be me," Cash said.

That's because it's impossible to be Joe. Even Joe must know how hard it is to follow Joe.

"I followed Lou (Piniella) a couple of times," Maddon said. "Now that's a tough act to follow. That is what you consider a tough act to follow. Casey Stengel, Lou Piniella, those kind of dudes. I don't consider myself that at all."

Everyone else does. That's why it can't be easy for Cash.

But guess who is there to lend an ear and offer a few words of encouragement?

"Over the years, it seems like (Maddon) has impeccable timing of shooting out a text when he knows stuff may not be going our way," Cash said. "He, as much as anybody, knows the landscape of how everything is run around here. He has always been a guy I've been able to call or see in the offseason for advice."

Someday, Cash hopes to win like Maddon.

Just don't expect him to open a restaurant. Or drink wine.

"I'll have a beer," Cash said. "Or Jack (Daniel's)."