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Maddon's restaurant debut also a farewell

Former Rays skipper set to open Italian eatery in Tampa on Black Friday
MLB.com @HalBodley

TAMPA -- Welcome to Ava.

Walk through the imposing front door of this new Italian eatery and the first thing you see (from left to right) is former Rays manager Joe Maddon and a monster 6,000-pound pizza oven spewing 900 degrees.

TAMPA -- Welcome to Ava.

Walk through the imposing front door of this new Italian eatery and the first thing you see (from left to right) is former Rays manager Joe Maddon and a monster 6,000-pound pizza oven spewing 900 degrees.

And a huge dining room filled elbow-to-elbow with Tampa Bay's movers and shakers.

This was billed as a celebration of Ava, the long-awaited restaurant Maddon and business partner Michael Stewart are officially opening on Black Friday.

On Wednesday night, Maddon opened his arms and Ava's doors for a sneak preview.

Drinks flowed, Ava's trademark meatballs were sampled, and pizza chef Joshua Hernandez kept shoveling his specialty to a nonstop line of hungry takers.

Yes, this was supposed to be about the authentic Italian dishes, the ambiance of the place created by Stewart, not to mention a 1,000-bottle wine collection and a "secret room."

What it really turned out to be was a farewell, of sorts, to Joe Maddon.

Maddon, of course, shocked the area when he left the Rays after nine summers to become manager of the Chicago Cubs, accepting a five-year, $25 million contract.

Joe, wearing a crumpled plaid shirt and jeans, appeared relaxed and at peace with himself as he greeted friends and guests. He was not nearly as stiff as he seemed days after opting out of his Rays contract.

"I really had to do it," he said apologetically. "Sometimes you have to make tough decisions. I don't really have any regrets. I honestly believe, after the last three weeks, it was the right thing to do. I agonized over the decision, thought I was going to get ill over it."

There were hugs and handshakes and the constant, "We're going to miss you, Joe."

Although Maddon and his wife, Jaye, will keep their winter home in Tampa, Fla., when he and Stewart became partners and planned this restaurant in South Tampa, it was obviously done assuming Joe would be the Rays' skipper.

Joe says he'll continue his Tampa Bay charities and Jaye will open the Epic Boxing and Fitness Studio in South Tampa in January.

Now, though, he'll have little opportunity to be there during the baseball season.

That's why the gathering Wednesday night seemed so significant.

Coaches Tom Foley, Derek Shelton and Jamie Nelson were there.

So was bullpen catcher Scott Cursi and trainers Ron Porterfield, Paul Harker and Mark Vinson.

There was a steady line. Maybe even a bit of sadness.

Radio voice Dave Wills was there. So was video coordinator Chris Fernandez, and communications VP Rick Vaughn and his wife, Sue.

Tampa Bay Times baseball writer Marc Topkin, who's been covering the Rays since even before they played their first game, kept saying how different it will be without Joe Maddon.

Not since Maddon's decision to leave was announced has he had moments to reminisce with the many who helped him make his tenure at Tropicana Field so successful.

From 2008-13, Maddon's Rays were second only to the Yankees in wins (91.7 average) and 28th among the 30 teams in payroll ($57.9 million average).

It was that managerial magic that drew him to the Cubs and made his free agency so valuable.

Considering the talent Theo Epstein has obtained, including Maddon, the Cubs are in a much better position to finally reach the heights of the National League than they've been in eons.

I asked Maddon what his priority will be the first day of Spring Training 2015.

"Changing the culture," he said without hesitation. "Wins will come, but the real difference-maker is the culture. When you have talented players you put them in the right situations, where they're not afraid of making mistakes. The worst thing you can do is to coach aggressiveness out of a player, to coach fear into a player."

Maddon, 60, grew up in Hazelton, Pa., and as a youngster often worked at his uncle's restaurant. His mom, Beanie, is still a waitress at the Third Base Dugout in Hazelton.

Maddon, a wine aficionado, says he always wanted to be involved in a restaurant. He often frequented Stewart's other establishment, 717 South, across Howard Avenue from Ava, and they talked about a rustic, authentic Italian place.

"Ava [named after Stewart's daughter] is Michael's creation," Maddon said. "He ate, slept and breathed this entire project. His thoughts are so complete regarding what he wants and how he gets it."

The Acunto Napoli pizza oven came from Naples, Italy. Hernandez was recruited from California. The food prep table was found in Verona, Italy -- home of Romeo and Juliet, says Maddon. There's a 100-year-old butcher block that was found at Edwards Air Force Base in Pensacola. Maddon and Stewart found the kitchen tile during a trip to Boston.

As I walked around, I was amazed that unlike most places involving a celebrity, there are no photos of Maddon or other memorabilia.

The plan is to not overwhelm the place with Joe stuff. Chances are there will be a tasteful piece here and there, but not much.

And, oh yes. There is a secret dining room that seats 12. It's accessible through a narrow hallway that leads to the rear of the restaurant and the parking lot. Inside, the entrance is located behind a mirrored wall, with a hidden door handle.

Stewart got the idea for this room when celebrity athletes would visit his other restaurant and might want additional privacy.

For Joe Maddon, his next "Spring Training" begins Thursday. That's when Ava will preview its menu for one week, a la exhibition games.

"Opening Day" is Black Friday.

Hal Bodley is the senior correspondent for MLB.com. Follow him @halbodley on Twitter.