PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- Who doesn't love the Rays? Impossible, right? First, they've got baseball's coolest manager.
Joe Maddon proved that again Saturday morning, when he ran down a list of team rules on the first day of his ninth Spring Training in charge of the Rays.
With a couple of new guys on the club, Maddon needed to make the do's and don'ts clear, because, hey, discipline can go south at any moment.
Here's the list:
• Run hard to first base.
• Play defense.
OK, Joe, go on.
Cue the sound of crickets.
What in the wide world of sports is that about? What about a couple of rules on how to wear socks? Caps, too.
He can't just trust players with that kind of stuff. Why flirt with chaos? Also, don't forget to tell 'em how to cut their hair and what to wear on team flights.
Earth tones are so yesterday.
Go ahead, Joe, tell us about the rest of your rules.
"I don't have to tell you what's right and wrong," Maddon said. "Why should there be rules? You know what's right. You know what's wrong. OK, do what's right. That works."
"I don't have to sit there with a long list of stuff that I'm supposed to pay attention to daily, and that detracts from what I do because I'm looking at how you're wearing your socks," Maddon said. "That's insane. You spend so much time worrying about this stuff that you think matters, and it doesn't. That's my opinion."
"I think we get a ton of respect and discipline because we give 'em so much freedom," Maddon said. "When you give professional, accountable people freedom to express themselves within a certain framework, you're going to get greater respect and discipline in return."
Wait, you're saying fewer rules leads to more discipline? Just between us, Joe, that sounds kind of peculiar.
"You have to have an accountable group of people and people that are professional about what they do, people that are motivated to be the best at what they do," Maddon said. "[You can't be] dictating things all the time, telling them how to wear the uniform, how to wear their hair, you can't have a tattoo, how you dress going on an airplane. All that stuff matters to me not."
So that's why players love playing for Tampa Bay.
"It's laid back. It's fun," Rays ace David Price said. "Joe gives us our freedom. He doesn't care what we wear. He just expects us to come here and play baseball. We want to be held accountable for our own actions, and that's what Joe does. He puts all the accountability in our court and expects us to conduct the locker room the way we need to. I think he definitely gets the most out of his players."
The Rays have been to the playoffs four times in the past six seasons and have averaged 92 victories doing things this way. They call it "The Rays Way."
"They breed this culture of looseness and having fun out there," outfielder David DeJesus said. "When you're able to be loose and play the game we've grown up playing, your skills will shine out there on the field. We police ourselves in the clubhouse. That's really how it should be. There's no nitpicking little things. It's getting the job done on the field and being professional off the field."
The Rays have won even though their payroll the past six seasons has been among the lowest in baseball. They've overcome that stuff for so long that it's hardly ever a topic of conversation. Rather, it has become accepted that Tampa Bay will do more with less than virtually anyone else.
That's a tribute to the Rays' management team, beginning with owner Stu Sternberg, team president Matt Silverman and especially their brilliant executive vice president of baseball operations, Andrew Friedman.
Since those three took charge eight years ago, they've run the smartest, most efficient and probably most respected operation in baseball. Part of that success, they believe, comes from creating a clubhouse environment in which individuality is respected, while the team must always come first.
When the new owners took over, their goal was to make the club respectable. Now the openly stated, widely embraced and seemingly very reasonable goal is winning the World Series.
Friedman may not agree that this is the best team he has had. Having won 97 games in 2008 and 96 games in '10, the Rays have set their own bar high.
But after an offseason in which Friedman re-signed first baseman James Loney and acquirered closer Grant Balfour, reliever Heath Bell and catcher Ryan Hanigan, Tampa Bay appears to have no weaknesses.
Because the Rays play in the American League East with the Red Sox and Yankees, nothing is guaranteed. But they begin the season with the expectation of playing well into October. Their rotation --led by Price, Alex Cobb, Matt Moore and Chris Archer -- may be the best in the game. Their infield defense may also be No. 1.
In third baseman Evan Longoria, they have someone capable of carrying a team for weeks. And 23-year-old right fielder Wil Myers, the 2013 American League Rookie of the Year Award winner, could be a difference maker for a long time.
See you in October?
"It's something we won't shy away from," Friedman said. "We've grown accustomed to having high expectations. That speaks volumes about what we've been able to accomplish, and that our guys come to Spring Training every year with the expectation to win the American League East and compete to win a World Series championship. Expectations are a good thing."
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U.