ST. PETERSBURG — Joe Maddon sat in the dugout for his daily pregame presser while out on the mound, Kevin Cash threw a round of batting practice to the Cleveland Indians hitters during the final days of this past season.
Who would have guessed then that Cash, the Indians' bullpen coach, would replace Maddon as the Tampa Bay Rays' manager?
But that's what happened after a series of startling events that led to Maddon opting out of the final year of his contract in late October and the Rays, after a lengthy search that grew to 10 candidates, picking Cash as the fifth manager in team history.
Cash, who turns 37 today, said he was left speechless Friday when offered the job and called the moment “surreal.”
“It's tough to describe,” he said during a conference call from his home in Cleveland.
The Tampa native played at Northside Little League, Gaither High, Florida State and with the 2005 Devil Rays. He replaces Maddon, who was 754-705 in his nine years with the Rays and helped engineer the organization's turnaround from a perennial cellar-dweller to a yearly playoff contender that reached the postseason four times, beginning in 2008 with a trip to the World Series.
“We are proud to introduce Kevin as our manager,” Rays owner Stuart Sternberg said in a team release. “His energy and dynamic personality will fit seamlessly with our clubhouse. We are fortunate to have such a talented individual, and Tampa Bay native, to lead our club as we strive to achieve new heights as a team and organization.”
The Rays didn't reveal the terms of the contract.
Rays third baseman Evan Longoria, in an email to the Tribune, said: “I'm really excited about the new direction. Kevin brings experience as a player at the major-league level, which excites me, along with a fresh attitude that I feel will translate into making our already great clubhouse even better.”
The Rays picked Cash, a former catcher whose post-playing career consisted of a year as an advance scout for the Blue Jays and two years as the Indians' bullpen coach, over Royals bench coach Don Wakamatsu, who spent nearly two years in Seattle as the Mariners manager and managed four more years in the minor leagues.
Matt Silverman, the Rays' president of baseball operations, said it was a tough decision and that he was very impressed with Wakamatsu both as a managerial candidate and as a person. But Cash, despite his age — he's the youngest major-league manager since the Diamondbacks hired 35-year-old A.J. Hinch in 2009 — and inexperience, was able to set himself apart.
“With Kevin, there was an energy and a dedication that appealed to us,” Silverman said. “And (we) thought that at this moment he was the right guy and is the right guy to join our clubhouse and be the leader of this team.”
Even at such a young age?
“You look at Kevin, his baseball age is much older than his 37 years on this planet,” Silverman said. “He's been a student of the game, and that transition to manager is one we think will be a relatively smooth one, one made easier by the environment that we already have here.”
Said Cash, “The age factor is not a major factor with me.”
Cash said he expects the coaching staff to remain intact but didn't go into detail about a potential bench coach.
Silverman listed six attributes he was looking for in a manager when he began his search: An ability to communicate, a strong presence, loyalty, trustworthiness, dedication and preparation.
“And those are things that Kevin lines up perfectly with,” Silverman said.
Cash said he never gave much thought to being a manager until the Rangers asked the Indians earlier this offseason for permission to interview him for their vacant manager's position.
“It was a shock,” Cash said. “It wasn't something I was anticipating at this stage. But as I started preparing for the Texas opportunity I almost kind of gained momentum, gained some confidence. I was able to really process some thoughts.”
Cash was a finalist for that job and soon found himself on Silverman's initial list of eight candidates.
While he's never managed a baseball game in his life — not even a spring training split-squad game — Cash said he is confident he will handle his new assignment.
“The experience of a bullpen coach, you're managing people down there for three hours,” Cash said. “You're by yourself with that group of seven or eight pitchers, I looked at it as managing that group of guys.”
Cash said he would try to manage the game from his spot in the bullpen, try to anticipate the moves made by Indians manager Terry Francona and the opposing manager.
“I think as long as you're constantly paying attention and trying to learn from different things that happen throughout the course and different decisions that are made, it's as close to managing a game that I've gotten to,” he said.
Both Silverman and Cash said Cash's ability to quickly form relationships and establish trust will serve him well now that he is charged with managing 25 players on a daily basis.
Chris Gimenez, the former Rays catcher who spent the final weeks of the 2014 season with the Indians, said those are among Cash's strongest points.
“I know Kevin Cash, and I think they got it right,” Gimenez said. “I think he's the perfect person to replace Joe. He has a tremendous baseball mind, a tremendous person. I think he's going to fit in so well in that clubhouse. I think it's going to be an easy transition for a lot of those guys.”
Gimenez said he was impressed with Cash's ability not only to communicate with the Indians pitchers, but also the position players.
“Everything I ever heard about the guy was totally true and then some,” Gimenez said. “He blew me away in the month and a half that I was with him. I can only imagine what he did with the Rays front office.”