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Baseball friendship spans 35 years

By PHIL BARBER
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

OAKLAND

Don Lyons arrived at spring training in 1977 and, like the California Angels’ other Single-A prospects, looked for his locker in the clubhouse at Holtville, about 15 miles from the Mexican border. It wasn't hard to find your space; the lockers were in alphabetical order.

To Lyons’ right was Carney Lansford, a future American League batting champion and World Series winner. To his left was Dave Machemer, who would hit a home run in his first major-league at-bat, and then never hit another.

Another spot over to the left, a guy was quietly singing a Jackson Browne song. It was from “The Pretender” album, and Lyons happened to love it.

The two young players started talking about Jackson Browne, and about Bruce Springsteen and Billy Joel, and about Archie Bunker and “The Gong Show,” and old movies and boxers and cooking. Thirty-five years later, Lyons is an esteemed teacher and baseball coach at Sonoma Valley High. His fast friend, Joe Maddon, is the manager of the Tampa Bay Rays. And they haven’t stopped talking since.

“We laugh at the same stuff,” Maddon said during the Rays’ recent visit to the Oakland Coliseum to play the A’s. “I’ve always considered him brilliant. He’s well-read, and he’s a great writer. … He writes me these emails that absolutely fracture me, and I try to stay up with him but it’s impossible.”

Said Lyons: “I started coaching high school in 1992. I first coached varsity in 2000. And Joe has been my touchstone all the way. I’ll ask him questions, and he’s a wealth of knowledge. … He’s helped me on a number of occasions.”

One of them was in the first round of the 2012 North Coast Section playoffs. Sonoma Valley was leading Hercules 3-0 in the second inning at Arnold Field, with runners on second and third. Lyons called a suicide squeeze and sophomore Vince Albino got the bunt down perfectly, scoring junior Will Rose easily from third base. The surprise came when junior Jaxson Strong, who had been at second, maintained his speed around third and followed Rose home for a second run.

It was a play Maddon had suggested to Lyons, and it worked to perfection.

The two men grew up in settings that scarcely could have been more different — Lyons in San Francisco and Maddon in working-class Hazleton, Pa. But they found common ground. Lyons is Irish-Catholic, the son of a firefighter. Maddon is Italian-Polish-Catholic, the son of a plumber.

They were two kids from classic American upbringings, bright and interested in the world around them, and consumed with baseball.

They roomed together on the road that first year together, playing for the Angels’ Class A affiliate in Salinas, and they spent long bus rides discussing everything from Frank Sinatra to Larry Holmes. They had apartments practically next door (Maddon’s roommate was Dickie Thon, the future bi-league shortstop), and Maddon would cook for both units, simmering Italian and Polish dishes that the other players deemed delicious.

After the 1977 season, Maddon said he was flying back to Pennsylvania. Lyons had a better idea. He had worked for Avis Car Rental, and he knew that companies would sometimes pay a guy a nominal fee to return a car that had been driven one way. It’s called “deadheading.” Lyons talked to a buddy at Avis and secured a station wagon bound for New York, and he and Maddon headed east.

“If you want to get to know somebody,” Lyons said, “do that.”

They drove to Omaha, Neb., without stopping, then on to Chicago to see former teammate John Flannery in uniform for the White Sox.

In Hazleton, the Maddons still lived above C. Maddon & Sons Plumbing and Heating, Joe Sr.’s shop. Maddon’s mother, Albina, known to all of Hazleton as Beanie, worked at the Third Base Luncheonette — and still does. Lyons lapped it up.

“We’re there one day, and we’re walking up the street, and I hear an older lady with a thick Italian accent call out, ‘Hey, Joey, when you gonna be on the television?’” Lyons recalled. “She said, ‘You get on television, you call me.’ I said, ‘Are you kidding me? Is this place real?’”

Lyons stayed five days and left with five foot-long hoagies supplied by Beanie, more than enough for the 2½-hour drive to New York.

Soon after, the two players went their separate ways. Lyons played Double-A ball in El Paso in 1978; it would be his final season. He returned to San Francisco and became a fireman, with Maddon’s spaghetti sauce recipe there to get him through his turns to cook at the firehouse.

Maddon, a catcher, remained at Salinas in ’78 and played for the unaffiliated Santa Clara Padres in 1979 before joining the Angels organization as a scout.

“I always say the slider made me a fireman,” said Lyons, though Maddon insists his friend was a good line-drive-hitting first baseman. “He’d probably say the slider made him a coach.”

Maddon gradually worked his way up the Angels’ system, from scout to minor-league manager to roving instructor to minor-league field coordinator. He joined the big-league team as bullpen coach in 1994 and spent 12 seasons working under three Angels managers before finally getting his big break and becoming the Tampa Bay Devil Rays’ (they have since dropped the Devil) fourth manager in 2006.

Maddon took Tampa Bay to the World Series in 2008, and twice has been voted American League manager of the year. He does it his own way — with hipster glasses and computer printouts and edgy jokes that don’t always endear him to other managers.

“He has a great vision for the game,” Lyons said. “I remember in Salinas we put on a clinic for some kids one day. Even then, he was brilliant. I told him, ‘You should do this for a living.’”

Lyons worked as a firefighter until 2000, when a recurring knee injury finally became too much for the job. He got his teaching credential and wound up at Sonoma Valley in 2001. He had been coaching baseball there since 1992, and had taken over the varsity team in 2000. In the past five years, Lyons has led the Dragons to two Sonoma County League titles, four North Coast Section playoff appearances and one NCS championship.

Maddon thinks Lyons could have been successful at a higher level of coaching if he had desired it.
“Of course he could have,” Maddon said. “But that was not him. This lifestyle, he loved it at the time, but I don’t think he would like it now. … I see a high school niche or a junior college, or a good university being more in tune to him, his personality, than coaching professional baseball.”

They don’t get to visit as often as they’d like these days, mostly because of Maddon’s packed schedule and media obligations.

But at the Coliseum in late July, the manager got Lyons and his son Tommy — who plays first base for New Mexico Highlands University — onto the field for a quick catch-up.

“When you get together, it’s like it was yesterday, when you’re that good of friends,” Maddon said. “Because we played together and we lived together, and our families knew each other. … So regardless of all the time that passes between actually seeing each other, we don’t miss a beat.”

Two hours later, Don and Tommy were in their seats, among the few diehard Rays fans in Oakland that night.

You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at 521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com.