Cardinals turn Maddon into one happy fan

Joe Maddon is a big Arizona Cardinals fan.

“Not big,” Maddon corrected, “severe.”

The Tampa Bay Rays manager has to be the only major league skipper who has a framed Cardinal jersey on the wall of his office.

Maddon has a football autographed by Jake Plummer. Only Jon Gruden was more disappointed than Maddon when the former Cardinal quarterback refused to accept a trade to the Tampa Bay Bucs.

Maddon planned on staying at his California home until the week before spring training starts. Now, he’ll head this way for Super Bowl Sunday.

“Have to,” Maddon said. “I got to do it.”

You would, too, if you rooted for the Cardinals since that day in 1962 when your dad took you to Yankee Stadium for your first big league baseball game and bought you a St. Louis Cardinals cap.

It was the baseball Cardinals, but 8-year-old Joe was hooked on the football Cardinals, too.

“Bang-bang, same moment,” Maddon said. “Soon as I got that Cardinals hat I’ve been a fan of St. Louis for everything.”

Even the Hawks?

“Absolutely,” Maddon said. “And the Blues when they came a long.”

Charley Johnson, Bobby Joe Conrad, Larry Wilson, Jim Hart, they were Maddon’s boys.

“Ernie McMillan, MacArthur Lane, the Cardiac Kids,” Maddon said. “Don Coryell, my favorite coach.”

Living in Hazelton, Pa., Maddon was able to watch the Cards play the Giants and the Eagles every year.

“I can use the word never, if they were on local television, I never missed them,” Maddon said.

He had season tickets to the Cardinals when he lived in Phoenix.

Maddon rooted for his Cardinals for nearly half a century, season after disappointing season. “It’s like being a Cubs fan,” Maddon said. “You got to brace yourself every year.”

Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt called Maddon several times during the Rays’ postseason run. Maddon returned the favor this month, calling Whisenhunt before each playoff game. Whisenhunt missed Maddon’s call before playing Atlanta. The Cardinals won. To keep the vibe going Whisenhunt hasn’t answered any of Maddon’s calls.

“That’s OK,” Maddon said. “I’ll talk to him when it’s all said and done.”

Maddon was in the Atlanta airport Sunday, flying home from a wedding in Puerto Rico over the weekend when he saw the end of the Cardinals’ win against the Eagles in the NFC Championship Game. He hasn’t stopped smiling.

The Cards, the last team you would dream of playing in the Super Bowl, are playing in the Super Bowl. They rose like the Tampa Bay Rays out of the desert. They are loaded with young talent. They remind Maddon of another team he knows very well.

“When I heard the words, ‘The Cardinals are going to the Super Bowl,’ it finally hit me,” Maddon said. “When they won that game, I truly understood what we did last year.”