(Editor's note: In 2012, The Press Democrat's Phil Barber wrote about the longtime friendship between Sonoma Valley High School baseball coach Don Lyons and Joe Maddon, who is managing the Chicago Cubs as the National League Championship Series begins today against the New York Mets. Here is that story, written when Maddon was manager of the Tampa Bay Rays.)
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 Albano 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.