MLB.com Columnist

Lindsay Berra

Maddon continues to give back to hometown

Cubs manager hosts fundraising holiday banquet to support Hazleton, Pa.

Maddon continues to give back to hometown

Joe Maddon remembers what Hazleton, Pa., was like when he grew up. He calls his little town in the Pennsylvania hills, home to 25,000 people, "the best place in the world to grow up." But what was once a charming, blue-collar mining town built by immigrants has roughened over time. Crime has increased and the divide between Hazleton's English and Spanish-speaking communities has become a gulf. It is no longer the safest place for kids to be kids.

"I didn't like what I was seeing when I would come back to Hazleton. There was a definite disconnect between the Anglo side and the Hispanic side," Maddon says. "The way to bridge the gap between cultures is with communication and education."

To help remedy the situation in his hometown, the Cubs manager founded the Hazleton Integration Project. The crowing jewel of the organization is Hazleton One, a community center housed in a former school that serves 2,000 children per week with character education programs, athletics and after-school activities that include everything from basketball on the center's new Cubs-blue court to salsa dancing and English classes for the town's Spanish-speaking community.

"Since the opening of the center three years ago, there have been zero crimes committed within a one-block radius of that building," says Hazleton police chief Frank DeAndrea, who is active with HIP. "The community has been extremely respectful of what we're trying to do there."

On Friday night at Genetti's Ballroom, a Hazleton institution, Maddon and HIP hosted 650 guests for the organization's fifth annual holiday banquet. Attendees included slugger Manny Ramirez, former Cubs outfielder Jose Cardenal, MLB Ambassador for Inclusion Billy Bean, former NFL star Ed "Too Tall" Jones, Ken Rosenthal of MLB Network, Ed Randall of CBS and WFAN and Kim Jones of NFL Network.

I was privileged to attend the event with my father and brother, both Larry Berras. Maddon and my grandfather, Yogi Berra, were pals, and kindred spirits indeed; both with sharp, intuitive baseball minds and quick wit, and a similar world view. Maddon's efforts to improve the lives of children through his community center are in line with the mission of the Yogi Berra Museum and Learning Center, and the two went out of their way to support each other's causes. Grampa often told the story of making the trek out Rt. 80 from New Jersey to Hazleton in a snowstorm to attend Maddon's event in 2011 with Don Zimmer, and I have been proud to attend the past two years in Grampa's stead.

Many of the children who take part in the programs offered by Hazleton One were also in attendance.

"Our kids are the best," Maddon said. "They're beautiful. They speak the English language beautifully, better than most of the people in this room. They're respectful, and they're just grateful."

The town is certainly grateful for Maddon, who is the dinner's ultimate draw. He spoke passionately about HIP and took photos with everyone in the room, clad in his trademark funky attire: faded jeans, a Cubs "Do Simple Better" T-shirt and red and royal blue pinstripe blazer.

The dinner culminates a week of activities in Hazleton that include a talent show, a baseball clinic taught by Maddon, Cubs pitching coach Chris Bosio and others and a "Fireside Chat" at Hazleton One with Maddon, Cubs great Rick Sutcliffe, moderated by ESPN's Tim Kurkjian.

The dinner annually raises over $30,000 for the Hazleton Integration Project. For more information, visit www.hazletonintegrationproject.com.

Lindsay Berra is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.