Sunday caps weekend which included playground groundbreaking, fundraiser
By Paul Hagen
HAZLETON, Pa. -- This is how Thanksmas began:
Long before Joe Maddon managed the Cubs to their first World Series Championship in 108 years, he was a coach for the Angels, and he used to ride his bicycle up and down the Southern California coast. His usual route was between Sunset Beach and Huntington Beach, and the vistas could be spectacular. But he focused on something else.
"You'd see so many guys and ladies pushing their entire life in a shopping cart," Maddon explained. "It really bothered me. Bothered me. I didn't have the platform as a bench coach to really do something. So I swore if I did, I would try to utilize the soap box better."
This is what Thanksmas has become:
At the Hazleton One Community Center in his hometown, nearly 600 people who might otherwise have gone without were treated to a meal. And not just any meal. This one included homemade meatballs and sausage, pasta with homemade sauce, pirogues with butter and onions, chicken with rice and beans, salad and rolls, with cake and cookies for desert.
Bob Curry is founding president of the Hazleton Integration Project. He was there at the beginning along with Joe and Jaye Maddon and his wife, Elaine, who is Joe's cousin.
"The heart of our message is that the people who come to us can have as fine a quality meal as in any restaurant," Curry said.
It's Maddon who sets the tone. On Sunday, he wore a Santa cap and an apron with a Cubs logo, greeting the guests as they came through the door. A brass quartet and singers added to the festive atmosphere.
The event capped a whirlwind weekend. On Friday, there was the groundbreaking for a $250,000 playground at the community center and a sold out fundraiser at the local country club (at which Bill Murray made an unannounced appearance.) On Saturday was a question-and-answer session with local kids (which was preceded by a ceremony in which Maddon was honored for his good works, not to mention the Cubs' historic championship). And it wrapped up with Thanksmas on Sunday.
"We started with a little shelter in St. Petersburg," Maddon recalled. "We actually cooked the meal there in the morning and served it. So there was one meal. Then we finally figured out that we would be much better off cooking it in advance, putting it in a fridge, getting more venues to serve and become more efficient at it, which we did next. We started cooking at [Tropicana Field]."
From the Tampa Bay area, the program expanded up and down Florida's Gulf Coast to Bradenton, Port Charlotte and as far south as Fort Myers.
"I wanted to infiltrate Red Sox country," Maddon said with a laugh.
Maddon initiated a program in Chicago when he went to the Cubs. And of course, it's been Thanksmas in Hazleton for the past several years.
"My objective is to make it more national," Maddon said. "It's hard to do that just because of the time element. But the reason I wanted to call it 'Thanksmas' was that I wanted to point out that folks are in need of our help not just during the holidays. So I said' Thanksmas' to try to illustrate any day between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Just pick a day and do it."
While Maddon was still with the Rays, there was a Thanksmas during the summer.
"That's really what I'd like to get to," Maddon said. "That this happens at any time of the year to indicate the spirit of volunteerism. And what the volunteers do, man, is staggering. People have no idea how these places function. I mean, I get credit for whatever I do. Believe me, you talk about a drop in the biggest bucket you've ever seen.
"My wife and I do as much as we can. But the boots on the ground here are spectacular daily. Walk into these facilities and watch what these people do every day. They're preparing two meals for a lot of folks who come through those doors every day that absolutely need it and are grateful that it was cooked for them. That, to me, is what we were trying to highlight. Make a dent somehow."
Years ago, riding his bike all alone, Joe Maddon vowed he'd try to help others if he ever had the opportunity. With a lot of help from his friends, look at what that's become.
Paul Hagen is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.