Let it Joe! Small town a winner wonderland

December 17, 2016

By Paul Hagen | MLB.com

Cubs manager relishes chance to tout Hazleton Integration Project


HAZLETON, Pa. — To his old friends here, he’s just Joey. He easily slips back into saying “youse” and referring to pizza as “pitz.” For everyone else, Saturday was Joe Maddon Day.

The Cubs manager was honored by his hometown for his years of service to the community. And, yeah, the fact that the Cubbies won the World Series for the first time in 108 years this fall had a little something to do with it, too.

Maddon likes talking about baseball. But he lights up when the subject turns to efforts to give back to the community. And he totally gets that the Cubs’ historic victory provides a bigger platform for him to talk about the things that are near and dear to his heart.

“That’s the really cool part about it,” he said. “It really supersedes baseball for me. When I get questions or interviews about [community work], that’s when I really do light up. So anything we can do to get out the word and make people more aware of what’s happening here, and how important it is and the strides we’ve been making, that to me is very exciting.”

About 200 people braved wintry weather to attend Saturday night’s event at the Hazleton One Community Center, home of the Hazleton Integration Project, which Madden helped found in 2011. The center serves about 2,000 people a week with a variety of classes and programs.

A procession of government leaders, including Pennsylvania Secretary of State Pedro Cortes, State Representative Tarah Toohil and Hazleton Mayor Jeff Cusat, saluted the local kid who made it big. Maddon was a standout athlete at Hazleton High School, pitching the baseball team to a district championship in 1971 and also quarterbacking the football team.

Along with his wife, Jaye, Maddon was presented with a series of commendations, citations and proclamations.

He also answered more than a dozen question from audience members, most of them children.

From Joel: “Were you the one who named the team the Cubs. And, if not, what would you have called it?” (No, and the Mountaineers, Hazleton High School’s nickname.)

From Shirley: “Who will lead off for the Cubs next year?” (Probably Kyle Schwarber. Maybe Ben Zobrist.)

The HIP and community center have grown by leaps and bounds in just a few years. On Friday night, Maddon helped break ground on a $250,000 playground that will be built at the center, and then hosted a sold-out fundraiser at the Valley Country Club that included celebrities, including Bill Murray.

“The playground is really important, giving a venue for something to do in the summertime also, getting them outside the building,” Maddon explained.

The skipper is always thinking about ways to make the center better.

“For me, what I’d like to see is a speech-and-debate club,” he said. “I wanted two things when we started. I wanted boxing, and we kind of had that for a bit. And then I thought speech and debate. Because beyond learning in a classroom, beyond getting an A, B or C for a grade, when you go out into the real world and you go out for a job interview, your ability to transmit your thoughts to the person you’re speaking to probably exceeds any letter grade that you got while you were in school.

“I really think we lack in the ability to teach our kids to think on their feet and project what they’re thinking to somebody else. I think that’s very important.”

The weekend will be capped off Sunday, when the annual “Thanksmas” meal will be served to the needy.

Maddon has coached with the Angels, managed the Rays to a World Series in 2008 and took the Cubs to heights the franchise hadn’t been in over a century this year.

It all started in Hazleton, though, and Maddon has never forgotten how being from this place influenced everything that has happened since.

“Toughness,” he said during the latter part of the Q&A session. “The fact that [my mother] permitted me to play football when I was 10. I had to go to practice every day. We had skull sessions the day before the game. The weather was unpredictable. It hurt sometimes. But you played. You got yelled at sometimes. And you played.

“When I played baseball, there was a lot of failure involved. So you had to deal with failure. So I think this town breeds a toughness and an accountability and I think that’s really what it comes down to.”

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