Maddon’s smarts, mantras had their origins in Hazleton

December 15, 2016

By Jay Rand | Standard-Speaker

Did you know that there’s a Hazleton link/precursor to Joe Maddon’s “Try Not to Suck” mantra?

(Hint: he heard it long before he led the Chicago Cubs to their first World Series title in 108 years or became a big league manager for that matter.)

Maddon’s smarts? Cultivated here, too, long before Pete Rose, Alex Rodriguez and the national media dissected his every move in the 2016 World Series.

“He was smart, great athlete — he was everything you wanted to see in a kid,” younger sister Carmine Parlatore shared of brother Joe’s youth in Hazleton. “He did everything and he did it right. Tell him things once and he absorbs it and finds different angles to make it work a different way.”

Certainly the latter statement rings true to those who have watched Joe take command of a ballgame. Obvious bunt situation? Rush the first baseman and have the second baseman not just eventually cover first for a throw, but actually station him on first base taking pickoff throws from the pitcher.

How different was that? So much so that this summer it was actually deemed an “illegal defense” by major-league umpires; thus Joe got around it by officially designating his second baseman as his first basemen, which resulted in Anthony Rizzo having to hand off his oversized first base glove to the second baseman to meet National League rules.

Another alternative employed: keep the first baseman planted on first and rush the second baseman so hard that he’s standing between the pitcher’s mound and home plate as the pitch is being thrown. Not the for the faint of heart, as it’s pretty much the equivalent to having your linebacker attempt to perfectly time his leap over his defensive line in hopes of blocking a would-be field goal — that is, with a baseball potentially coming at you with a velocity of 100-plus miles per hour, mind you.

But Joe’s younger brother, Mark, will tell you that this “mad scientist” act isn’t new to his Chicago days — the result of too many late-night strategy sessions lubed up by Old Style, a favorite Chicago beer. Recall this past summer’s days of the Cubs skipper flipping relief pitchers between left field and the pitcher’s mound, dependent on lefty-righty match-ups?

Said Mark: “When he switched [Pedro] Strop and [Travis] Wood [between the mound and left]? We used to do that in Babe Ruth League! I’ve seen this stuff before. Again, it comes to being comfortable in your skin. He’s not afraid to try anything. That’s the comfort level, the confidence — he thinks these things through.”

“He always seemed like he looked at things differently; always looked like he was thinking,” said Joe Gavio, a teammate of Joe’s on Hazleton’s district championship team in the early ’70s. “He had a feel for the game back then — he was ahead of his time.”

Indeed, it’s more than unique — it’s borderline pioneering. But from where does it hail? Dad was a plumber; mom worked at the restaurant. Enter former Hazleton High coach Ed Morgan.

“Joe was always listening to [Morgan],” said Gavio. “That’s where Joe got that ‘Get in their head, think outside the box’ thing; you can’t go by the book.”

“Joe had a really good mind to go with the physical (ability),” echoed Morgan, who today splits residence between Hazleton and Naples, Florida. “I was never a fan of ‘The Book.’ Joe has his own book and I guess I had mine; we are very similar in that respect.”

How similar? Check this out: Fans of Joe are familiar with the “mantra” t-shirts he produces to raise charitable funds. Likely the most popular is his “Try Not to Suck” saying that adorns blue tops from Chicago’s Wrigleyville neighborhood to Hazleton’s watering holes. Now watch these dots connect…

“Coach Morgan used to say: ‘Make a player execute, and they execute themselves,’” said Gavio.

“If we don’t make the plays we’re supposed to, we’re going to be executed,” Morgan confirmed of preaching to his ballplayers his adamant belief that shoddy defense will cost a club a win. “We’re executing [on offense] by putting the ball in play and they may execute themselves by committing an error or missing the play.”

In other words — morbidness aside — put the ball in play and pressure the defense to not muck it up. But then also turn those tables: Morgan drilled down on this ballclub that when they take to the field, they make those very defensive plays so as to not give the opponent a chance to capitalize due to his own guys fouling up a routine play. Sound familiar? Just make that routine play and you’ve accomplished more than half the battle toward victory. In other words, simply try not to suck

Assist, if not origin, to Coach Morgan.

Said the former Hazleton field boss: “I always used to tell them: ‘We’re going to play baseball for one reason — to have fun. But there’s only one way to have fun, and that’s to win.’”

And win Joe Maddon does —t o the tune of 200 regular-season wins and a World Series championship in just two years with the Cubs, on the heels of a .517 win percentage and another Fall Classic showing with the small-market, payroll-challenged Tampa Rays.

“What Joe does with those teams, is everyone has skin in the game,” said Mark, nearly four years Joe’s junior. “He’s giving everybody the ‘you’re a part of this team’ attitude. And at the end of the year — when it comes down to [postseason[ moments like this — it all comes together. That’s pretty rare in pro sports because pretty much all you’re doing is managing egos.”

Added younger-by-a-year sister Carmine: “His talent got him far, but his sports mind and knowing the game of baseball, especially—that’s what brought him to this level. Not only the ability to play it, but to know it as a science. He is a professor of baseball; he’s calculating in an intellectual way, not in an athletic way. He’s like a scientist—he sees things in a way that the average person wouldn’t.”

His players will vouch. And as Cubs fans celebrated their first World Series crown since 1908, they couldn’t be happier that Joe Maddon has chosen to locate his laboratory on Chicago’s North Side.