Move to Chicago offered Maddon a taste of home

December 15, 2016

By Jay Rand | Standard-Speaker

It was Nov. 2, 2014 when the Chicago Cubs announced the hiring of Joe Maddon as their new skipper. It came just days after the former Tampa Bay Rays manager took advantage of an opt-out clause to leave Tampa (with one year remaining on his contract) as a result of Rays Executive Vice President of Baseball Operations Andrew Friedman departing to join the Dodgers.

And while the quick-developing seismic shift surprised so many throughout the baseball world, Joe’s younger brother presents sort of a shrug-of-the-shoulders take on the move.

“It’s Mom’s side — the Polish side,” said Mark Maddon, noting the extremely heavy population of Poles inhabiting Chicago. “I think they were supposed to end up in Chicago — Mom didn’t get it done, so Joe picked up the slack.”

Probably not any great consolation to Rays fans who lost their former American League Manager of the Year, but, well, OK. And of course, that’s a hindsight view; count Mark among those blown away when he got a call from a friend on that fall day two years back sharing the news that Joe had resigned from the Rays.

“I said: ‘Get outta here! He’s leaving Tampa — are you crazy?’” recalled Mark. “So I texted [Joe], and he said, ‘I’ll get back to you later.’ That’s when he was meeting with Theo and Jed [Epstein and Hoyer, Cubs executives].

“I was shocked because that’s another Maddon thing: Loyalty goes to the end of the earth for you. But Joe’s attitude, he wanted to earn it. He wasn’t going to politic for anything. Always earn your spot, so to speak.”

Joe’s Hazleton High School teammate Joe Gavio concurred: “He paid his dues, put his time in waiting for the opportunity; it was just getting his chance.”

The one person who went on the record as “not shocked” by Joe’s move from Tampa to the Cubs is former longtime Hazleton High baseball coach Ed Morgan. Joe’s mentor on the diamond recalls his former pupil having interviewed with the Boston Red Sox for the skipper job that eventually went to now-Cleveland manager Terry Francona in 2003. The man leading the Red Sox managerial hunt? Current Cubs President Epstein.

Morgan spoke of an on-field conversation he was a part of years after the interview process that went Francona’s way. It was a discussion between Joe and Epstein prior to the Rays taking on Boston in a regular season game. Morgan recalled such genuine respect and admiration between the two during that chat, for which he had a front-row seat.

“I had an inkling he might go to the Cubs because of the conversation he had with Theo,” Morgan said. “It was Theo and his wife, and they made a point of coming to talk to Joe even though he didn’t get the Boston job.”

And so it was in November 2014 —off to Chicago, where Polish indeed is the third most frequently spoken language, trailing just English and Spanish. But whatever language in which he’s communicating with his players in that always-festive Cubs clubhouse, Joe’s words resonate.

“[Cubs players] are in such a good place with such a good person to get them there,” offered Joe’s younger sister Carmine. “‘No worries, sit back and relax and watch the magic happen.’”

“The magic” has now happened twice for Joe’s clubs, having led the Rays to the promised land in 2008 and the Cubs — for the first time in 71 years — to the Fall Classic this year. What a road it’s been from his spirited upbringing in Hazleton to the much larger though also diverse Chicago.

“That’s why he just absorbed into Chicago — because it is a lot like Hazleton,” Carmine said of Joe’s Windy City embrace. “A lot bigger, but those communities of different ethnic groups, it’s just like home, just a bigger scale. And he loves to be in the middle of a city — he needs to be where it’s vibrant and lively and [filled with] people he can engage in conversation.”

All of which still applies on Joe’s frequent trips home to Hazleton. His charitable efforts tied to his “Thanksmas” event and the Hazleton Integration Project (HIP) — a community-based effort to unite the people of various ethnicities and backgrounds — are well known. And on those trips home, just as when walking the streets downtown Chicago, Joe still makes it a point to engage.

Said Carmine: “He likes to drive through the neighborhoods and reminisce. He takes [wife] Jaye through the streets to show her who lived where, where school is, the playgrounds, the restaurants. He’ll just drive around town and reminisce. He’ll drive to Lafayette to meet up with [college friends] there.

“Whenever he enters a room, a party starts. When he comes home for Christmas, it’s party time! He just loves to be around the people he grew up with. He’s approachable and doesn’t shy away from anybody. Everybody knows him as ‘Joe’ or ‘Joey,’ and he’s never really changed. He left, but he’s still ‘Joey’— and his heart’s still here.”

And even after he left, Joe made sure his own kids logged time in his hometown. Though raised primarily in Arizona while he toiled in various locales during his minor leagues days with the Angels, Joe’s son and daughter were imported to Hazleton for the summers.

“It was always important for Joe to have his kids experience Hazleton,” recalled his sister. “He’d fly them out in the summertime [from Arizona] when they were younger and they got very close with their cousins, a feel what it was like to have aunts and uncles around and feel what it’s like to grow up in Hazleton. They’d stay for the whole summer.

“My kids are the same ages as Joe’s kids, so we would just take them everywhere,” she added. “But they loved staying at my mom’s because she’s such a character. And my dad was one of the most fabulous people who ever walked this earth. So they knew my dad; he was not just a memory [after passing away in 2002]. And I wish my dad was here to see [Joe leading the Cubs to the World Series]. He’s his angel in the outfield.”

That angel helped the Cubs rally from a 3-1 deficit against the Cleveland Indians in the Series for their first world championship since 1908. With that elusive title safely tucked away, the Cubs are built to compete for years to come. And, according to those who know him best, the environment in which one of Hazleton’s favorite sons now finds himself could not be a better fit.

“[Chicago] is a larger scale of what Hazleton is like,” Carmine said. “He relishes it, he feeds off it, that motivates him and makes him better as a manager. He feels at home, he’s comfortable and feels better and thinks better — and that’s why he’s managing so well. It’s a love for the city, though his heart is still in Hazleton. Lots of traits there [in Chicago] that he has at home.

“And to see the tears [of Chicago fans] and know that Joe’s steering the ship, it’s ridiculous. We’re fans of Joe, but for [Chicago people], I’m so happy for you; it’s just fabulous.”

Former baseball pro Jose Cardenal comments during a news conference held at the Hazleton One Community Center as a prelude to last year’s Thanksmas celebration. Also pictured is Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon. (Standard-Speaker File Photo)