In 1961, I returned from college to become a teacher and coach in the Hazleton School District. Because of those positions, I took an interest in youth sports.
We had a midget football team called the Hazleton Raiders at that time. I remember reading about this kid, Joey Maddon, who had an unbelievable arm as a young quarterback. His coaches at that time were the late Rich Rabbitz and Jack Seiwell… so I began following his career.
I realized he was also an outstanding Little League baseball player as a shortstop and pitcher… He really could play either position very well.
Then while he was (coaching) seventh and eighth grade basketball at Our Lady of Grace, I used to have pickup games looking for some kids that might want to come out for the team later on. Incredibly, this same Joey Maddon was at Our Lady of Grace. He used to come around and shoot at these pickup games.
Most people aren’t aware that he was a very good basketball player. He could really shoot, but then I realized he was going to (focus on) football and baseball. That’s how talented he was. I realized he was going to have a different kind of career.
Knowing the Maddons
I got to become very close with the (Maddon) family because I also taught Carmine and Mark, his sister and brother, in addition to teaching Joe. I used to kiddingly say that Joe had the athletic talent, the beauty and the good looks went to Carmine and Mark.
When Joe became our high school quarterback as a sophomore (in 1969), I taught the junior quarterback who had an unbelievable season the year before with Mr. (Adam) Sieminski, who was our coach at the time.
When I came back to school the next year, I was shocked to learn that we were going to start a sophomore quarterback. The kid I taught was now a senior, and he was exceptional. But now I understand why he wasn’t our starting quarterback. That sophomore was Joey Maddon, who went on to have an unbelievable career in football.
I also taught Joe and what I liked in him as a student was always the “Why.’’ He wasn’t that concerned with fact; he always wanted to know why were we doing this or that. It was interesting.
We used to have panel discussions, where you had five, six or seven kids on a panel and you would select your captain. Of course, Joe was the captain. He would then determine the topic and tell you what part of the topic we were going to discuss.
We used to analyze editorial pages. He went way beyond because of his insight; he was very insightful. As a student he was exceptional. I really think that has helped him in what has transpired (in his career).
‘Broad Street Joe’
During his time (playing football) in high school, I used to call him a gunslinger because he was an outstanding quarterback. I gave him the nickname “Broad Street Joe’’ because the Jets had “Broadway Joe’’ Namath and we had our own Joe. He used to like when I called him a gunslinger.
Hazleton’s Joe pitched the Mountaineers’ (baseball team) to the District 11 title during his junior year (1971).
When my daughters were 4 and 5 years old, we would take afternoon walks in the summer (toward Hazleton High School, where the Maddon family lived, and the nearby Third Base Lunchonette, where Albina (better known as “Beanie’’) Maddon (Joe’s mother) worked.
Mrs. Maddon would keep me aware of what was happening with Joe after he signed with the Angels. He never lost his local connection. The first person he called when he signed with the Angels was Mr. (Ed) Morgan (his baseball coach at Hazleton High).
Once I was with my younger daughter when Joe was still playing in the Angels organization. He said to me, ‘Mr. Lib, I don’t know if I’m going to make it as a catcher.’ Keep in mind when he signed, he was an outstanding pitcher and shortstop. They’re the three positions you have to be smart.
“He said that he wanted to do something to continue his interest. I don’t know if this was his turning point, but I said, ‘You really should think about coaching, Joe. You’re very involved in the sport. You know the game extremely well.’’’
Later on, when he was coaching with the (Angels) and was their interim manager for the first time at Yankee Stadium, he called Mr. Morgan again. When he finally was going to get the job in Tampa, he called Mr. Morgan. Joe has always been the same person.
The thing that always amazed me about Joe is that when Mike Scioscia was named to become the Angels manager, there was some concern about whether he was going to be on the coaching staff.
To Joe’s credit, I was principal at Hazleton Area High School at the time. On his Christmas break that year, he came up to see me to wish me luck. He spent about 40 to 45 minutes with me, telling me that Scioscia called him and told him that he wanted him to be retained as bench coach.
In 2008 I was diagnosed with myeloma (cancer of plasma cells). I was undergoing stem cell transplant in Hershey. Joe’s (Tampa Bay) Rays are playing the Boston Red Sox for the American League title to get into the World Series against the Phillies.
The Rays were up 3-1 in the (American League championship) series, and I think they blew a seven-run lead against the Red Sox in Game 5 on a Thursday night with a chance to clinch the series. I came home from the hospital and there was a message on my (answering) machine, a message which I kept for six months.
“Mr. Lib. It’s Joe Maddon. I’m driving up to St. Pete (St. Petersburg) for the seventh game (against the Red Sox) tonight, but that’s secondary. How are you feeling? I’m hoping to get to see you soon.’’
It was genuine concern.
“I hear you’re doing a good job (fighting against the disease),’’ Maddon’s message continued. “Keep battling. You always taught us that as a teacher and coach, so you keep doing that.’’
He ended up sending his thoughts and prayers and not saying one thing about the game. Of course, they went on to win that and play the Phillies in the World Series. That affected me a great deal.
Later that same year, he had gone on his honeymoon with his wife, Jaye. He comes in to Hazleton with Jaye and they (Maddon’s family members and friends) were going to give them a wedding celebration. And he came to see me.
I was unable to walk at that time. Joe said, ‘You stay by the door. I have a little surprise.’ So he came in and incredibly he had a Rays jersey with “Libonati’’ on the back. He wanted it to be my shirt.
The guy has never forgotten his roots. When he comes here for his Thanksmas (celebration), he comes to visit me. He visited me during my sickness.
Making ‘Mr. Lib’ a star
In 2010 Joe had a few of us down in Baltimore’s Camden Yards where the (Rays) were playing the Orioles. I went down with Mr. (Rocco) Mussoline, his sons and Joe took us down to the field. We saw batting practice, he sat us down with scouts from Milwaukee, Atlanta. They were talking about (all-star pitcher) David Price, who was the Rays’ ace at the time…
As I’m there with my jersey on in the stands, Mr. Mussoline, a fellow educator, an individual came down to me in the stands and said, ‘I’m Todd Kalas (the son of late Phillies’ broadcaster Harry Kalas). and I’m with Sun Sports (in Tampa). He said, ‘We were talking with Joe before and he mentioned you as being his high school social studies teacher and having a great impact on him. He wants me to interview you.’’
He interviewed Mr. Mussoline briefly. Then he said, ‘Look up there at the camera and start talking about Joe.’ So I started mentioning all these things. He said, ‘Well, I met with a group of kids from Lafayette, Joe’s former classmates, and they had a good time. He said all they talked about was you.’’
That’s when some kid asked me for my autograph. Until today, I’m wondering what this kid thought. ‘Sir, would you give me your autograph?’ There’s some kids out there today that is probably about 16 years old saying, ‘Who in the world is this guy?’ He saw the Rays jersey on me and thought that I was somebody (famous). It was unbelievable.’’’
Some night in Camden Yards
That trip to Baltimore was one I’ll never forget. Joe got us the best seats — eventually. When I got to the will call window, I said, ‘I’m Mr. Libonati, I’m with Georgie Mussoline. I’m picking up our tickets. The guy said, ‘Sir, there are no tickets for you.’ I said, ‘Please, there has to be (tickets).’ Ironically, these girls from Lafayette came in and they… recognized me (from being) with Joe. The girls said, ‘Let that man in. It’s Mr. Libonati. He was talking to Joe at lunch.’ The guy said, ‘You seem like a nice man and I’m glad that Joe likes you, but you cannot get in.’ I said, ‘What can we do?’
I finally got in contact with a press (relations) person… and told him, “I’m up here and we’re supposed to have four tickets.’’ Then Mr. Mussoline starts bugging me. ‘The great Mr. Libonati. He knows everybody.’’ Mr. Mussoline’s kids couldn’t stop laughing.
So we finally went in and the press guy called Joe in the clubhouse. Joe said he forgot to leave the tickets… Ultimately, the press guy said to us, “You must be something.’ ‘They ended up escorting us down to the field level. Joe said, ‘I’m sorry, I forgot.’ I said, ‘You don’t know how much Mr. Mussoline is bugging me.’’
“We got down to the field; we met (Rays’ all-star third baseman Evan) Longoria… They put us in the seats with the scouts… like we were as knowledgeable as they were. .. After the Rays won the game, Joe gave us a thumbs-up… That’s the kind of person he is. That was the most nervous I ever was in my life, trying to explain, “Please, come on. Let us in.’’
I still say had Joe stayed in Tampa, he would have won it all in the next two years. I remember when Mr. Morgan had mentioned that he went to go see Tampa Bay play an exhibition game a couple years ago.
Ironically, Theo Epstein (the president of baseball operations for the Cubs) was there and he came up to Joe and they had a very warm discussion. Mr. Morgan said it was almost like, ‘Joe, if something ever happens…’ Remember Joe was a finalist (for the Red Sox job) with (Terry) Francona in 2003. Morgan said that’s why he was not so shocked when Joe’s name first came up for the Cubs’ manager’s job.
When Joe got the (Cubs’) job (in 2014), I sent him an email and said, ‘You are the savior for Steve Bartman (the Cubs’ fan who appeared to interfere with left fielder Moises Alou’s ability to catch a foul popup when the Cubs were only a few outs away from advancing to the World Series in 2003. The Cubs went on to lose the game and the National League Championship Series to the Florida Marlins and Bartman remains villainized in Chicago.) I told Joe that he saved Bartman.
Sticking up for Joe
Think about the people Joe has replaced at manager: There was Lou Piniella at Tampa Bay. Piniella said, “We can’t win because we’re not spending enough money.’’ Please. Joe replaced him and they won.
Piniella then went to the Cubs. He followed Dusty Baker, who’s another great manager who couldn’t win (it all) in Chicago. Lou Piniella went to Chicago because the Cubs can spend money, but he didn’t win the (World Series championship).
Hazleton’s own came in and he won it all in his second year.
I mentioned to Joe when he was hired and signed a five-year contract, that before it’s over, the Cubs will win the World Series and Steve Bartman will be praying to you.
Keep this in mind, too. (Free agents Ben) Zobrist, (John) Lackey and (Jon) Lester didn’t come to play for the Cubs. They came to play for Joe Maddon.
Joe Maddon from Hazleton.
Maybe he’s churning inside, but I have never seen any real emotions from him when he’s in the dugout. After (Cubs’ relief pitcher Aroldis) Chapman gave up the home run in the eighth inning (to tie Game 7 of the World Series), I could not believe how stoic he was… He was like, “What are we nervous about?’’
The Libonati house was another story, as were many others in Hazleton that night the Cubs won their first World Series title since 1908. My wife, who never watches sports, and her sister, who never watches sports, both stayed up to watch all the postgame (interviews) with Joe and analysis. This is how he has impacted us.
He did something in sports history that may never be equalled in all honesty. Some may say that’s hyperbole. No, it isn’t. You’re talking baseball, our national pastime.
And our guy is in the center of it all.
Tony Campanella and Ray Saul coached the 1963 UNICO Hazleton Little League team. Members are, from left: first row, Mike Kinney, Larry Palko, Frank Chirico, Greg Saul, Joe Maddon and Frank Minneci; second row, Mike Coyne, James Montone, Mike Apichella, Danny Matriccino, Vince Otterbine and Lenny Krieger; third row, Campanella, Jim Famalette, Jimmy McNealis, Frank Apichella, unknown, Mike Dutz and Saul.
Retired educator and coach Francis Libonati, right, poses with, from left, former Major League Baseball player Russ Canzler, former Hazleton High School basaketball coach Bruce Leib and current Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon in this photo from 2005.