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The Hazleton Way: Why Joe Maddon fights for his hometown

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The Hazleton Way: Why Joe Maddon fights for his hometown

HAZLETON, Pa. – Joe Maddon could just write a big check, ask Anthony Rizzo to sign some baseballs and have the clubhouse guys send boxes of Cubs gear back to this blue-collar city.

That could be it, taking the tax write-off and spending the offseason driving around the country in an RV, drinking red wine somewhere in Europe or just hanging out at Ava, the manager’s trendy restaurant in Tampa.

Maddon grew up on the playgrounds here, going to Our Lady of Grace and watching his father, Joe Sr., run the plumbing shop beneath their family’s apartment. He had spent enough time in places like The Battered Mug, a bar in the old Irish section of town, and Third Base Luncheonette, where his mother, Beanie, still works.

Maddon saw the potential backlash coming when his family started envisioning the Hazleton Integration Project about five years ago, trying to defuse some of the community’s racial and ethnic tensions and create an alternative to gangs, guns and drugs:

“Jeez, Joey, you’re in Florida. You’re doing baseball, you’re here, you’re there. You make a couple bucks. What do you have to say? You left. So just stay out of it.”

But Maddon isn’t the kind of guy who keeps his mouth shut and thinks small. No one expected the Tampa Bay Devil Rays to become World Series contenders when he took that dead-end job. And no one predicted a young Cubs team would win 97 games last season.

“Regardless of what some people may say, I did grow up here,” he said during an interview for the “Going Home: Joe Maddon” documentary that premieres Thursday night on Comcast SportsNet Chicago.

“This is my home. And I do care that it gets back on its feet the way it once had been. So, yeah, I’m going to say what I think.”

That Hazleton is gone and will never come back, at least the one built by Pennsylvania coal miners and immigrants of Italian and Polish descent, a place where the Duplan Silk plant produced the parachutes troops used during World War II, and kids used to play on the streets until they heard their parents whistling to come home for dinner.

Maddon has a photographic memory and can still point to the spot where his class lined up after John F. Kennedy got shot in 1963 and walked into church to pray for the president’s family.

It all came back to Maddon last month as he drove a silver rented SUV through his old neighborhood. He talked so much – and with obvious pride – that it became hard to get a question in while he pointed out the football fields where he played quarterback, the Catholic parishes that anchored the community, his old neighbors’ houses and the cemetery where his father is buried now.

“When I was a kid growing up here, without question, it was the best place for any kid to grow up,” said Maddon, who will turn 62 next month. “There was no more pure joy for a kid than this town.”

The tipping points

Hazleton didn’t change overnight, and its story isn’t all that unique. It’s located almost 100 miles northwest of Philadelphia, roughly 130 miles west of Wall Street, about a four-hour drive from the White House. But this could be almost anywhere in the Rust Belt, any city with an eroding manufacturing base that’s been hit hard with aging demographics and a brain drain.

Hazleton has almost 25,000 residents, according to 2014 U.S. Census data, with roughly 25 percent of the population living below the poverty line and more than 37 percent of the city identifying as either Hispanic or Latino.

“The group that comes into town is the group that’s going to save Hazleton,” Maddon said. “The people that were born and bred here – they’re gone. They don’t want to live here anymore.

“Once you get to a certain age, you want to leave. There’s no opportunity. There are no professional opportunities, outside of a couple doctors, maybe a couple attorneys, schoolteachers.

“But if you want to be a professional with a real high ceiling to continue to advance, advance, advance, it’s not the place for you right now. But you want it to be that way again.”

[RELATED: How Joe Maddon's blue-collar roots made him perfect fit for Cubs]

Within the last decade, Hazleton has made national headlines with an anti-illegal immigrant push by Lou Barletta, the city’s former mayor and now a Republican congressman representing Pennsylvania’s 11th District. (Maddon declined Barletta’s invitation to attend Tuesday night’s State of the Union address because of commitments to charity events this week in Chicago.)

“The Hispanic group comes in – beautiful families, beautiful children, looking for a better way of life,” Maddon said. “(There’s) inexpensive housing, some unskilled labor that they can adopt, and then eventually grow from.

“What do you think my grandparents did? Exactly what they did! Not kind of like what they did – that’s exactly what they did! So we have this chance to relive history.

“And there’s this pushback, pushback, pushback. And what I try to tell the people around here is: ‘Listen, fight as much as you want, but you’re going to be dead in 10 or 15 years. So why wait 10 or 15 years – and actually have people die before you finally figure it out and permit this city to get back (on its feet)?’

“Why not become part of the solution?”

The tipping point came around Christmastime 2010, when Maddon and his wife, Jaye, visited with his cousin, Elaine, and her husband, Bob Curry. They went to a gathering on another side of town, heard the music blasting inside, saw a long table set up with food and watched the kids running around the house while the adults drank wine.

“(Joe) describes the community as being dark,” Curry said. “But the kinds of things he was hearing was all of his old friends talking about: ‘Oh, the city’s not the same. It’s a sewer. All these things are different now because this Hispanic population came in and changed everything.’

“Think about that – and think about what Joe does for a living – and he can’t even compute that you could blame all these things on one ethnic group.

“(Joe says): ‘What’s the problem? This is exactly the way we grew up.’”

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That moment helped launch the Maddon family’s nonprofit organization, with Curry becoming the founding president of the Hazleton Integration Project, which would eventually take over an old Catholic school building on Fourth Street.

The Hazleton One Community Center now offers bilingual preschool programs, afterschool enrichment activities, citizenship classes and English as a Second Language courses.

The Cal Ripken, Sr. Foundation helped remodel a gym that hosts Police Athletic League basketball and Little League teams looking to practice on rainy days. An anonymous donor contributed about 20 iMacs for the computer room.

“A lot of people say: ‘Oh, no, I never left that town,’” Curry said. “They talk about their town and they get on a plane (and) they don’t think about it. They live in Hollywood (or) wherever.

“Truly, Joe never left this city. He’s as connected to this project right now as he was years ago. He’s connected to this city in the same ways. And he’s just as committed right now to making a difference as he ever has been.”

“I was that kid”

Maddon uses his contacts to get big-name guests here, hoping to someday land Pearl Jam frontman/celebrity Cubs fan Eddie Vedder for the local talent show, and leaning on friends like ESPN analyst Rick Sutcliffe for “Thanksmas” in December.

“A lot of people might think I’m crazy,” Sutcliffe said, “leaving the beaches of San Diego, on my own dime, flying all the way here, renting a car in Philly, driving up to Hazleton. I missed the toll bridge. I missed several deer on the way here. Why would you do that?

“The kids that walk through this facility – I was that kid. I was that kid a long time ago. When I was nine, my dad left. And my mom walked into her parents and said: ‘I can’t afford the kids. I’m going to put them in a foster home.’

“It was at that time that my grandpa said: ‘No, no, no, that’s not going to happen. You’re not going to break ‘em up. They’re going to stay with me.’”

Sutcliffe stood at one end of the center’s basketball gym and thought about his childhood in the Kansas City area, how winning a Cy Young Award with the 1984 Cubs and pitching 18 years in the majors sounded impossible.

“I had completely lost hope,” Sutcliffe said. “I had lost my hero in my dad. When you lose hope, you have absolutely nothing going for you. But all of a sudden, I’m living with my grandparents, and there’s a baseball park across the street. A big sponsor put it in there for kids.

“Had my grandpa not stepped up, had the sponsors not stepped up with that baseball field, there’s no telling what would have happened in my life. It definitely wouldn’t have ended up as a big-league baseball player.

“When Joe talked about this to me in spring training, I begged him. I said: ‘I want to be a part of that.’ Because I know exactly where those kids are right now. They’re looking for hope. And that’s what Joe Maddon’s providing right here.”

[RELATED: Joe Maddon's long climb to the top prepared him for craziness of Cubs job]

Maddon also has enough self-awareness to realize that no one wants to hear what the manager of a last-place team has to say about cultural problems or socioeconomic issues.

But a Cubs job that looked so appealing on so many levels also offered a much bigger platform for events like Wednesday’s dinner at Catholic Charities on LaSalle Street in downtown Chicago.

“I don’t know the answers,” Maddon said. “I’m no saint. Don’t get me wrong – I’m no saint by any means. I just think this is the right thing to do.

“Yeah, getting to Chicago does permit the larger soapbox to stand upon. (But) my job is (to) be the manager of the Cubs first. If I don’t do that well, then all this stuff doesn’t gain the traction that it needs.”

Hazleton can never go back to 1950 or 1960 or whatever idealized version of the past. But Maddon is never going to turn his back on his hometown.

“Amidst the swirling kind of negativity that we started with,” Curry said, “and (now) hearing and actually feeling the difference in attitude from the people in the neighborhood…it’s an exceptionally hopeful position we find ourselves in.

“It really forces you to be optimistic about tomorrow. I know (that) it’s kind of a lip-service thing to say, but I think Hazleton’s best days are ahead of us.”

"Going Home: Joe Maddon," a Comcast SportsNet Original documentary, premieres Thursday, Jan. 14 at 9:30 p.m., immediately following “Blackhawks Postgame Live.” 

Cubs' World Series expectations are no surprise, but they show how radical transformation from Lovable Losers has been

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USA TODAY

Cubs' World Series expectations are no surprise, but they show how radical transformation from Lovable Losers has been

MESA, Ariz. — Tom Ricketts sure doesn’t sound like the guy who met his wife in the bleachers during the century-long tenure of the Lovable Losers.

“Everyone knows that this is a team that has the capability to win the World Series, and everyone will be disappointed if we don’t live up to that capability.”

Yeah, the Cubs have been among baseball’s best teams for three seasons now. That curse-smashing World Series win in 2016 was the high point of a three-year stretch of winning that’s seen three straight trips to the National League Championship Series and a combined 310 wins between the regular season and postseason.

But it’s still got to come as a strange sound to those who remember the Cubs as the longtime butt of so many baseball jokes. This team has one expectation, to win the World Series. The players have said it for a week leading up to Monday’s first full-squad workout. The front office said it when it introduced big-time free-agent signing Yu Darvish a week ago. And the chairman said it Monday.

“We very much expect to win,” Ricketts said. “We have the ability to win. Our division got a lot tougher, and the playoff opponents that we faced last year are likely to be there waiting for us again.

“I think at this point with this team, obviously that’s our goal. I won’t say a season’s a failure because you don’t win the World Series, but it is our goal.”

The confidence is not lacking. But more importantly, success drives expectations. And if the Cubs are going to be one of the best teams in baseball, they better keep winning, or they’ll fail to meet those expectations, expectations that can sometimes spin a little bit out of control.

During last year’s follow-up campaign to 2016’s championship run, a rocky start to the season that had the Cubs out of first place at the All-Star break was enough to make some fans feel like the sky was falling — as if one year without a World Series win would be unacceptable to a fan base that had just gone 108 without one.

After a grueling NLDS against the Washington Nationals, the Cubs looked well overmatched in the NLCS against the Los Angeles Dodgers, and that sparked plenty of outside criticism, as well as plenty of offseason activity to upgrade the club in the midst of baseball’s never-ending arms race.

“I think people forget we’ve won more games over the last three years than any other team. We’ve won more playoff games than any other team the last three years. And we’ve been to the NLCS three years in a row,” Ricketts said. “I think fans understand that this is a team that if we stay healthy and play up to our capability can be in that position, be in the World Series. I don’t blame them. We should have high expectations, we have a great team.”

On paper, there are plenty of reasons for high expectations. Certainly the team’s stated goals don’t seem outlandish or anything but expected. The addition of Darvish to a rotation that already boasted Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks and Jose Quintana makes the Cubs’ starting staff the best in the NL, maybe the best in the game. There were additions to the bullpen, and the team’s fleet of young star position players went untouched despite fears it might be broken up to acquire pitching.

“I think this is, on paper, the strongest rotation that we’ve ever had,” Ricketts said. “I think that being able to bring in a player of (Darvish’s) caliber reminds everyone that we’re intending to win our division and go all the way.

“We’ve kept a good core of players together for several years, and this year I think our offseason moves have really set us up to be one of the best teams in baseball.

“Just coming out of our team meeting, the vibe feels a lot like two years ago. Everybody’s in a really good place. I think everyone’s really hungry and really wants to get this season off to a great start and make this a memorable year.”

There should be no surprise that the team and its players and its executives and its owners feel the way they do. The Cubs are now expected winners, even if that’s still yet to sink in for the longtime fans and observers of the team they once called the Lovable Losers.

Anthony Rizzo declines role as an activist, says trip to Florida 'was the hardest thing I've ever had to do'

Anthony Rizzo declines role as an activist, says trip to Florida 'was the hardest thing I've ever had to do'

MESA, Ariz. — Anthony Rizzo’s gone above and beyond for his community in the wake of one of the worst mass shootings in United States history, when 17 people lost their lives last week at Marjory Douglas Stoneman High School in Parkland, Florida, Rizzo’s alma mater.

His actions and words have carried plenty of weight in the last week, but Rizzo’s comments upon returning to Arizona were more focused on the general need for change rather than specific actions related to the issue of gun violence in America.

The Cubs’ first baseman, who returned to spring training on Monday after spending several days being with his community in Florida, repeatedly voiced the opinion — though it’s ridiculous to think there’s a counter argument that could actually qualify as someone’s opinion — that these mass shootings need to stop happening with such an incomprehensible amount of frequency.

But he stopped short of taking a full step into the national debate on the issue, clarifying that his comments made on Twitter the day of the shooting were not referencing gun control or that specific debate at all.

“Obviously, there needs to be change,” Rizzo said. “I don’t know what that is, I don’t get paid to make those decisions. I can sit back and give opinions, but you just hope somewhere up the line of command, people are thinking are thinking the same things that a lot of innocent kids are thinking: ‘Why? Why am I scared to go to school? Why am I scared to say goodbye to my son or daughter?’ God forbid someone was in an argument with someone they loved that day, how bad — it’s a bad time right now in the country with what’s going on with all these shootings.

“My opinion is my opinion. I don’t think it’s fair to my teammates and everyone else if I come out and start going one way or the other. I think, my focus is on baseball. My focus is definitely on Parkland and the community there and supporting them and whatever direction that they go. But for me it’s hard enough to hit a baseball, and it’s definitely going to be hard enough to try to be a baseball player and a politician at the same time.”

Rizzo has no more of an obligation to be a spokesman on this issue than any other American does, and his presence at his old school last week, his words at a vigil for the victims of this tragedy were powerful. Rizzo has established himself as a remarkable member of his community in Chicago, and he won the Roberto Clemente Award last season for his charitable efforts off the field. His willingness to leave Arizona and be with members of his community was reflective of the type of person Cubs fans and Chicagoans have gotten to know.

“It was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. Just going back, you don’t what to say. There’s nothing you can say,” Rizzo said. “When people get shot, you’re grateful that they’re alive. When they pass away, you’re grateful that you knew them, to look at the bright side of things if you can. But just to see how real it is, it’s sad.

“The more I just sat and thought about it, I felt helpless here. That’s where I grew up, in Parkland. I got in trouble there, I succeeded there, I learned how to be who I am because of Parkland, because of Stoneman Douglas. So to be across the country and not be there and then to find out some very close people have lost loved ones, to be there to help them and support them was very important to me.”

Rizzo repeatedly said how proud he is of the students of Stoneman Douglas, who have been outspoken on social media, directing their comments toward the president and other members of the government and sharing their opinions that gun control is necessary for the violence to stop.

But Rizzo refrained from wading into that debate and even chastised those who mischaracterized his Twitter comments as a call for gun regulation.

“To be very clear I did not say the word ‘gun’ one time,” he said. “Anyone out there who wrote gun control, saying I called for gun control, I think is very irresponsible and I did not say that once.

“I don’t know what needs to be done, I don’t know. I don’t know enough about it. I know there are a lot of shootings. I know they are done with a specific make, but I don’t know what needs to be done. But something, some type of change needs to happen for the better because I’m sure people in here have kids. No one right now feels very comfortable on a daily basis sending their kid to school and not knowing if they’re going to see them again.”

That kind of message might not be as declarative as some would have hoped. But it remained a powerful one, showing that even if he wasn’t ready or willing to declare himself an activist, Rizzo shares the feelings of many Americans who are simultaneously numb to the news of these shootings and completely and entirely fed up with their frequency and the lack of action taken to stop them.

“As a human being, probably everyone in here when they first the initial (reports of a) shooter, I took my next golf swing, because that’s how numb this country is to it,” Rizzo said. “Until something crazy happens, when you hear ‘open shooter’ nowadays, it’s like, ‘OK,’ take your next breath and keep going. Then I found out it was at Douglas, you get a little more concerned, ‘OK, what’s going on.’ At first it’s a few people injured, then you found out it was what it was, and it’s just — it’s gut-wrenching. You just go numb.

“I stand behind my community, and I’m really proud of how everyone’s coming together. Obviously I said there needs to be change, I don’t know what the change needs to be. I’m just really proud of those kids and how they’re coming together and becoming one in Parkland. It’s really inspiring to see, and it makes me proud.”