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.”
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.”
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.”