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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 have new hitting coach in Anthony Iapoce

Cubs have new hitting coach in Anthony Iapoce

The Cubs are heading into a new season with a different hitting coach for the second straight winter, but the most recent choice is a familiar face.

Anthony Iapoce is set to join Joe Maddon's coaching staff this week after serving in the same capacity with the Texas Rangers for the last three seasons. The Cubs confirmed the move Monday afternoon shortly after the news broke out of the Rangers camp.

The Cubs fired Chili Davis last week after just one season as the team's hitting coach.

Entering the final week of the season, the Rangers fired manager Jeff Banister, leaving Iapoce and the rest of the Texas coaching staff in limbo.

As such, Iapoce is rejoining the Cubs, where he served as a special assistant to the General Manager from 2013-15 focusing on player development, particularly in the hitting department throughout the minor leagues.

Iapoce has familiarity with a bunch of the current star offensive players on the Cubs, from Willson Contreras to Kris Bryant. 

Both Bryant and Contreras endured tough 2018 seasons at the plate, which was a huge reason for the Cubs' underperforming lineup. Bryant's issue was more related to a left shoulder injured suffered in mid-May while Contreras' offensive woes remain a major question mark after the young catcher looked to be emerging as a legitimate superstar entering the campaign.

Getting Contreras back to the hitter that put up 21 homers and 74 RBI in only 117 games in 2017 will be one of the main goals for Iapoce, so the history between the two could be a key.

With the Rangers, Iapoce oversaw an offense that ranked 7th, 9th and 14th in MLB in runs scored over the last three seasons. The decline in offensive production is obviously not a great sign, but the Rangers as a team have fallen off greatly since notching the top seed in the AL playoffs in 2016 with 95 wins only to lose 95 games in 2018, resulting in the change at manager.

Iapoce has worked with an offense backed by Adrian Beltre, Elvis Andrus, Shin-Soo Choo, Nomar Mazara and Joey Gallo the last few seasons.

Under Iapoce's tutelage, former top prospect Jurickson Profar shed any notion of a "bust" label and emerged as a budding star at age 25, collecting 61 extra-base hits with a .793 OPS in 2018.

When the Cubs let Davis go last week, they provided no update on assistant hitting coach Andy Haines, who just finished his first season in that role and is expected to remain with the team for 2019. The same offseason Iapoce left for the Rangers, Haines took over as the Cubs' minor league hitting instructor.

What should Brandon Morrow's role be in Cubs 2019 bullpen?

What should Brandon Morrow's role be in Cubs 2019 bullpen?

Since the Cubs' early exit from the postseason, many have turned their attention to the 2019 roster and wonder if Brandon Morrow will be the team's closer next year.

However, the question isn't WILL Morrow be the closer, but rather — SHOULD he be counted on as the main ninth-inning option?

Morrow didn't throw a single pitch for the Cubs after the All-Star Game, nursing a bone bruise in his forearm that did not heal in time to allow him to make a return down the stretch.

Of course, an injury isn't surprising given Morrow's lengthy history of arm issues. 

Consider: Even with a half-season spent on the DL, Morrow's 35 appearances in 2018 was his second-highest total since 2008 (though he also spent a ton of time as a starting pitcher from 2009-15).

Morrow is 34 now and has managed to throw just 211 innings in 126 games since the start of the 2013 season. 

Because of that, Theo Epstein isn't ready to anoint Morrow the Cubs' 2019 closer despite success in the role in his first year in Chicago (22-for-24 in save chances).

"[We're] very comfortable with Morrow as part of a deep and talented 'pen," Epstein said. "We have to recommit to him in a very structured role and stick with it to do our best to keep him healthy. Set some rules and adhere to them and build a 'pen around that. I'm comfortable."

Epstein is referencing the overuse the Cubs have pointed to for the origin of Morrow's bone bruise when he worked three straight games from May 31-June 2 during a stretch of four appearances in five days.

Joe Maddon and the Cubs were very cautious with Morrow early in the year, unleashing him for only three outings — and 2 innings — in the first two-plus weeks of the season, rarely using him even on back-to-back days.

During that late-May/early-June stretch, Morrow also three just 2 pitches in one outing (May 31) and was only called upon for the 14th inning June 2 when Maddon had already emptied the rest of the Cubs bullpen in a 7-1 extra-inning victory in New York.

The blame or origin of Morrow's bone bruise hardly matters now. All the Cubs can do at this moment is try to learn from it and carry those lessons into 2019. It sounds like they have, heading into Year 2 of a two-year, $21 million deal that also includes a team option for 2020.

"It's the type of injury you can fully recover from with rest," Epstein said. "that said, he has an injury history and we knew that going in. That was part of the calculation when we signed him and that's why it was the length it was and the amount of money it was, given his talent and everything else.

"We were riding pretty high with him for a few months and then we didn't have him for the second half of the season. And again, that's on me. We took an educated gamble on him there and on the 'pen overall, thinking that even if he did get hurt, we had enough talent to cover for it. And look, it was a really good year in the 'pen and he contributed to that greatly in the first half.

"They key is to keep him healthy as much as possible and especially target it for down the stretch and into what we hope will be a full month of October next year."

It's clear the Cubs will be even more cautious with Morrow in 2019, though he also should head into the new campaign with significantly more rest than he received last fall when he appeared in all seven games of the World Series out of the Dodgers bullpen.

Morrow has more than proven his value in this Cubs bullpen as a low-maintenance option when he's on the field who goes right after hitters and permits very few walks or home runs. 

But if the Cubs are going to keep him healthy for the most important time of the season in September and October, they'll need to once again pack the bullpen with at least 7 other arms besides Morrow, affording Maddon plenty of options.

When he is healthy, Morrow will probably get a ton of the closing opportunities, but the world has also seen what Pedro Strop can do in that role and the Cubs will likely add another arm or two this winter for high-leverage situations.