Cubs manager still invested in Pa. coal region

Cubs Pirates Baseball
Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon watches batting practice before a game against the Pirates in Pittsburgh on Monday.

When the Phillies travel to Chicago to play the first of four games against the world-champion Cubs at Wrigley Field on Monday, the participant with the deepest Pennsylvania roots will be on the Illinois side of the diamond. The Cubs are managed by Joe Maddon, who engineered two of the greatest turnarounds in baseball history (the 2008 Tampa Bay Rays and 2016 Cubs) and hails from Hazleton.

Three weeks ago, the day after Maddon and the Cubs were presented with their championship rings (each with 214 diamonds, 5.5 carats, and another 5.5 carats of rubies and sapphires), I was seated next to him at a charity dinner in Chicago and had the chance to talk about his passion for his charity work in the town where he and, coincidentally, both my parents were born and raised.

Maddon’s mother, Beanie, 86, only recently retired as a waitress at the Third Base Luncheonette. He grew up in an apartment above the plumbing shop run by his grandfather, father, and uncles. Maddon gets back whenever he is able, now with the added motivation of overseeing his Hazleton Integration Project (HIP) and Respect 90 Foundation. The name of the latter is a reference to the distance between home plate and first base.

“I’ve always believed in running hard to first base,” he said. “I believe if you respect that 90 feet it will permeate the rest of your game in a positive way. Absolutely it will. So the foundation is born of that concept of running hard to first base and then, beyond that, respect begins at home.”

At the gathering of Chicago luminaries known as the 42 Club, in honor of Bears legend Sid Luckman, who wore that number, Maddon said that while he was excited to now “live in the best big city there is,” he had actually grown up in a smaller version of the Windy City: Hazleton.

Maddon formed HIP after a visit in 2010 left him depressed and wanting to do something to bridge the disconnect between Hispanic and Anglo cultures.

“It was dark. Everybody was afraid,” he said. “There was no interaction. It used to be the best place in the world to grow up as a kid, which you all can identify with growing up around here [Chicago]. But right now it was actually the worst place that I had seen in a long time.”

Maddon’s charity work is a family affair. He started Respect 90 with his wife, Jaye, and his sister Carmine is deeply involved. HIP is under the direction of Bob Curry, who is married to Maddon’s cousin Elaine, and the foundation is run by Rick Vaughn, who was the vice president of communications when Maddon managed the Rays.

“We wanted to stay away from the word immigration. We wanted to go integration. That was too much of a hot-button word. So we went with Hazleton Integration Project and the concept was to bring the cultures together,” Maddon said.

HIP purchased a parochial school, Most Precious Blood, which now, at what is known as the Hazleton One Community Center, serves the needs of up to 2,000 kids who come through its doors weekly to participate in one of 30 programs, including arts and crafts, guitar instruction, and yoga. The after-school program is the flagship.

“My biggest thing was to have a boxing club and a debate club,” Maddon said. “I really believe that we’re missing out on the point by not promoting more public speaking or debate within our schools. Because I’m telling you, even the best C student, if he could stand on his feet and talk with a potential employer, he’s going to get himself a job. That’s one of the areas that I think we’re lacking in regarding our educational system. Boxing, just because it’s a great, inexpensive thing to do, and you have all these tough guys who want to be tough guys. Have them find the discipline potentially to show up at a boxing gym a couple, three nights a week, get their gloves on, and go in the ring with somebody else that considers himself tough also.”

Maddon is hoping that his work in Hazleton will become a national model. And his premise is not unlike his rationale in managing the Cubs.

“I tell you, when I came into town I wanted to do three things,” he said. “I wanted to build relationships, which then establish trust, and then once the trust was involved, then we could exchange ideas openly. If you don’t trust each other there’s no way you could have a civil conversation whereas you’re going to get something. And everybody wants to be right as opposed to getting something right. So these are the overarching concepts that are in play regarding the building of our project in Hazleton, which is really thriving right now.”

In the meantime, the guy who once played high school football at Harman-Geist Stadium on Wyoming Street before attending Lafayette College in Easton now relishes taking the long way to a different ballpark.

“Wrigley Field is by far the best venue in all of professional sports,” he said. “I say that often among the press at the ballpark. But you have to go to the other ballparks to really understand this. To have a ballpark in a neighborhood surrounded by the plaza, Sheffield, and all that stuff. It’s a unique experience to go there on a daily basis. I get in my vehicle and I like to drive up Clark. I don’t want to go on Lake Shore, because I want to take it slow. I want to feel everything about it. And really it’s magnificent. It’s just different. I think you all appreciate that, because it is by far the best venue and the best operation in all of Major League Baseball right at Wrigley Field.”

Michael Smerconish can be heard 9 a.m. to noon on SiriusXM’s POTUS Channel 124. He hosts “Smerconish” at 9 a.m. Saturdays on CNN.