Joe Maddon: Paying Back the Gift of a Happy Childhood

Joe Maddon: Paying Back the Gift of a Happy Childhood

Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon is a community builder—both on and off the field. In a world where winning, losing, and salary wars can make for an unsettled environment, Maddon creates an atmosphere where faith in his players and a sense of unity is paramount. It’s no wonder he was named the American League Manager of the Year in both 2008—when he led the Rays to the World Series—and again in 2011.

Maddon has faith in people despite seemingly insurmountable odds, believes in his players and in bringing folks together. Maddon has successfully rallied his team and is now bringing his skills, integrity and enthusiasm to rallying his hometown to making a comeback as well.

Join us for an exclusive interview with this remarkable baseball manager.

PIM: What was it like to grow up in Hazelton, Pennsylvania?

JM: It was a happy town. In the summer, I would get up, go out to the playground, and start my day playing—regardless of whether it was basketball, baseball or just hanging out. Every morning I knew I was going to have fun.

You also had the stability of the family—parents and a huge number of aunts and uncles, cousins and friends. The whole city raises you. I look back on it and I know that it has formed me in a lot of ways.

PIM: You felt like everybody was there for you and looked out for you. What a wonderful feeling!

JM: Yeah! I think what’s missing today is the lack of accountability. When you have that many people following your progress or regress, you are called on any kind of negative behavior that you might have attempted to get involved with! There was no way to get away with anything—someone was going to see you! And if you didn’t own up to it, you’re going to get into even more trouble! After getting caught a few times, you stopped doing the stupid things. (Laughs)

PIM: Where did you live?

JM: We grew up in an apartment above the plumbing shop we owned and my mom still lives there.

My mom is Polish my dad was Italian–it was very ethnically oriented back then. The families were so big–my mom had more than ten brothers and sisters and so did my dad. I’m not exactly sure of the headcount. (Laughs) And then when you add in the number of cousins, it’s huge.

Holidays were huge also, and you had to visit everybody’s house and everybody had to visit you. We grew up in this family environment, and then we were connected to the whole city through activities. For me, it was through sports, and there’s really a huge web that’s created with that–all the different coaches and families, and this huge infrastructure that you built unknowingly. It’s really very supportive—and makes you very accountable.

PIM: It sounds like a special time. Who were the folks who had the most positive impact on you?

JM: My mom and dad, of course. My dad was most patient guy in the world and my mom held me to a very high level of accountability. They were the primary forces.

Beyond that, I went to a parochial school. My seventh grade teacher Sister Suzanne stands out to me. She was the one nun that would play with the kids and she was very athletic. She was also a very good teacher and you better get your work done! We stayed in touch until she passed away a few years ago.

My eleventh grade American History teacher, Mr. Libonati was probably the best teacher I’ve ever had, on any level. He was the kind of teacher where you actually wanted to go to class, which is pretty hard to do for an eleventh grade teacher! The guy would make you laugh and then he’d make you learn. Those are the kind of people, those teachers and coaches who you want to do well for. They’re the kind of people that really draw it out of you. You want to please them.

PIM:  I imagine they’d all be pleased with what you’re doing—both in your hometown and the city you work in. Tell me about “Thanksmas”—it first started in Tampa and then you did a Thanksmas event in Hazelton. What was your premise for the whole thing?

JM: I used to work for the Los Angeles Angels. I’d ride my bike up and down the beaches and every day I saw homeless people pushing their life’s belongings in a shopping cart.  Along the way, I’d stop to use the bathroom and there were concrete bunkers. I’d see people passed out in these bunkers. It really bothered me. I started to get more and more interested, and I thought that if I ever had a larger soapbox, that I try to use it for something directed toward the homeless.

When I went to the Rays, I told them I had this idea for something I wanted to call Thanksmas—because these people needed our help any day, not just on Thanksgiving or Christmas or holidays. Thanksmas is any day between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

In Tampa Bay, a lot of people that used to be givers are now in need–a lot of two-income families became one-income families. And there are a lot of single moms and kids and families involved.

I wanted to bring people together through a meal. We work mainly through the Salvation Army, the Sally house, and the Metropolitan ministries.  The point was to raise the level of empathy and awareness to the cause and have people truly understand the problem.

We’ve been able to raise about $25,000 this past year in the Tampa area and we gave to four different places each a check for $4,000—including the Salvation Army and the Sally house.

PIM: That’s remarkable! Tell me about the Hazelton Integration Project (HIP).

JM:  The primary goal was really just to get people to come together—to help ameliorate the fears within our town. To have people start communicating and building relationships and hopefully the trust is going to occur because of that. Eventually they can have an open exchange of ideas. But without having that communication and the relationships and the trust in place, it’s almost impossible to sit down with somebody to exchange ideas without people becoming defensive.

Our first goal is to create situations or moments that both sides, the Hispanics and the Anglos attend. Whether it’s going to dinner, attending a movie or getting the kids playing basketball.

PIM: How did HIP get started?

JM: Last year we went back to Hazelton and I was really disappointed. I didn’t like what I was seeing at all. I thought the town was dirty and dark. When I spoke to the people, there seemed to be a lot of fear.

There’s nothing for anybody to do—whether it’s a nightclub, theater or a cultural event. There’s none of those gathering places. It’s so different than when I was growing up there when it was so vibrant. There were always things to do. And then you’d come home on holidays and everybody would rush to the same places and end up meeting up and having a great time. Now that just doesn’t happen.

A lot of it has to do with the infrastructure. The infrastructure is horrible—I even thought the streetlights were darker. I didn’t like it. When I left last Christmas and I was on the plane talking to my wife, Jaye, I said, “I’m upset! I’m actually really upset!” I thought to myself ‘I can be upset or I can be upset and try to do something about it.’ So I chose to do something.

PIM: What did you do?

JM: I called my cousin Elaine Maddon Curry–her pop and my pop were brothers. She’s a local politician back home and now she’s a Lucerne County board member. I said I’d like to use my platform as a baseball manager where I’ve had a lot of experience with different cultures and different languages, and different kids. Especially with the Hispanic group—I thought it would be a natural for me to get involved. I started to come up with ideas.

Originally I wanted to have the movie It’s a Wonderful Life with English and Spanish subtitles at our new events center. It’s in the old high school–now the elementary and junior high school–it’s a beautiful new auditorium. We did do that we had all these events from December 15-18, 2011.

We started doing conference calls from spring training–about five or six of us. We brainstormed about how we could create events in December to bring everybody together. We wanted to make it fun, to give people something to look forward to during the Christmas holiday, and have it become the first step with the community center being the back part of it.

We knew we had to get the word out and we didn’t spend a lot of money on advertising, so we had a press conference. We needed to create an event to raise money, so we started talking about memorabilia, and who was going to be there. Then there was the movie, and the final point was to bring our Thanksmas program there to help feed the homeless.

We created a four-day event basically through telephone conversations from spring training until the actual event occurred. We even had a call with everybody about a week or two before the event.

We have a board now and we have officers. We’re going with a 5013C and are getting that accomplished. We’ve raised funds and we’ve picked out a site for the community center building. Were working on procuring the building. There are some grants that will make it better and easier. We have a great building in mind that can provide everything we are looking for—from cooking classes all the way to a gymnasium on the third floor. It’s going to happen—it’s happening.

We have to staff it, we have to create an administration we have to we have to create programs. Were taking it slowly at the same time, keeping it simple, trying not to go too fast or do too much—but still grow. You have to show that you’ve reached the targets in the short-term to maintain momentum, because our momentum right now is tremendous back home.

PIM: I admire how you’ve stepped out of your comfort zone and are so willing to change and grow.

JM: It’s about remaining flexible. I think we can become inflexible and as we get older, lose our willingness to change and even look at change as being a viable option. I think it’s viable. In my job, you want to remain contemporary all the time. You can only remain contemporary by keeping up with what’s going on now. And you have to keep an open mind about it. The other part of it is that I think it’s exciting to be afraid. (Laughs)

I love being outside of my comfort zone—even though sometimes it really can be uncomfortable!

PIM: It’s obvious that you have a great deal of integrity coupled by the fact that you’re truly following your heart!

JM: It’s just like my baseball career. You think with three different parts of your body: your heart, your gut, and your mind. You have to deal with all of them. Sometimes the brain overrides, sometimes the gut overrides, sometimes the heart overrides, and that’s okay as long as you know where you’re coming from. I believe in that.

You’re totally focused on something and you’re doing it in a very sincere manner, without any kind of monetary benefit. I’m not looking for any kind of stature, or kudos–I’m looking for the satisfaction because I wanted to be a baseball player and a baseball manager, and I want to do this project well because my hometown is that important to me.

Jaye I are still property owners back there, my mom still lives there, we have family back there and I want my kids to want to go back there. I really would like to think that over the next couple years if we do this right, which we will, more people will be compelled to come back and see what it looks like, and hopefully contribute also.

It’s about Hazelton right now, but once we learn how to do this, and do this right, we can set an example for other small communities in that northeastern Pennsylvania area, and beyond that too.

PIM: You have a big vision!

JM: Whenever I dream, I dream big. I don’t see why any of this is not possible. I see this all as possible. A lot of people have not come out of the woodwork—they’re waiting for something bad to happen so they can say I told you so. I expect some things to go wrong at some point, there will be something that won’t match up perfectly, because we just didn’t see them, but we will make the adjustments.

PIM: It’s great when other people support your dreams. Did Yogi Berra come to your event in December?

JM: Yes! He was fabulous! He’s a real sweetheart! Every time we play the Yankees at Yankee Stadium, he comes and sits with me in my office for a half hour. Yogi Berra! Come on! How does that happen?

PIM: I’m sure folks say that about you, Joe!

JM: I’m just going about my business every day, that’s all I’ve ever wanted to do. I’m not looking for anything more than that. I’m looking to be a very good baseball manager, and hopefully I do that well and our organization does well. And I want to be a good husband and father. So thank you for what you just said to me, but it’s kind of strange to think that people might think that way.

PIM: Your positive attitude is contagious.  Do you think it came from growing up in Hazelton?

JM: I think it came from my parents, from the families that I grew up with, how I grew up, and what it was like in my hometown—huge families and very tightly knit families. A lot of it was focused on the kitchen table in the kitchen itself, and beyond that just fun and laughter and gatherings and support.

It was about this entire community involvement and maybe it’s because I played sports and was so involved with sports and always had something to do all year round. Whether it was basketball season or football season or baseball season, I was always involved athletically. That meant I was involved with coaches, which meant I was involved with other players, and their families. There were a lot of group events—simple things like going for pizza after a game.

There were all these little warm fuzzy things. I was once accused of being too positive or optimistic. I never viewed myself as being positive. I guess you’re a product of your environment most of the time—we all are.

Maybe I was just surrounded by all of this positive energy without even realizing that I was exuding that. I always give my players the advice “Just be you.” All I want is for you to show up and maybe by just being you, without even realizing it, it has a real positive impact.

PIM: I love what you said about growing up—fun, laughter and support. That seems like your management style.

JM: You might be right. We do have a lot of fun, we do laugh and there is a lot of support.

My hometown is a real blue-collar work ethic kind of a city. My dad and my uncles exuded all of that—it’s something that I observed.

I’ve never wanted anything handed to me, I feel like I’m cheating when something is given to me. I have to earn it. You have to go through a little bit of pain or mental anguish when something is worthwhile, it seems. I’m always telling my kids, “The struggle is the best part.” I’ll always want them to understand that. So many times, kids today want things handed to them, and they try to avoid the struggle—not understanding that the struggle is the part that really makes you.

PIM: You took the gift that you received growing up, and that you embodied, and you’re giving it back to your town, and from there, spreading it across the country.

JM: I hope that’s true!

Back in the mid 1980’s, Gene Mauch was a very famous baseball player and manager and he came to our instructional league in Arizona.  I was thirty years old. One day, he pops us during batting practice, and says, “You’ve created a great atmosphere around here.” And then he walked away. You have to understand—Gene Mock was the equivalent of god!

I had no idea what he meant. I tried to figure out what was he talking about. I was just doing what I thought I should be doing. I was following my instincts.

PIM:  You’re working at creating that same great atmosphere in Tampa, Hazelton, and beyond—and doing so in a very conscientious and pure way.

JM: It has to be born of the purest intentions. For it to truly work, your intentions have to be absolutely pure. Things may go awry from your original concept in your mind to the platform that attempts to create it, but pure intentions is your best chance.