December 24, 2013
The third annual Hazelton Integration Project shindig on Friday night Dec 20 drew over 600 people in support of the program inspired by Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon.
Blessed with a nice acronym and slogan, “Get HIP!”, the goal of the program is to provide literacy and other vital services for the more than 10,000 Hispanics that have recently settled in Hazleton, Maddon’s home town, a onetime thriving hard coal community in central Pennsylvania.
A few years ago widely publicized local hostility to the new immigrants disturbed Maddon who was certain that the negative attitude did not represent the real Hazelton. He vowed that once he established some national profile he would do something to welcome the newcomers as his Polish-Italian ancestors had been made to feel at home when they first settled in town.
An impressive turnout of baseball people and members of the media came out to support HIP. The dais included Maddon; newly-appointed Phillies bench coach Larry Bowa, a shortstop hero on their first World Series winners of 1980; legendary Cuban-born pitcher Luis Tiant; new Tigers bullpen coach Mick Billmeyer who formerly held the same position with the Phillies; and broadcasters Kimberly Jones, Ed Randall and Ken Rosenthal. Baseball’s most talented and outrageous mascot the Philly Fanatic also made a cameo appearance drawing squeals of delight from the many youngsters in the audience.
Pennsylvania native-Penn State graduate Kim Jones summed up beautifully the essential idealism of the Hazelton Integration Project. “Some of our differences make for the strongest bonds,” said the former YES network clubhouse reporter for the Yankees who now works for the NFL TV network. Fox Sports and MLB analyst Ken Rosenthal added that “acceptance, tolerance, and unity” were the watchwords of HIP.
In a free-wheeling exchange of views with peppy veteran broadcaster Ed Randall, Maddon tipped his cap to the Red Sox who won it all in 2013 and dominated the Rays in head-to-head meetings. He said he was not surprised in the least when the last place Bostonians of 2012 surged to the top. A great believer in the makeup of players not just the statistics on their bubblegum cards, Maddon knew the Red Sox would be trouble once they signed free agents Jonny Gomes, a former Ray, and Mike Napoli, who Maddon knew from his years as a California Angel scout, instructor, and coach.
Maddon said it was “50-50” whether the Rays can hold on to star southpaw David Price who will soon be too expensive for the budget-challenged Rays. (Most observers think it is sadly close to a sure bet that Price will be traded maybe even before the start of spring training.) However, Maddon is convinced the Rays will always contend because of the organization’s outstanding player evaluation from the amateurs through the pros.
Maddon pulled a surprise when he answered a youngster’s question about his favorite player: “Andrew McCutchen of the Pittsburgh Pirates.” He explained that last season during a early spring training game between the Rays and the Pirates, McCutchen beat out a routine ground ball to shortstop even though it was two out in the bottom of the 9th inning and the Pirates were well behind. After the game, Maddon congratulated Pittsburgh manager Clint Hurdle for instilling that kind of hustle in the centerfielder who went on to become the 2013 National League MVP.
I certainly hope Maddon is right that the Rays will continue to contend because they go about things the right way. They have locked up their best player third baseman Evan Longoria into the next decade and have always managed to find the pieces to fit around him, beginning with the biggest part of all, the pitching staff.
Maddon is as comfortable in his own skin as anyone I’ve ever met not just in baseball but also in any walk of life. Whether he is wearing a faux sharkskin sport jacket - as he did at the banquet –- or inviting penguins and snakes into a Rays clubhouse that needed some relaxing last season or building team unity by organizing wardrobe themes for his players on road trips, Maddon is always trying to get the most out of his men and the most out of his life. At a time when baseball talk is too often about millions of dollars and almost double-digit years in contracts, he is a most refreshing breath of fresh air and intelligence.
In honor of him, I will appropriate his closing salutation to end this Christmas Eve post:
Be well and be fun!