Maddon brings 'Thanksmas' to Florida homeless

Tim Brown
Yahoo! Sports

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – In the waiting room of The Salvation Army building in Bradenton, about 25 miles south of here, a television informs the men and women who wander in that we are in economic crisis. Some are here for an $8-a-night, steel-framed bunk bed. Top, if that's possible.

Oh, and the TV also notes that there's rain on the way.

Outside, a pregnant woman lugs a paper sack across the parking lot. Behind her, a boy of maybe 5 twirls a loaf of bread by its plastic bag. The sign out front reads, "Jesus Never Fails." Across 14th Street West, no doubt grateful for the plug, stands: "Pedro & Jesus Tire Center."

Down the sidewalk, a handful of men, most of them African American, have found a place in the shade outside Our Daily Bread of Bradenton, a soup kitchen. Nearby, a family crisis center. The front door opens and closes frequently.

Joe Maddon knows the block.

The Tampa Bay Rays manager has served spaghetti and meatballs to 250 men, women and children at the Salvation Army. Actually, first he paid for it, then he helped prepare it, and then he served it. And then he cleaned up. People of some stature visit and volunteer from time to time. Nobody ever cleans up.

"I'm in their home," Maddon said, smiling. "I made a mess. I gotta clean up."

Standing amid the small round tables jammed with six chairs each, amid the hungry and the homeless, he's been just Joe, a guy who wants to help. He's asked them all to hang in there best they can, to make what they can of their situations and to try the sausage, it's from the home country.

"The minute he got here, he was one of us," said Ed Wickman, manager of the men's shelter.

When Maddon became manager of the Tampa Bay Rays nearly three years ago, he told Rick Vaughn, the club's longtime public relations man, he wished to help the homeless. That was his cause. So, every December, somewhere between Thanksgiving and Christmas, Maddon takes his pots and pans on the road and celebrates "Thanksmas."

For a few hours at the holidays he makes himself family, last year for the Salvation Army in Bradenton, the Metropolitan Ministries in Tampa and, just a few blocks from Tropicana Field, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, some of whose clientele clean the bleachers after Rays games.

Patricia Waltrich, the executive director of St. Vincent de Paul, sat Thursday afternoon in her office, a double-relay from dozens of men who stirred anxiously beneath a freeway onramp with nowhere else to go. A year ago, Maddon had served them or others like them four courses. He'd shaken their hands and, when they were up to it, laughed with them.

Maybe it's a small gesture. But it's more than a check sent from arm's length. It's more than an autographed jersey for the charity golf tournament. It's food; his passion, their necessity. It's conversation; his specialty, their tedium. It's life on the street corners, life under the highways, life on the periphery.

There are, by some estimates, 4,400 homeless in Manatee County, which holds West 14th Street. There are perhaps 1,500 homeless in St. Petersburg, which holds The Trop. Maddon feeds about 250 a shot. The shelters serve two or three times that daily.

"I watched him," Waltrich said. "He was so gracious."

When he coached in Anaheim for the Angels, Maddon would push his mountain bike along the strands of Seal Beach, Huntington Beach, Newport Beach. Along with the breeze and the ocean's foam and the glorious sunshine, what struck him were the people. The people no one else seemed to see.

"I'd see all these guys – and women – with their whole lives in a basket," he said Thursday night. "I could not stand to see the inequity in all this."

He imagined them Vietnam veterans. Or stricken with emotional disorder. Estranged from their families. Just, you know, lost.

"But," Maddon said, "they are invisible. They become invisible. And I always thought if I was in the position to get on a soap box, I would remember those people. Because they aren't invisible to me."

Major Robert Pfeiffer, development director at the Bradenton Salvation Army, sees them. He houses them and educates them and encourages them. Jim McKee, the kitchen manager, sees them. He feeds them on the days Maddon can't make it. Wickman sees them, gives them a bed and a shower and a faith to hold onto.

Waltrich sees them. She keeps the 15th Street North shelter, the one in the shadow of the ballpark, funded and running. Bill Beecher, the executive chef there, sees them. He pushed 280 lunches of baked chicken and salad and dessert across a metal counter at lunchtime Thursday.

"A slow day," he said. "We usually go 360."

They do this on the other 364 days.

On a tour of the shelter in Bradenton, a woman apologized for the untidiness of one room, what they call The Family Lodge. She opened the door, and the clutter was children's Halloween costumes, neatly laid on three sofas. On 14th Street West in a week, there will be tiny frogs and pumpkins and Power Rangers and princesses. On one of those 364 days, they'll send those kids out, or hold their hands, or help sort their candy.

But they appreciate Maddon's gesture, the heart in his work. They laugh at the goofy blue Rays' Santa cap he wears, and the other Rays employees he brings along to help, and the way he smiled dumbly when told it was probably best not to serve red wine with the meal in a shelter.

"He's unbelievable," Beecher said, the remains of lunch still clinging to his white chef's smock. "He's the type of guy, I met him and it was like I knew him all my life."

McKee's been at this for three years. He loves the night off. Or, partly off.

"Joe just does this from the heart," he said. "It's to feed homeless people."

Simple as that. A meal at a time, and a long look in the eye, and a "hang in there."

"They need to know somebody recognizes them and cares about them," Maddon said. "I mean, it's difficult to say what it might mean. Maybe it initiates a change within one individual. Maybe they just get a good meal. And I'm good with that, too."

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