Just before 4 p.m. Thursday, Joe Maddon searched the kitchen at the Salvation Army for something to stir his still-too-thick, not-yet-hot-enough tub of spaghetti sauce.
Someone handed him a small plastic ladle. Not strong enough, he said.
He laid his eyes on a metal paddle bigger than a baseball bat, reached for it with two arms, and sunk it into his sauce.
In his trademark thick-rimmed glasses, a Santa hat and an apron splattered with the past three days' worth of sauce, the manager of the Tampa Bay Rays began to stir. So started Night Four of Maddon's fourth-annual Thanksmas dinner. He'd serve 200 people tonight, bringing his career total to almost 3,000.
On Sunday, he'd shopped for the ingredients, including 1,000 4-ounce sausages, large packages of ground beef and pork, 1,500 pierogis, 180 pounds of pasta and gallons and gallons of tomatoes — diced, pureed and in paste.
On Monday in a kitchen at the Trop, he cooked and packaged it all with help from coaches, staffers and players. That night, Maddon served the kids at Sallie House in St. Petersburg.
On Tuesday, it was the Salvation Army in Bradenton; on Wednesday, the one in St. Petersburg. Today, he's catching a plane to California to visit family for the holidays. So this was his last batch for the year, and he wanted to make it perfect. He needed to add sugar, some water and tomato juice.
He looked around. "Where's the can opener?"
The kitchen was the focal point of Maddon's childhood home in the little town of Hazleton, Pa. As a boy, he would watch his aunts Flo and Fray cook with his mom, and he would ask questions. The answers helped when he got to the minor leagues and ended up cooking for all his friends.
"Chicken, lasagna — the crockpot was a very big item too," Maddon said. "You can set them, go to the game, come back and the place smells great."
Maddon always wanted to open a restaurant of his own. He would have called it Nobody's In, he said, "but baseball got in the way."
Now, though, the coach cooks every day. His chicken fingers in olive oil? "There's an art to it." His sausage and peppers? Pitcher Brendan Donnelly text messaged him for the recipe.
But this, he said peering into his tub of meatball and sausage spaghetti sauce, was his trademark: A mixture of Italian and Polish ingredients, just like him.
It wasn't heating up, though. Maddon needed help.
"I'm just trying to get this sucker hot," he told a Salvation Army cook, who fiddled with some knobs.
"Oh, here we go," Maddon said. "We got bubbles now, baby. . . . These people do this stuff every day. Every day! That's impressive."
Maddon started thinking more about homeless people while coaching in California. As he rode his bike between Sunset and Newport beaches, he noticed people pushing the contents of their lives in shopping carts. He started taking his car out there, handing them his clothes. One day, he thought, he wanted to do something bigger.
Thanksmas — a dinner between Thanksgiving and Christmas — was his something bigger. The message he wanted to communicate to those who would eat his spaghetti: "We see them. They're not invisible."
Outside, people in two rooms gathered to eat. In one, mothers and their children, including a 6-week-old baby. In the other, mostly men.
As he delivered the plates to their tables, they'd tell Maddon they want to see the Rays in the World Series next year. That he traded a player they liked. That they wanted free tickets.
That he inspires them.
Maddon would stand by the door before they left and help them select a new pair of Champs socks. "Brown? I like them myself."
But before any of that, Maddon needed a taste test. Third-base coach Tom Foley dunked the plastic ladle in the sauce and did the honors. Foley nodded his head. "It's good."
Just before 5 p.m., Maddon looked around again.
"Where's that big old scooper pot?" he asked. "Let's do this."
Alexandra Zayas can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3354.