ST. PETERSBURG — The manager is rolling the meatballs, quickly, tightly, uniformly. Bigger than a golf ball, but smaller than a baseball, for sure.
One right after the other, he's rolling them, until a baking tray is evenly lined with 60 or so.
Then he moves on to other tasks: stirring a 40-gallon kettle of red sauce with a you've-got-to-be-kidding-size whisk; reminding helpers to cut spicy sausage on a diagonal and the mild version straight across so diners can see the difference; pushing a cart of cooked meatballs into the cooler. There's some baseball talk, but not much.
Rays manager Joe Maddon is directing a dozen or so amateur cooks Monday in the kitchens of Tropicana Field. Third base coach Tom Foley is in charge of the meatball mix, made according to Maddon's specifications. Foley flinches only slightly when raw egg spills out of the Hobart mixer and on to his nice leather shoes. Hitting coach Derek Shelton is slicing sausages; pitching coach Jim Hickey is on meatball duty. The radio guys are there, too, along with folks from the community relations crew.
There's not a baseball uniform in sight, just a lot of splattered aprons, especially on those who are stirring the sauce. Brave cook that he is, Maddon snubs the apron for a Rays navy blue hoodie. After three hours of cooking, it's still pristine. When it gets warm in the kitchen, he doffs the sweatshirt to reveal a T-shirt that says "St. Nick's World Tour — 1 million cities, 1 night only."
The effort is part of Maddon's fifth annual Thanksmas event, which is expected to feed 1,000 people at Salvation Army facilities in St. Petersburg, Fort Myers and Tampa. The first meal on Monday night was at the Sallie House in St. Petersburg, a shelter for children. Today, the crew treks to Fort Myers, big tubs of food in tow.
"You know, before I was hired by the Angels in 1980, I worked at a place for troubled kids in Pennsylvania," Maddon says, rolling another meatball. He knows the struggles homeless children — and adults — face. That's the genesis of Thanksmas, for him. He does the shopping and foots the bill for most of the project, but a fundraiser recently at the 717 South restaurant in Tampa helped pay for the sweatshirts each diner will receive this year.
People tend to think that the homeless are "lazy men who don't want to work," Maddon says. There is some of that, but there is so much more to the complex issue, he adds. He sees those different situations for four nights when he serves up plates of spaghetti studded with sausage and meatballs. And pierogies with melted butter and onions. And tossed salad and big slices of cake. Spaghetti and pierogies, a seemingly odd combination, are a nod to Maddon's Italian and Polish heritage.
"It means a lot to shake their hands and look into their faces," he says of those who partake in the meal. "They are not invisible. They are human beings."
Maddon is cool in the vast commercial kitchen; at home, really. The 2010 Thanksmas cook-a-thon is a lot smoother than the first. For one, the Trop's chefs have to help less, he says. The crew seems to know what to do. Those who don't get gentle guidance from the manager. Cook the sausages a bit more; add the meatballs to the sauce now.
He makes the sauce with confidence, though he's driven to improve on last year's offering, which he says fell short of his own expectations. Part of his secret is a mixture of canned tomato sauce, crushed tomatoes, whole peeled tomatoes and tomato puree. He dumps in garlic and dried Italian spices, eyeballing when enough is enough. There isn't a measuring cup in sight. A first sample tells him a little sugar is needed to balance the acidity.
A few big jars of Prego spaghetti sauce are added, too. "That's Beanie's touch," he says with a sly smile, referring to his mother in Hazleton, Pa. That's where he grew up and learned to cook under Beanie Maddon's tutelage. He's headed there for a big Christmas dinner with the family.
After the sauce has bubbled for a while, it's time for the final taste test. Maddon spoons a little into a shallow dish. He loves the consistency, he says. Not too chunky, but not so thin it'll slide off the cooked pasta.
He brings a spoonful to his mouth. Then he drags a piece of sausage through the sauce and tastes that.
"Righteous," he says. And off he goes to oversee another job. There's still a bit to do before the first diner is served.