Times Staff Writer
ST. PETERSBURG — Most eyes trained more on the brightly wrapped presents than the man in an icy blue Santa hat handing them out.
That is exactly how Joe Maddon says he prefers it.
The Rays manager stood in a bustling cafeteria on Monday at the Bob and Margaret Keelan Sallie House, a shelter for young people who have been abused, neglected or abandoned. He called out dozens of names one at a time.
Some rushed forward to claim their prizes, returning to their tables with a big grin. Others shrunk back, waiting for another adult to place their present in their hands.
Inside each box: a brand new pair of sneakers sized to fit.
This is the sixth year Maddon has personally bankrolled and carried out his annual "Thanksmas" event, during which he had already served about 4,000 people with clothing and shoes. As with other Thanksmas events around the Tampa Bay area, this one started with a Maddon-inspired spaghetti dinner — prepared by the manager and his staff — and complemented with salad and pierogi, harkening back to the Maddons' Italian and Polish roots.
"You just saw kids thrilled to get a pair of shoes," Maddon said. "It's a small token for them, because we are so fortunate on a daily basis."
The Thanksmas crew heads to Salvation Army locations in Bradenton and Tampa today and Wednesday. Between the Sallie House and a few residences nearby, the St. Petersburg program houses 41 young people ranging from infants to age 18. Some could be reunited with their parents, said Salvation Army Maj. Tim Gilliam. For others, that is not a goal.
As shrill voices and laughter bounced off block walls, Stephan Williams finished the last of his dinner, then immediately set out to consume another dinner.
"It feels good that people are here for us," said Stephan, 17, a program resident for four years. "Some of us grew up feeling like we had to fend for ourselves."
Stephan gets out of bed at 4 a.m. to make it on time to Tarpon Springs High School, where he takes culinary arts classes.
"Outstanding," Maddon said of Stephan's choice. And he can relate. Before heading to Lafayette College on a scholarship, Maddon toyed with the idea of opening his own restaurant. His 78-year-old mother, Beanie, still works the counter at the Third Base Luncheonette in Hazleton, Pa., across from the high school where Maddon was once the star quarterback.
Maddon wandered among the tables after dinner, chatting with children as they tried on their new shoes. Then he sat down away from the hubbub, pulled off the Santa hat on request and showed off a full head of medium to dark brown hair.
The change from his now-natural silver hair came in August, as the Rays prepared for a Johnny Cash-themed road trip.
"It always amazes me that people pay so much attention to hair color," Maddon said. "I'm having fun with it."
Asked how the public is reacting to the darker look, Maddon said, "Sixty percent are in favor of it, 40 percent against."
Maddon doesn't sweat the naysayers because, he said, "You have to take into consideration the critic."
Andrew Meacham can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2248.