TAMPA — Joe Maddon, the National League manager of the year, may focus most of his energy in Chicago these days, but his pierogi and meatballs remain the stars of an annual festivity in Tampa Bay.
As they have every year since 2006, Maddon, restaurateur Michael Stewart and an impressive array of volunteers, coaches, current and former major-league players and media celebs come together for a multipart event Maddon calls Thanksmas. On Thursday, a group headed to the Homeless Empowerment Program in Clearwater to serve a festive meal and dole out gifts, and tonight the public is invited to a fundraiser at Ava and 717 South on S Howard Avenue in Tampa, the latter owned by Stewart and the former owned jointly by Stewart and Maddon.
"The mission in 2006 was to serve the homeless," Maddon said by phone Thursday. "When I was living in California, I would ride my bike and see homeless people pushing their grocery carts with all their belongings, and it really upset me. I always said if I had a bigger soapbox, I would do something. And I thought the best way was to cook food — I'm Italian."
Every year in an evening of dining, revelry and celebrity guest bartending, the group raises money used to purchase essentials for the homeless.
"There have been sneakers for kids; we've done hoodies and toothbrushes and socks. People don't realize how many of the homeless are single moms, and a lot of veterans, and people with mental illness," Maddon said, adding humbly, "I'm not qualified to speak about it, and this is a small drop in the bucket."
That said, Thanksmas has expanded beyond Tampa, conducted also to benefit the Hazleton Integration Project in Maddon's hometown of Hazleton, Pa., and, Maddon says, "We're doing it up in Chicago for Cub Fest; it's crazy."
Stewart says this year's event at the Homeless Empowerment Program includes volunteers such as former Rays Andy Sonnanstine, Toby Hall, Rich Thompson and Dan Wheeler. And the restaurant fundraiser assembles serious star power: Rays Kevin Kiermaier and Matt Moore will be guest bartenders, as will Melvin (B.J.) Upton (who Stewart insists is "one of the best bartenders I've ever seen"), the Cubs' Kyle Schwarber, Sam Fuld of the Oakland A's, and local media notables such as WFLA-Ch. 8's Gayle Guyardo and ABC Action News' Brendan McLaughlin and Ashley Glass.
When asked if there is tension between Maddon and Rays players since his departure, he says things are "very cordial."
"We've moved beyond all that. It's been good on both sides and opened up opportunities for a lot of people. It's good to till the soil a little bit. Kevin Cash has been doing a great job."
Not all is status quo for this year's Thanksmas. On Thursday afternoon, 717 South executive chef Robert Masson was furiously rolling meatballs from Maddon's recipe (a blend of Italian sausage, ground beef, Romano cheese, Italian herbs and bread crumbs — Maddon is steadfastly against onion in meatballs). Masson also had pierogi duty, a potato-and-cheese version that Maddon's grandmother used to make at St. Stanislaus Catholic Church in Hazleton to eat on no-meat Fridays.
"Normally I do some of the cooking, but I have no time," Maddon said. "There's been so much going on personally for me in the past 24 months."
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