As former Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon mingled, laughed and glad-handed the crowd of diners that filled South Tampa's Ava and 717 South restaurants Friday night, one message rose above the din of pre-holiday cheer:
Even though the former Rays skipper had moved to the Chicago Cubs, much to the heartbreak of fans, his annual "Thanksmas" fundraising dinner to benefit Tampa Bay area homeless food programs would continue.
"That's the one message I wanted to get out to the shelters and people connected with this," Maddon said as he prepared to welcome the anticipated 300 diners.
"This is not going away," he said.
Neither did the traditional menu of spaghetti, meatballs and pierogies inspired by Maddon's mother in his hometown of Hazelton, Pa.
Maddon, in fact, helped roll the meatballs. For the past four years, Maddon has had a hand, literally, in carrying out the event, along with 717 South owner Michael Stewart. The two are partners in Ava, which sits directly across S Howard Avenue.
Maddon was already the architect of a separate Thanksmas event spearheaded by the Rays — one that provides hot, ready meals to homeless food programs — when he approached Stewart about broadening that effort with cash donations. Stewart readily agreed.
"It was important to try to make a difference in people's lives," he said.
The pairing has been a successful one. The fixed-price meal cost $75 at Friday night's event, the fifth annual fundraiser. Last year's soiree raised $22,000 for homeless programs in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties.
In addition to Maddon, clad in a black-and-red brocade tuxedo jacket, former Ray Tino Martinez and current Rays outfielder Kevin Kiermaier mingled with the crowd.
Charities that benefitted from Thanksmas were happy to hear about Maddon's ongoing commitment to the fundraiser. The Rays are expected to serve meals at the shelters, starting next week. But it's unclear whether the team will continue to hold Thanksmas, which is done between Thanksgiving and Christmas, in years to come.
"I hope so," Maddon said. "That will be up to the Rays."
Salvation Army Tampa area commander Maj. James "Chip" Hall is also hoping the team stays involved.
"It's important for the people here to know that they matter," Hall said. "That was the one thing Joe was good at. He told them that they're not invisible. That they're not forgotten."
Contact Rich Shopes at email@example.com or (813) 226-3368. Follow @richshopes.