HAZLETON, Pa. — This is a personal story, though I did not grow up in Hazleton, Pa., and, before last week, had never been there. This is a personal story because I have always believed that sports can help us do great things. Sure, it doesn’t always work that way. Our games have always prompted cheating and misplaced priorities and corruption and self-absorption. At the same time (more, I would say), our games have inspired unselfishness and transcendence and harmony and teamwork. Our games have always had their dark side. But I have always believed that most of it is light.
This year tested that faith. There is no way around it: This was a lousy year in sports. Scandal. Disgrace. Crime. The horror in and around sports rose to previously unimagined depths — the empire struck back, the dark side reigned. Penn State dominated the news, but there were charges elsewhere, in too many places, in Miami and Ohio State and Syracuse and, well, who could keep up? Players went on strike. Owners locked out. Fan favorites left town. Legends went on trial. Concussions. Perjury. PEDs.
“I know this will sound crazy,” Joe Maddon is saying now. He sits in the auditorium of his old high school, across the street from the house where he grew up, across the street from the Third Base Luncheonette where his mother still works, all of this in a little town in Northeastern Pennsylvania called Hazleton. “I don’t have a bad memory from childhood. Not a single one. Oh, I mean, some bad things happened — deaths in the family and so on — but when it comes to growing up here, I only remember great things.”
And he begins to remember — the games in the streets, the neighbors joining in, the buzz and excitement and feeling that there was always something fun going on. Joe Maddon is quite a bit older than I am — he turns 58 in February — and he lives a much different life as the brilliantly successful manager of the Tampa Bay Rays. And, as I say, I had never been to Hazleton before. Still, when he talked about his childhood, it all felt so familiar. I saw my own street in Cleveland, in Northeast, Ohio, with it’s tiny aluminum siding houses and postage stamp yards and rusty cars … telephone wires stretched above the road like barbed wire.
I remember knocking a wire down more than once in savage kickball games. I remember my neighbor buying a new football so he could throw it around with the kids in the street. I remember a young man five houses down who taught me the greatest snowball fight trick ever devised. I remember trying to get baseballs out of our neighbors flower bed before they noticed and took them away. I remember the cranky man down the street stopping me on my paper route to talk about boxing matches. I remember a thousand things, few of them especially wonderful when repeated, all of them wonderful in my memory.
“You know what I want?” Maddon asks. “I want the kids growing up in Hazleton now to look back someday and remember only good things from their childhood.”
* * *
Joe Maddon wants to believes his quest is above politics. It isn’t, of course. No quest is above politics, and this one less than most. Maddon wants to bring people in Hazleton together. People in town seem to agree that Hazleton has broken apart over the last few years.
The name of the town, according to local legend, was supposed to be “Hazelton” — named for the Hazel trees that grew all over the area — but it was misspelled on the incorporation papers. These sorts of quirks happen more often than you would think: My hometown, Cleveland, was named after Moses Cleaveland, but the spelling was changed (supposedly to fit better in newspaper headlines). In any case, Hazleton was built on the power and value of coal — and it was built in large part by the hard-working European immigrants who extracted that coal from the ground.
Maddon remembers that city as the spitting image of Bedford Falls, George Bailey’s quaint and unified town from the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Well, that’s nostalgia for you … but the funny part is that he is not the only one who remembers it that way. As he tells stories of playing football and baseball and basketball here, people around him, people who also grew up in Hazleton, nod in agreement. Hazleton was an All-America city back in 1964, you know. They talk about old teachers, old friends, neighborhood characters, names that sound decidedly Italian or Irish or German. Joe Maddon’s family name was Maddonni until his grandfather shortened it to fit in.
And the people around him also nod in agreement when he says that Hazleton isn’t like that anymore. There are cracks in the sidewalk, closed storefronts and blankness where downtown once lit up. Maddon says that even the traffic lights have dimmed.
More: There’s distrust. Many people seem to know why. The Hispanic population has grown dramatically in Hazleton over the last decade or so. According to census numbers, there were about 250 people who identified themselves as Hispanic in 1990, barely over 1,000 in 2000. Now, there are almost 10,000 Latinos living in Hazleton. They have come for jobs, for more affordable housing, for the small town charms that not so long ago brought in the Maddonnis and Scarcellas and Barlettas and Palahnuiuks.*
*Vlodymyr Palahniuk was born in Hazle Township in 1919, worked in the coal mines, became a boxer (under the name Jack Brazzo) and served in World War II. After getting out, he studied at Stanford and then went to Hollywood when, under the name Jack Palance, he would win an Oscar, an Emmy, a Golden Globe and play in more than 100 movies and television shows.
In 2006, after a violent crime involving illegal immigrants, Hazleton’s mayor Lou Barletta determined that Hazleton was ready for a bold initiative. He introduce the toughest illegal immigration laws of any city in the country at the time. The laws were designed to punish not only the illegal immigrants themselves, but any business that hired them and any landlord who leased to them. The Illegal Immigration Relief Act also made English the official language of the city.
Ever since 2006, the Illegal Immigration Relief Act has been locked up in various courts — people have argued back and forth about the conditionality of the laws — and it has been the topic on about a million talk shows. Illegal immigration and how to deal with it is obviously one of the hot-button issues of our time … and Hazleton pushed to the front line of it all. Barletta is now in Congress. The Supreme Court has weighed in. Positions have been staked. Both sides seem entrenched.
“We call this the Hazleton INTEGRATION Program,” Maddon says. “Integration. Not immigration.” The H.I.P. people intend to build a community center for all the kids in the community to play in together. They intend to have various projects that will help bring everyone together — such as the showing of “It’s A Wonderful Life” in the community theater with Spanish subtitles, like they did last week. They hope to have frank and open discussions — team meetings, if you will — to air grievances and find common ground.
And all the while, Maddon says he wants this to rise above politics, above differences, above hard feelings, He hopes, in fact, that this quest can reach the level of SPORTS, where a team made up of different people from different places and different backgrounds, people who speak different languages and believe different things, can come together to do remarkable things.
“I’ve seen it happen,” Maddon says. “I’ve seen it happen so many times.”
* * *
Sports have been my connection to the world. I don’t mean that figuratively. When I was young, I was the shortest kid in class, and I wore glasses thicker than the Youngstown phone book, and I felt certain that I had nothing to offer the world. And then I discovered that if I knew a lot about the Cleveland Browns, the other kids in my class might ask me if they would win on Sunday. If I understood the Cleveland Indians, they might ask me what I thought about the latest trade. And so on.
We moved to North Carolina when I was in high school, and though I was a bit taller and was no longer the only one wearing glasses, I only felt more disconnected and insignificant. But I built my identity was as a decent fielding second baseman, a tennis player with a surprisingly stiff serve, an expert on ACC basketball. In time, I found a group of friends who skipped lunch and went to the library to talk about the sporting events of the week.
When I graduated high school, and quickly came to understand that I was not smart enough to become an accountant, I managed to somehow connect with the sports editors of the local paper — and they would send me to high school games all over North and South Carolina. And I would write about them. And this became my identity.
All the while, I have believed in the power of sports. Naive? Guilty. Oh, I’ve always understood it can bring out our pettiness, our greed, our deviousness, our most violent side. I’ve written about those things many times. But through the years, again and again as a sportswriter, I’ve seen sports bring out the best of us. I wrote about a young man named Cephus Scott who had seen his father brutally murdered, whose brothers both ended up in jail, whose grandmother who sneak into a graveyard to steal clean water for the family, who found his way to a college through football. He wrote me not too long ago. He’s a teacher now.
I wrote about a small town in Southern Ohio that came together around a young man named Jake Porter. He had Fragile X syndrome, which made learning difficult, and he was on the high school football team. On the last game of the season, the coach named Dave Frantz wanted Jake to have a moment to remember … so he wanted to put Jake in the game and let him take a knee. Just for the experience. Frantz’s team was losing 42-0 at the time, and so he called timeout and met the opposing coach on the field. Everyone saw the opposing coach, Derek Dewitt, shake his head “No.” And then Jake went into the game, was given the ball, was about to take a knee. Only then, every player on both teams parted and pointed toward the end zone. Jake ran for a touchdown. He believed it was the winning touchdown. And there wasn’t a dry eye in the place.
I met a young woman named Jackie Stiles who grew up in a tiny Kansas town and connected to the world by making 1,000 shots every single day — she became the best college basketball player in the country. I met a wonderful man named Dan Quisenberry, who was one of the best relief pitchers ever, then a marvelous poet, and then was struck with a brain tumor at age 44. “I never ask ‘Why me?’ he said. “Why not me?” I met a young man named Melvin Stewart, who swam the butterfly every day for hours and hours,. “Why?” I asked him, many times — butterfly is an agonizing swim stroke, slower than freestyle but much more difficult to maintain — and every time his answer was the same. He wanted — needed, even — to be the best in the world at something. And when he won Olympic Gold, I asked him if it had been worth it. The answer, he said, was obvious.
I wrote often about a man named Buck O’Neil, the grandson of a slave, who grew up loving baseball more than anyone I ever knew. He was probably good enough to have a long career in the Major Leagues … but he played in a time before the Major Leagues were integrated. He was a brilliant manager with all of the charisma and leadership skills that entails … but he thrived in a time when black men were not considered for such jobs in the Majors. He lived a remarkable baseball life — he won a Negro Leagues batting title, managed Satchel Paige, scouted Ernie Banks and Lou Brock, traveled the country promoting the game — but when his name was on the Hall of Fame ballot, he was passed over.
And through it all … he refused to be bitter. He refused to fall prey to pettiness and malice. He said that hate, in its largest and smallest forms, destroys the hater. He sang at the Hall of Fame just months before he died, sang for the men and woman who had made it in his place. And when I asked him where that strength came from, he talked about his faith. And he talked about baseball.
* * *
Joe Maddon doesn’t want to believe he is doing anything controversial. Bringing people together shouldn’t be controversial. You know how he came up with this idea? He was in Hazleton last Christmas and was invited to a pot luck lunch at the home of the De La Rosas, a Dominican family in town. There, he saw children running around, banging into each other, inventing games, being rowdy, playing and laughing, and it all felt so inexpressibly familiar. This was his own childhood. And he could not help but think that if people around town just could see this, could connect this way, that Hazleton could regain its magic.
“This whole area is permeated with fear,” he says. “We can’t survive like this . If we don’t come together … Hazleton will die a very slow and painful death.”
Many people buy in. Joe Maddon’s cousin, Elaine Curry, and her husband Bob lead the effort try to make his vision real. They search for a good place to build the community center. They look for opportunities to help people understand each other. Bob Curry says there has been amazing response to their efforts, that people are rallying behind the effort. Together they holds a fundraiser dinner that is one of the biggest events of the year — Maddon, obviously, has a lot of pull in the baseball world. He brings Yogi Berra and Don Zimmer to town for the dinner. There are numerous cool sports items for a silent auction. About 450 tickets go on sale and sell out almost instantly. Curry says if they had 1,000 tickets, those would have sold too.
But the truth is that not everybody in Hazleton likes what Maddon is trying to do. After all, he doesn’t live here any more. He doesn’t understand what day-to-day life is like here. He is a famous baseball manager now who deals with famous baseball manager things. There are some in town who feel like he is lecturing them, others who think he is well-meaning but unrealistic. The dinner is a smashing success, but one cannot help but notice that almost every one of the 560 people who attend is white.
“Joe is a good man,” one native tells me. “But he doesn’t live in the real world.”
* * *
Joe Maddon asks me to go around Hazleton, and so I do. I drive along Broad Street and Church Street, see some of the businesses that have been serving Hazleton for decades and see some of the darkened windows of business that have gone. I drive past sections of town that have English and Spanish signs, and into neighborhoods that look strikingly like the little street with the little houses where I grew up. I eat in a restaurant that overlooks the valley, and drive by the football stadium where people have gathered for so many years. I stop into the locally famous Third Base Luncheonette where Joe Maddon’s mother, Beanie, still works and where, people say, they make the best sandwiches in town.
It’s tempting, as a reporter, to spend a little time in a place, talk to a few people, and believe that you understand the place. But, of course, I don’t really understand Hazleton. Yes, it’s tempting to think so … and so much of it feels familiar. But I don’t know what it’s like to live here, what people are feeling. I hope that Joe Maddon’s plan succeeds, that with some hard work and dedication and will they can bring the people of Hazleton closer and help more kids have childhoods with only good memories. I hope so.
“You have to BELIEVE it to see it,” Maddon says. He knows it’s true, knows that if you visualize amazing things those amazing things can happen. Like he says: He’s seen it happen many times. Well, he’s seen it happen in sports.