ST. PETERSBURG -- Joe Maddon saw a way to help people, and that vision has come to fruition in a profound way for the Tampa Bay area and beyond.
In 2006, the Rays' manager envisioned a way that he could parlay his budding status as a local celebrity to help feed the homeless. Maddon decided to call his initiative Thanksmas, and he pledged to make it a yearly event.
This is the seventh consecutive year Maddon has hosted the event that finds him and a band of Rays employees shopping, cooking and serving a meal of spaghetti, meatballs, sausage, pierogies, salad, Italian bread and cake to hundreds of needy citizens throughout the Tampa Bay area and along the West Coast of Florida. This year was the second time that he's carried over his Thanksmas tradition to include his hometown of Hazleton, Pa. The idea has been to not just provide a holiday meal -- it's always done between Thanksgiving and Christmas, hence the name Thanksmas -- but to emphasize that homeless shelters are filled every day of the year.
Standing inside the kitchen of the restaurant located just past Tropicana Field's center-field wall, Maddon talked about the event and beamed while beginning to prepare this year's feast.
"When thoughts and reality come together, it's always great," Maddon said. "We're gaining momentum with this program. We're calling more attention where people are donating."
He gave credit to his wife Jaye for much of his motivation for starting Thanksmas.
"Jaye was the motivation behind a lot of it back in the day, because she always told me I needed to get more involved in regards to charity situations," said Maddon, who came to the Rays in 2006 after serving as the Angels' bench coach. "When I was with the Angels, I didn't feel like there was a big enough platform to do that.
"Once I got this job, I really wanted to expand upon that, and I had the thought about Thanksmas. That was my thought, for all the reasons I've talked about before, to be able to help these people on any day of the year and not just a holiday. And I just wanted to point that out. And even though it happens during the holiday season, it happens on any day between Thanksgiving and Christmas. I also wanted to point out that these folks need our help on a daily basis, and furthermore, just the homeless situation in general."
Maddon loves the vibe he gets from those he serves, particularly the ones who follow the Rays.
"They love [following the Rays]," Maddon said. "I talk to the boys and the ladies when they come in during the course of the meal, and they know exactly what went on last year -- and they're talking about the players, who will be back, who are we trying to get. They're big fans, absolutely big fans."
Maddon is also sensitive to the fact that just because someone is experiencing hard times does not mean they have to lose their dignity.
"Listen, they're just going through some tough moments, these people, but they're no different than any of us," Maddon said. "They are wonderful. I really enjoy the exchange. That's really part of the gig right here, is to hopefully raise the level of empathy and awareness in the community around here. To hopefully come out and volunteer and be around these folks and eventually [figure out] how we can take this to the next level.
"We're never going to solve this problem or cure this problem entirely, but we can help. So the empathy level that's raised at this time of year, I'm pleased."
Maddon acknowledged the fact that the Rays' on-the-field success has helped fuel the visibility of Thanksmas.
"Everything we do is tied together," Maddon said.
While the intent is to feed and help the homeless, those participating get a lot of satisfaction out of doing so.
Rays infield/third-base coach Tom Foley joked that he's a utility guy within the Thanksmas operation, much as he was during his playing career.
"I've been a utility guy my whole career and that's who I am," Foley said. "I'll do the spaghetti, I'll do the meatballs, I'll do anything."
Foley said he looks forward to participating every year.
"It's something you can do to help," Foley said. "It gets you in the giving spirit, where you can help people who aren't as fortunate, basically going through some tough times. It's not just those who are out there by themselves. It's also the families.
"We see a lot of families in need. It's a little something during this time of year, and hopefully it goes a long way. And Joe's reason always has been to bring awareness to those who are struggling. We've had a lot of participants from the organization. More and more people come every year. I think it's good for them. Those we are serving, but also for us that we can serve them."
Rays pitching coach Jim Hickey echoed Foley's sentiments.
"We certainly do like helping out," Hickey said, "and we like the serving, too. It's a nice time to get together with some people that you haven't seen in a while as well.
"Thanksmas is a great idea. It's a great concept, and the fact that Joe has stuck with it and the fact that he has this nice support system in place, it doesn't surprise me that it's grown at all. I'd like to see it continue to grow, and I'd like to be a part of it for a long time, too."
Hickey smiled then added: "I've gone from meatball roller to where I can actually cook the spaghetti now."
Over the past six years, Thanksmas has served approximately 5,000 individuals in need and provided many of those individuals with clothing and shoes. In 2011, as a result of numerous donations from generous Rays fans and Maddon's fundraising efforts, Thanksmas was also able to present $4,000 each to Salvation Army centers in St. Petersburg, Tampa and Bradenton and the Sallie House in St. Petersburg. This year, Maddon and his volunteers will hand out special Thanksmas blankets at each location.
"I'm quite proud of my husband," Jaye Maddon said.
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com.