San Diego Padres v Chicago Cubs

Maddon, whose Cubs are having their worst season on his watch, is in the final year of his contract, his future in much doubt.

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Cubs manager Joe Maddon firmly on hot seat, but friends in Hazleton still believe in their guy

Support for Cubs manager Joe Maddon runs deep in his hometown. ‘He brought [the Cubs] out of the dumpster.’

HAZLETON, Pa. — Summer mornings often found Joseph Maddon, a boy with athletic ability that made him stand out and a sense of wonderment that made him special, on his bike.

He’d ride from his neighborhood of tightly packed homes down to “the Strip” around the Jeddo Basin, where the giant machines of the Jeddo Coal Company performed strip mining. Rather than mining by sinking shafts into the earth, the machines were used to remove swaths of dirt overlay, revealing coal veins that lay nearer to the surface of the earth here than in most other places.

It was fascinating to Maddon, who’d ride on into the woods and breathe in the wafting smells of plants and flowers. There was thickness in the air — always humid, it seemed — and the best days included the allure of a baseball game after he pedaled back home.

LEFT: Maddon’s childhood home. RIGHT: Maddon’s current Hazleton home near the golf course of the Valley Country Club. | Steve Greenberg/Sun-Times

“I’ve always bragged on the Pennsylvania summer,” he said Sunday, about an hour to the west in Williamsport, where the Cubs beat the Pirates 7-1 in the MLB Little League Classic. “I’ve told people about that before. I don’t think there’s anything quite like it.”

Maddon spent the better part of a week in these parts, beginning last Monday with a golf tournament in his hometown to raise money for the Hazleton Integration Project — his brainchild — which seeks to unite a city of about 25,000 whose Latino population has risen dramatically since the turn of the century. Next came a series in Philadelphia, where the Cubs were swept by the Phillies, followed by three games, the first two in Pittsburgh, against the Pirates.

For a lame-duck manager in his fifth season with the Cubs, without a contract beyond 2019, it was just what the doctor ordered.

“Pretty lucky,” he said. “I mean that sincerely, I’m pretty lucky. So never underestimate the power of a Pennsylvania summer.”

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A banner on display in Hazleton One Community Center.

Steve Greenberg/Sun-Times

The Chicago summer has been decidedly different, with an underachieving Cubs team — in a traffic jam at the top of the NL Central due to a terrible road record — under a steady barrage of criticism from fans and media. Maddon, 65, hasn’t been spared. His 66-58 team won’t come close to the hair-under-97 wins it averaged from 2015 to 2018. It might not reach the postseason at all — and even if it does, will it matter in terms of Maddon’s continued employment?

A good many people would bet that this home stretch is his last on the North Side, that the man who managed the Cubs to a World Series title in 2016 will be fired.

“If that happens? Knowing Joe as well as I do, it will come as no surprise if I say Joe will get up, dust himself and move on,” said Bob Curry, 69, who, along with wife Elaine, Maddon’s cousin, runs the Hazleton Integration Project. “I’ve known him for almost 50 years. He is as grounded a person, as aware of who he is in the world, as anyone you’ll find.

“But there’s no question in my mind that he would love to continue as manager of the Cubs.”

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The outside of Cusat’s, a go-to for Maddon whenever he’s in town.

Steve Greenberg/Sun-Times

Bobby Yevak, 65, goes back to first grade with Maddon. They went through Mother of Grace School and Hazleton Area High School together and played in the same little league. Yevak, who owns a detail shop in the old neighborhood and shined up Maddon’s cars — even his 1985 station wagon — a few months ago, remembers a down-to-earth kid who was the best player on the field but never acted like it.

Over a tuna sandwich at the Third Base Luncheonette owned by Maddon’s cousin Dave Mishinski, who does most of the cooking, and wife Tina — and where Maddon’s mother, Beanie, still worked until recently — Yevak had enough of the “fired” talk.

“Joey was so loyal to Chicago,” he said. “He brought them out of the dumpster. Think about it. He did the best for that program and built it up, but there’s politics in sports just like everywhere else. But the part about it — and I know Joe’s thinking like this — Joe’s not mad at anybody. He was never a mad person. He knows there’s light at the end of the tunnel. He’ll go somewhere else better.”

Yevak, a Democrat, is running for mayor against incumbent Republican Jeff Cusat, who lives above the café that has been in the family since 1936. Cusat’s Café — which everyone around here calls Bellhop’s — is full of Maddon’s friends, too. Jeff’s brother, Rocco, and sister, Kristin Hart, can be found most days toiling in the kitchen and bar. Maddon pops in about once a month in the offseason, according to Rocco. Maddon’s sister, Carmine Parlatore, comes by with her husband and Beanie more like once a week.

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Third Base Luncheonette, where Maddon’s mother used to work.

Steve Greenberg/Sun-Times

“As a sports fan, Joe’s situation is very odd to me,” said Rocco, 45, who had dinner with Maddon in Mesa, Ariz., during spring training and golfed with him last week. “I’ve never seen a coach established like he is, and to not have a contract and sent in lame duck? It’s odd. From the outside looking in, I see tension between him and [Cubs president] Theo [Epstein]. That would be my take. I would’ve thought he would have the support of the owners.

“But I think Joe likes the guys he’s with, has faith in them, and thinks they’re going to make a run. They can’t get rid of him if he makes the World Series, can they?”

Seated at the bar, Barney Natoli, who has lived here a little more than half his 62 years, piped in:

“I think it’s stupid. He brought them up. Why should they fire him? He’s the coach, so let him coach. He’s doing a good job. That don’t make any sense to me, any sense at all. They want to bring young blood in? They should keep the man until he’s 100.”

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A poster featuring Maddon at Hazleton One Community Center.

Steve Greenberg/Sun-Times

Frank Radice, 51, is a golf pro at Valley Country Club, where Maddon has a beautiful home alongside a par-3. One of Maddon’s closest friends in town, Radice — who oversees golf fundraisers for the Hazleton Integration Project and is on its board of directors — played about 20 rounds with the manager in the weeks after the Cubs were bounced instantly from the 2018 playoffs.

“He was decompressing,” Radice said. “But what I got from it was how passionate Joe was about his players, his feelings for them. He would rather have been playing baseball, but he was positive like he always is — and that’s what makes him so successful, isn’t it? The sun comes up tomorrow. It’s baseball. It’s just a game.”

According to Radice, Maddon jokingly uses the expression “fake news” in regard to premature stories of his demise with the Cubs.

“Everybody has a story about him being fired or being replaced, but Joe doesn’t want to talk about it,” he said. “Joe’s worried about one thing right now — the pennant race.”

There’s a bit more than a month of summer left. After that, a taste — who knows how big? — of autumn.

Perhaps the best way to look at Maddon’s time with the Cubs now: It isn’t over until it’s over.

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