ST. PETERSBURG — It took all of five minutes for Joe Maddon's Rays T-shirt and camouflage pants to become splattered with chunky tomato sauce Sunday afternoon, but the Tampa Bay Rays manager refused to slow down his sprints from station to station in the Tropicana Field kitchen.
Maddon had hundreds of traditional Italian/Polish meals to cook with a handful of volunteers from the Rays organization, and only about five hours to do it. Each batch of meatballs, his grandmother's “secret, magical recipe” had to pass the Maddon taste test. Each batch of spaghetti sauce had to have just the right amount of seasoning and flavor.
It wasn't until the food received Maddon's blessing of “That's a spicy meatball!,” or a vigorous head nod that the cooks moved on to the next batch.
The meals will be served to the homeless through Wednesday in Salvation Army shelters across St. Petersburg, Tampa and Bradenton, the Sallie House in St. Petersburg and the Homeless Emergency Project in Clearwater, part of Maddon's eighth annual “Thanksmas.”
Every year between Thanksgiving and Christmas, Maddon and his crew of Rays employees and family members serve up a meal of spaghetti and meatballs, sausage, pierogies and cake like the ones prepared by Maddon's aunts over family holidays. Boxes of shoes, from Vans and Ralph Lauren sneakers to PF Flyers, sat waiting to be wrapped in the hallways of Tropicana Field, tagged with the name and age of a child in need.
It's not about the food, the presents or the press that goes along with the annual charitable spree, Maddon said. It's about connecting with people who are hurting and dealing with “hard luck” and letting them know they're “not invisible, Maddon said.
“A couple years ago we gave out shoes at St. Pete Salvation Army and this little girl's mom just started breaking down because the little girl had just made the cheerleading squad and she couldn't even buy her some $30-$40 shoes — something that to us is nothing but to her was like buying your first new car or house, relatively speaking,” Maddon said. “The little girl with the sneakers, man. That one gets me really good and will always get to me.”
Maddon not only served as Thanksmas executive chef, commanding Tropicana Field's industrial kitchen, but also purchased the food himself. Since Thanksmas began, the team has served more than 6,000 meals and provided many families with clothing, shoes, blankets and other donations. Last year, the group received enough donations to give $7,500 each to Salvation Army centers in St. Petersburg, Tampa and Clearwater and the Sallie House in St. Petersburg, a safe haven for children that have been removed from their homes because of abuse, neglect or abandonment.
“The Rays mean so much to this community, and this event has had a huge impact,” said Larry Williams, a former city councilman and owner of DOCs medical imaging, which performs X-rays and similar services for the team. “I understand what organizations do and don't do in the community, and I can honestly say that this is a group of quality people.”
A report issued earlier this year from the National Alliance to End Homelessness found that there are about 16,000 homeless in the Tampa Bay area, and one in five are children.
“These people need our help on any given day. Not just on Thanksgiving, not just on Christmas, but all the time,” Maddon said. “You want to talk about real heroes? I'm amazed with the people that show up and do this for lunch and dinner every day, not just once in a while. To me, that's the spirit of what we're trying to get accomplished here.”