The Engaging Joe Maddon
Angels Manager on Embracing Expectation, Baseball During a Pandemic, and Giving Back to Your Community
Writer: Shanna Schwarze
Joe Maddon made history by being the first manager in 108 years to lead the Chicago Cubs to a World Series victory in 2016. After parting ways with the Cubs, Maddon returned “home” this season, to where his baseball career started with the Los Angeles Angels. Risen spoke to Maddon about expectations, leadership during a pandemic, and the importance of giving back to through his charity, Respect 90.
Interviewed for Risen Magazine
Risen Magazine: You were with the Angels for 31 years. Left and now you’re back. Do you feel you have to prove yourself at all? Does the Cubs success make it easier or harder for you?
Joe Maddon: My mind doesn’t work that way. I’ve never really thought of having to prove myself and I hope that doesn’t sound pretentious. I’ve trained for many years to do this job. So I rely on my training. I’m very much a process guy. I’ve used the phrase, “The process is fearless” because I believe the process lacks emotion. So if you go out there and do what you’ve been trained to do, and your preparation is good, then there’s no reason to be worried or skeptical. I actually gained a lot of confidence from that. So the difference would be that I’ve had the opportunity to put these ideas to test in the past. So if anything, I have more confidence in them.
RM: How do you manage the high expectations that are facing you as the leader of this team?
JM: I love it. I think I want all of our guys to embrace the word expectations and pressure. I mean, why do it? Why do it if that wasn’t attached to it? There’d be no lure to it. They would lack a lot of excitement. So I’ve always preached that to my teams. If you ever hear the word “expectation” or the word “pressure,” please run towards it.
RM: You’ve faced a lot of doubt and criticism over the years. It’s baseball…that’s normal. What has success taught you that gets you through those periods of time?
JM: Well, a lot of times you have to consider whomever’s firing the slings and arrows. So I don’t put a lot of concern on that. Again, if you’ve done it, I’ve done it for awhile. I have a lot of confidence in what I do and how I do it. So you’re right. It’s just a part of the job. If you can’t accept that or deal with that, then you should do something else. We’re in the entertainment business and fans need to be able to say what they want. Writers have to write what they have to write, because it’s all part of the circle, and all of this contributes to greater interest.
So I believe in all this stuff being necessary. Of course, I don’t always agree with what’s written, but the moment you start trying to over explain yourself, then it sounds like you’re making excuses. So I choose not to go there. So it’s part of the cycle. It’s a bar room, it’s kind of a bar room, sitting at the bar on a stool with a nice frosty glass of beer in front of you and having a discussion. I’d love to see that happen more often. I grew up that way in Pennsylvania and I think it’s a necessary part of what we do.
RM: Is there any particular lesson that’s occurred when you’re in those really deep moments of, perhaps a losing streak or just a lot of doubters, that you really turn to?… Faith or just a lesson that helps you get through that?
JM: Yeah. I just remind myself to be consistent. When I walk in the door, be consistent. I’ve had a chance to observe a lot before I got this job. And a lot of times when you went through those tough moments, the inconsistency of the leader leads to even more doubt, or a longer losing streak. They need to see the same guy through good and bad…If I get upset, it’s primarily because it’s an obvious lack of caring on the part of the player, which is rare. It’s hard to criticize heart. Be careful when you criticize heart because that’s the one time a player could really come back at you. Because we don’t know what it’s like to be in somebody else’s skin. But you can be critical of performance because that’s obvious. So these are the kinds of things, if I have to go that direction, I will. And last point, you should praise publicly and criticize privately to really maintain the trust factor that’s necessary.
RM: A lot’s been said and written about your unique leadership style and having motto’s every year for the team. But this is a year and a season unlike any other. How has the COVID-19 pandemic challenged you as a leader? Have you had to change your approach at all?
JM: No, not at all. It actually feeds into it a bit. We started out in the real spring training in February, March. It came to my mind, “an identity wall,” which I think would be useful in any business industry, newspaper, whatever, TV station. You walk in and urban style art on the wall are the things that are most important to you as a group. So every time a worker, employee walks by the wall, they’re reminded (that) this is what’s important to us. So this spring training, the word was Engaged. That was our centerpiece. Meaning just for the players to stay engaged in all components of the game, whether it’s getting signs, being accountable to their actions, whatever it might be. Engaged.
“Believe It And You’ll See It” is another one. We went with, baseball wise, “We Are First To Third” as an example, you could put your baseball models up there too. Relentlessness. So that actually, when I thought of it, was during a drill, I kind of like it. And I think that’s something I’d like to perpetuate. So that’s one and I’m wearing the one right now. And I was just thinking the other day… “Feel,” feel which is the gift of experience. I was writing, I was doing something for a friend for a book, and I was trying to describe him appropriately. And the thought came to my head – the guy had great “feel.” And that he had a tremendous amount of experience getting there. So feel is the gift of experience. And that’s the latest thing I brought back, “Uncomfortable” on one of the hoodies recently. And it’s funny, especially when you go to a new group how it resonates with the coaches and the players. So my plan is to interject little thoughts during the course of the year.
RM: Let’s talk about your charity, Respect 90 seems to be quite active all over the U.S. What first inspired you to start it and to give back in this particular way?
JM: Funny, but it’s right down the street. I’m in Long Beach right now. I used to ride my bike from Seal Beach, down to Huntington, and Newport and back. But I lived in El Dorado Park, which is a little bit further in, at my uncle’s house. I’d bring my bike in the back of my truck to Sunset, get out of it and I start riding. And I was… You’re presented with a lot of homelessness. People pushing their entire life in a shopping cart, destitute. And then you’d go into the men’s room stopping along the way, if you had to go to the bathroom. And there’d be guys passed out on the floor. Really bothered me. To the point, one time I tried to pick a guy up and help them and actually got swung at. So, it’s just, there’s a lot of mental illness involved.
So the thing was, I wanted to get involved with homelessness. Feeding that group of people. So when I got to Tampa Bay, we started something we call, “Thanksmas.” I think all of this has been born of the phrase, thanksmas. Where I thought, I believe these folks need our help on any day of the year and not just on holidays. So we picked a day between Thanksgiving and Christmas to illustrate food, the kitchen table for me, really a source of warmth and great conversation. And the fact that I’m Polish, Italian, we went with Pierogi and spaghetti and meatballs and sausage- so it started with that concept. And then eventually when I went back home in 2010 to Hazleton, our town had become really heavily endowed with Hispanics, primarily from Dominican Republic. Tremendous disconnect and fear and trepidation.
My hometown was not at all like I had grown up in. And I really felt as though we were on the verge of collapse, the city was going to die if we did not learn how to cohabitate and understand that these folks are here to help us. And they’re going to be the rebirth of Hazleton, just like my Italian and Polish grandparents had been years prior to that. We had this opportunity. We had this opportunity to relive history, as it had been in (the) present time where we’ve always romanticized these conversations with the people before us, and now you’re going to push away from it. Wow. It was totally inappropriate I thought.
So we put together the Hazleton integration project. We got funds together. We have our own building to “Hazleton One” community center now. Where we have academic and athletic programs. And part of the concept originally was to do it well enough that other people would want to copy us and that we could help them too. I got all kinds of ideas on this. We could go on and on, but that’s the basic crux of it. I’m not boots on the ground all the time, but I’m heavily involved. My wife, Jaye is too. And the people, my cousin, Bob and Elaine back home really have done the yeoman kind of work behind us. It’s spectacular, quite frankly. And we keep getting bigger and better. And right now a lot of it is based on providing food for a lot of the citizens back home.
RM: I’ve noticed that, with charities, people tend to have the charity just in the city that they’re in and in baseball, wherever you’re playing. But your charity still seems to have a presence in all the cities that you have been in, and continues to do that. How important is that to you to maintain that presence?
JM: You know, I just had a conversation with the entire team about that. I’m trying to promote that we get more involved in our communities. Everything that’s going on right now, social injustice, all the political conversations going on right now. To get involved in your community, meaning where you’re playing, where we’re playing in Orange County, Anaheim right now, to definitely get involved in the community. To the point, go to the front office and ask them, “How do I start a foundation?” And whatever your truth is, whatever speaks to your truth, get involved in that. And that’s how you make a difference. Because I think a lot of times, unless we have a large enough soap box, we feel as though our voice is not going to be heard. Thus, you choose to do nothing, which is a bad choice.
So I talked about that. And then just what you’re talking about exactly, right on. To get involved where you came from. I think a lot of times that’s left out. So it’s important to be wherever boots are right now, in Long Beach. And we’ve been involved here, Jaye and I also with the women’s shelter here in Long Beach. Wherever you’re at, get involved, be part of the solution. But never forget where you came from. And I think that would be a great project to undertake nationally is to really promote, regardless of where you’re at. Don’t forget where you came from and help that area too. After all, I would not be sitting here talking to you right now if it wasn’t for my parents, the family I grew up with. The mentors, the teachers, the coaches, the nuns that I was raised by in Hazleton. And that’s why it was so important to me to get back there, to hopefully bring it back. And it is, it’s coming back together.
RM: You mentioned the nuns that you grew up with and I’ve noticed that Respect 90 gives a lot towards faith based groups. And is that intentional? How do you approach faith in your work and in your charity?
JM: It’s not intentional. A lot of it is the fact that those groups are involved in charity. The Catholic Charities in Chicago, we’ve been involved with them. The Salvation Army throughout, up and down the West Coast of Florida from Tampa, St. Pete, all the way down to Fort Myers. We’ve been involved there also. So it’s not intentional. It’s not intentional. Actually, I wanted to go, when we first opened up the community center, I actually went and cold called the convent and tried to find out if we could get a nun, at least come and walk through the halls. Because I know as a kid growing up, if you’ve been raised Catholic and you see a nun walking down the hallway, I promise you, you’re going to straighten up! And as it turned out, it was a cloistered convent. And I didn’t know that going in.
So it was a great conversation. It was Greek, my wife’s Greek, so this Greek cloistered convent, about eight miles from Hazleton. I cold called them looking for a nun. And I have a great couple of great friend priests, Father Arbour back there, but he was unable to because we weren’t affiliated religiously. So you could not get the priest to come and be part of it. Which I also think would be dynamic, to get the priest involvement and the nun involvement back there. So like I said, I’ve got a lot of ideas, so it hasn’t been intentionally done. But if you think about it, a lot of the faith based groups out there do this kind of work and thus will be drawn towards them. Metropolitan Ministries also is another one at Tampa, a tremendous tremendous facility.
RM: What do you hope the legacy is of Respect 90? Or what would you like to see happen with it?
JM: That we made a difference. That we might’ve been a little bit ahead of our time regarding the work we’re trying to do with Black Lives Matter, what we’ve done there is really pertinent. There’s not many blacks in our hometown, if any, it’s primarily Hispanic. And again, the argument could be made that it’s a very similar circumstance. So we’ve been ahead of that, in providing respect, dignity, and help for these people back there. And listen, my first roommate in professional baseball was the Dickie Thon. Richard was from Puerto Rico and Richard and I still stay in touch. Some of my best friends are Hispanic. So when it turned out that we had this influx in Hazleton, it was just a natural reaction on my part to want to do something like this, so that we made a difference, that we were a little bit ahead of the curve. I think when it comes to this kind of stuff.
And the next point that I’d love is that we’ve helped others create the same kind of program in their cities. I’ve had this vision that I’d love to see universities, colleges. There’s so many in our country to provide these kinds of facilities, community centers in each city and provide credit works. It could be part of the curriculum somehow where kids, students get involved in the community, where they’re at, right now. And I really believe this, there’s an elitist component sometimes at some schools regarding where it’s located compared to maybe the rest of the city. And that would break down that barrier immediately. I know that. I’ve lived it. When I went to Lafayette, we unfortunately felt that way back in the seventies. And now obviously it’s become more obvious to me why it was so wrong. So let’s get the kids involved. I’m all for the kids, man. Get them involved, get more of these centers up and running and give them credit for studying and also getting involved in the running of the place. I think that’d be kind of interesting.
RM: Is there anything else about “Respect 90” I didn’t ask you, that you’d like to add?
JM: Just to know also, that we’re also involved with youth boxing. I think that’s a really important concept. It’s individual, it’s discipline, it’s having to show up for practice, it’s having to be accountable. I really love to promote public speaking and debate clubs in these different schools. We are involved in pediatric cancer. We’ve done that with the shaving of the heads in spring trainings. And I know I’m forgetting something else, our umbrella has gotten kind of large. But it primarily revolves around youth and really taking care of youth and making sure that they’re served properly and they’re given opportunity. Because that’s the one big thing about the Hazleton integration project. Kids are not getting the same opportunities I got growing up. And I just would love to see that they received opportunity, felt safe while expressing themselves within this opportunity. And that’s a big part of the programming factor at the Hazleton One community center.
RM: Thank you for your time talking to Risen.
JM: Thank you. Thanks for having us. I mean it, I appreciate it a lot. These are the kinds of conversations that I really enjoy, and this is the stuff that really matters. So the more we can get, if we’re talking about baseball, players involved in the community they’re located (in), and then not to forget where you came from. I think it could be pretty spectacular.
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