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11/28/09 10:00 AM EST

Maddon's event draws many thanks

'Thanks-mas' incorporates food, toys for those in need

ST. PETESBURG -- You might not agree with Joe Maddon's choice to pinch-hit, or when he decides to remove his starter, but all will agree that the Rays manager has a heart the size of Tampa Bay, which he demonstrates on a yearly basis with his "Thanks-mas" event.

Maddon had just been named the Rays' manager in the fall of 2005 when he volunteered to help the organization's Thanksgiving dinner effort in which club officials fed the homeless and underprivileged. On that day, Maddon told the executive director of St. Vincent De Paul in St. Petersburg he wanted to get more involved -- and he did so by creating "Thanks-mas."

"I chose 'Thanks-mas,' because we are doing this between Thanksgiving and Christmas to indicate the need to help on just any day, and not only on holidays," Maddon said.

Maddon buys the food, supervises the cooking and gets a lot of help from Rays' staff, current and former players, coaches, broadcasters and their families with the serving to the homeless and underprivileged families. The 2009 stops will include four Salvation Army sites in Bradenton, St. Petersburg and Tampa.

This year marks Maddon's fourth consecutive time hosting the event. As he has done in the past, Maddon will prepare a traditional Italian holiday feast for each of the stops.

"He cooks the family meatball and sausage recipe," said Suzanne Murchland, the Rays' director of community relations. "He does all the shopping for that. He brings in people to help him do all of the cooking, which they do at Tropicana Field."

Maddon said the menu is the residue of being "Italian-Polish/American."

"It is something I can do, and felt confident it would turn out well," Maddon said. "Most everyone enjoys spaghetti and meatballs, and now we have introduced pierogies into the mix."

"My greatest joy always comes from the verbal exchange and the sincere response that they are thankful for what we are doing. And, of course, it's always good to hear that they enjoyed the food."
-- Joe Maddon

Maddon's desire to be involved in feeding the homeless dates back to his days in Anaheim, where he served as the Angels' bench coach.

"I believe I have always had a soft spot to help others," he said. "I became more involved because of the homeless living along the strip from Sunset Beach to Huntington Beach in California.

"I would often ride my bike and watch people push their entire life in front of them in a shopping cart. I would see some seek shelter in the cinder-block bathrooms along the beach. I would see the distant stare of hopelessness. I wanted to be able to help somehow."

Maddon has great empathy for those who are down on their luck, and he notes that a lot of people in society just assume those people are lazy and don't want to work.

"There are a lot of different reasons why people end up in that situation," Maddon said. "And this economy is showing it right now, front and center.

"There are a lot of folks out there who would really much prefer having their steady job back and their homes, etc. This is a tough time. When you're considering the homeless situation, it's a wide variety of people and a wide variety of reasons why they're there."

Maddon is a gracious and gregarious host at his events, as he greets everyone warmly with a smile and kind words.

"My greatest joy always comes from the verbal exchange and the sincere response that they are thankful for what we are doing," Maddon said. "And, of course, it's always good to hear that they enjoyed the food."

Keeping the children in mind, Maddon added toys to the events last year. He doesn't hide the fact he gets moved to tears when hosting the events.

"When I get over my crying, in a quiet corner somewhere, it's great," Maddon said. "The kids are appreciative. The parents, the people are very appreciative. And also the people that work in these places. We've really built a pretty good relationship with them also."

Maddon was touched last year when they gave away some sneakers at the St. Petersburg Salvation Army.

"One mother was particularly grateful since her daughter had made a cheerleading squad and she was not able to afford the shoes," Maddon said. "She was tearful and so appreciative, as was her daughter, at this seemingly small gift. Perspective comes in different forms at different times."

Maddon hopes to continue growing the event to reach out to even more families and people who are in need.

"I would like to be able to expand more across the state of Florida," Maddon said. "I'm not sure how that will work, but we have had some preliminary discussions. I would also like to be able to work in more for the kids. We will continue to try and get better here."

Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.