Last updated: February 19. 2013 10:02PM - 370 Views

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HAZLETON – The plan sounds more like a fishing trip than a formula for success.

But if it works, the big prize will be a better place to live for the people of Hazleton.

We're going to have better kids, better citizens, predicted Hazleton native and Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon.

The idea sounds simple.

Using children as bait and sports as the main foundation, the Hazleton Integration Project (HIP) intends to lure adults from all nationalities living in the city into a common bond of togetherness.

The whole thing is to tear down the prejudices, Maddon said. Find the kids a place to play, and then the parents are going to get involved.

But in reality, Maddon knows those bridges won't be constructed overnight.

His once-vibrant hometown has become rife with racial tension and gained national notoriety in the past decade as former mayor Lou Barletta tried to crack down on illegal immigrants.

And Maddon, who's been a driving force behind HIP since the project began last year, acknowledges some people around the Hazleton area haven't embraced his vision of integration.

I do feel there's a disconnect, Maddon said.

Yet, Maddon spoke at a press conference Thursday from a stage at the former Most Precious Blood School building in Hazleton, which was purchased during the past year to become HIP's New Hazleton One Community Center.

It's where Maddon envisions the city's children from all races and ethnicities not only playing – but bonding – together.

In baseball, we always talk about that moment when theory and reality clash, said Maddon, a two-time American League Manager of the Year who led his Tampa Bay team to the 2008 World Series. When it works, it's pretty cool.

He's working on a dream from the past he once knew.

Maddon recalled growing up in a Hazleton that blended people of Polish heritage with neighborhoods composed of Irish settlers more than a half-century ago.

Different groups of people. And they all pulled together very well, Maddon said. You felt very safe. It's not been that way (recently). We're trying to get it back to that. It takes small steps.

I'm asking the locals who aren't on board yet to taste what we're doing.

What HIP executives are striving for involves more than just sports programs.

Maddon said he'd like to see the program spawn a public speaking forum, along with a debate club.

We've got to do a better job of educating kids and focusing them better, Maddon said.

Can it work?

Tino Martinez believes it can.

The former All-Star first baseman who helped the New York Yankees to three straight World Series titles from 1998-2000 grew up in the melting pot city of Tampa, Fla., long before blossoming into a major league star.

During Thursday's press conference, he compared the HIP project with the Tampa Boys and Girls Club he attended during grade school, saying the opportunity to interact with children of African-American, Cuban and Latin descent helped him grow immensely as a person.

Joe's right, Martinez said of Maddon. If you get the message through to the kids, the parents will follow.

Bill Guerin never had to worry about battling racial bias during his 12-year NHL career.

Although the two-time Stanley Cup champion became the league's first Latin player – his mother is a native of Managua, Nicaragua – Guerin grew up in Massachusetts and didn't publicize his Latin heritage.

It wasn't well-known, said Guerin, now a player development coach for the Pittsburgh Penguins.

But he said he did sense some disdain between English- and French-speaking players during his early days in the league in the 1990s, Guerin said, then watched as the NHL began to embrace the influence of European players.

We have players from all over the world – Czechoslovakia, Russia, Sweden, Guerin said. Now it's a non-issue.

Which is the exact mindset Maddon is trying to implement in Hazleton.

Too many times we retract our imagination, Maddon said. You need to dream big and aim high.

In doing that, you're going to be successful.

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