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Joe Siddall – Major Leaguer: Act 2

Joe Siddall always hoped there’d be a second act for him in professional baseball.
Author: Gavin MacDougall
6 years ago
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… He just never expected it to be on the airwaves. But, influenced by the spirit of his son, the Windsor native is making a name for himself with Blue Jays fans across Canada

In early fall 2004, I found myself in a Peterborough hotel with a group of Windsor parents and our hockey-playing sons, who, having just finished Day One of their tournament, were bouncing off the walls as excited 10-year-olds will do. Among the elder group looking to escape the chaos was Joe Siddall, the former Major League Baseball catcher who’d spent time with the Montreal Expos, Detroit Tigers and Florida Marlins over a 13-year professional career. Now happily retired, Joe was a stay-at-home dad who coached his kids’ baseball teams and took them to their hockey practices.

Joe and I were soon talking ball over a couple of beers while watching Game 3 of the ALDS between the Red Sox and Angels. A few weeks later, the Red Sox would end the infamous Curse of the Bambino, winning their first World Series since 1918, but on this night they were just trying to get past the Angels. Watching the game with Joe, I quickly realized just how much a former major league player—particularly a catcher—knows about the game of baseball.

Joe was describing plays before they happened, and offering analysis better and quicker than the on-air commentators. The capping moment of his commentating prowess came in the bottom of the tenth, when Red Sox slugger David Ortiz stepped to the plate looking to end the game and series with one swing. Joe suggested that if Angels pitcher Jarrod Washburn threw a backdoor slider to Big Papi, the game was “going to be over.” Seconds later, after Washburn tried to do just that and Ortiz launched a bomb over Fenway Park’s Green Monster to send Boston on its date with destiny, Joe leaned back and flashed a smile that said, “told ya so.” And all I remember thinking was, this guy should be in a broadcast booth.

Near 10 years later, on the morning of February 24, 2014, Joe Siddall eased into the cramped quarters behind home plate at the Toronto Blue Jays Dunedin Stadium in Dunedin, Florida, donned a headset, and officially launched an unexpected act two in the Major Leagues. Yes, the guy so many of this family and friends figured was a natural for baseball broadcasting was the new colour commentator to legendary Toronto Blue Jays play-by-play man Jerry Howarth. But he was doing so with the heaviest of hearts. For how he got back to the Big Leagues as a broadcaster was at once surreal and heartbreaking.

In early summer 2013, Kevin Siddall found himself like any other 14-year-old in a sports-mad family. He loved his sports. All of them. A pitcher with the Windsor Stars in the summer and travel hockey player in the winter, Kevin—like his older brother Brett, and their old man 30 years prior—rolled from one sport season to the next, never worrying about, or constrained by, a health issue of any kind. He was a happy-go-lucky kid in the truest sense, readying for his first year of high school and eager to follow the accomplished footsteps of his dad and brother, who was attending Buffalo’s Canasius University on a baseball scholarship. But then, midway through that summer, Kevin began showing signs of fatigue, and a nagging croupy cough that wouldn’t go away.

“Four years on, we still shake our heads at how everything started with Kevin’s illness,” says Joe today. “He literally went from the baseball diamond, to a Windsor emergency room, to a London hospital. One day he was your average 14-year-old, playing a game he loved; the next he was undergoing cancer treatments.”

Kevin was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in August 2013, and for the next six months underwent multiple rounds of aggressive chemotherapy and more than 50 blood transfusions, but the treatments couldn’t kill the aggressive cancer cells. On February 4, 2014, he died peacefully with his parents and siblings by his side. Like all families who lose one of their own at a young age, the Siddalls were devastated; and as Joe best describes, in a complete fog.

“It was a very surreal time for all of us,” he says. “You’re still trying to make sense of everything, and questioning why your child got this (illness); even though we knew toward the end of Kevin’s fight how this was going to end. It’s obviously the most painful and difficult experience you can go through as a family. You’re left to question a lot of things, but you find comfort in your faith, and in each other. My wife is the rock of our family and she did so much to show us how, in life, you have to move on. You just have to move forward. It was extremely difficult though. It took me a while to be as open and talkative about Kevin as I am today. We had a lot of incredible support from family and many friends. So many different pockets of the Windsor community showered us with so much support. It made the healing a little easier; to see how caring and thoughtful people were about Kevin and our family.”

That support extended beyond the Windsor area and included the many friends and contacts Joe still had within major league baseball. Since 2002, he had served as the bullpen catcher for Tiger home games, a convenient post-retirement gig that allowed him the freedom to do all he was enjoying on the home front, and still stay connected with the game and the opportunities it might yet present. It also kept him in touch with a lot of good baseball people, like Jerry Howarth, the longtime Blue Jays radio announcer who had come to know Siddall from their regular chats whenever the Blue Jays visited Comerica Park.

“Anyone who knows Jerry Howarth will tell you he’s one of the kindest, nicest, most sincere people you will ever meet,” says Joe. “He knew I was a Canadian who played in the major leagues for a time and he always made a point of looking me up at the ballpark whenever the Jays were in town. Jerry loves talking baseball. And I guess he found a kindred spirit in me because I’m certainly likewise. We developed a good relationship over the years as a result of that.”

Which is why, among the many e-mails and texts of condolence received after Kevin’s passing, the note from Jerry Howarth came as no surprise to the Siddalls. “It was the week after Kevin’s funeral when I got an e-mail from Jerry expressing his condolences and telling me that our family was in this thoughts and prayers,” recalls Joe. “I started typing a reply, thanking him and saying I’d see him around the ballpark. But just before I clicked send, for reasons I still don’t know to this day, I added one line. I wrote ‘or the broadcast booth.’ I honestly can’t say why I did that. A job as a baseball broadcaster was nowhere on my radar. So I don’t know why I added that line.”

Before he could make sense of his reply, Joe’s e-mail pinged with a response from Howarth that simply read, “How about right now?” Horwath had just lost his broadcast partner, ex–Tigers and Blue Jays pitcher Jack Morris, to the Minnesota Twins, and with spring training around the corner, needed a new sidekick in a hurry.

“I thought to myself, why not Joe?” the now-retired Howarth told Sportsnet TV at the time. “I know Joe didn’t have any broadcast experience but he had a great knowledge of the game. I always looked for two qualities in broadcast partners and that was knowledge of the game and the willingness to mix with the players. As a former player, Joe had done all of that so he was certainly as good a candidate as anyone. Plus, catchers make good managers and broadcasters, so I thought he could be a great fit.”

For his part, Siddall recalls having one of those “are you serious?” moments after reading Howarth’s reply. “I remember turning to my wife and saying ‘I think I may have an opportunity with the Blue Jays.’ Jerry and I had some immediate conversations and within two weeks I was interviewed for the job, hired, and in Florida as Jerry’s new partner in the radio booth. It happened that quickly.”

Not lost on anyone was the fact that the e-mail exchange that triggered all of this was on February 11—Kevin’s birthday. Two weeks later, Joe cruised through his first game on that February 24 date, an exhibition between the Jays and the Philadelphia Phillies, the latter of whose winning pitcher that day just happened to be named…Kevin. Coincidence? Not to Joe and his family.

“Has Kevin had something to do with all of this?” Joe asks rhetorically. “I know there are lots of people who think those kinds of things don’t happen, and that’s fine. But our family likes to think he’s had a hand in this. That somehow, some way, he pushed something in me to add that last note to Jerry. It’s comforting to believe that. That he’s with us always, and has a lasting impact on our lives.”

Siddall’s litmus test as a broadcaster came halfway through that first year, when he called out Jays star José Bautista after the slugger was tossed from a key game against the Orioles for arguing a called third strike. A week later, following a two-homer outing by Bautista the previous evening, Siddall strode over to offer a “nice job,” but was met with a cold shoulder by the oft-moody Bautista.

“When I went over to congratulate him his response was ‘what do you care, you don’t think I want to play anyways,’” says Joe, explaining how Bautista had heard his radio comments in the Jay’s clubhouse. “So here I was, my first year as a broadcaster, and I’ve ticked off one of the team’s biggest stars! It was one of those moments where you have to decide to be true to yourself, and that’s what I did. Sure, maybe the smart thing would have been to apologize and hope José Bautista would still like me, but the right thing to do was what made it an easy decision. I owed it to our listeners to stay true to what I felt. So we had a real good conversation where I explained my intention was to express how valuable José was to the Toronto Blue Jays, and that him missing any part of a game over something he could control was something he had to work on. He respected my opinion, we shook hands, and everything was cool. I remember walking out of the clubhouse thinking, okay, this is going to work. I can do this.”

And he sure did. Over the next four years, the Howarth-Siddall partnership developed into one of the best in baseball radio. With Howarth’s guidance, Siddall became more comfortable behind the mic with each passing game and season, and was a firsthand witness to the Jays’ memorable back-to-back American League Championship appearances in 2015 and ’16. He travelled everywhere with the club, saw all kinds of cool places across the U.S., and did the majority of it with his wife Tamara at this side, who would usually leave her Windsor medical practice on Thursdays to join her husband in Toronto or wherever the Jays were on the road that weekend.

Through it all, Kevin’s presence was a constant in the broadcast booth, as evident by the lime-green “Fight Like Kevin” wristband Joe still wears and the regular routine of penciling in “Siddall, K.” on his Blue Jays scorecard each game. He had planned on continuing that practice in the radio booth for the 2018 season when an opportunity of a different broadcast sort suddenly presented itself last November, when longtime Sportsnet Blue Jays Central pre-game co-host Greg Zaun was dismissed by the network for inappropriate behavior to female staffers. Siddall, who had pinch-hit for some of his colleagues on a few Jays TV broadcasts over the past four years, figured it was at least worth exploring the possibility of moving over to the television side.

“I had expressed my interest to the Sportsnet producers about doing more TV if the opportunity ever presented itself,” he says. “When they made the change I figured why not take a look at doing the studio job. Don’t get me wrong, I loved working the games on radio, but the pre-game job offered a chance to learn another aspect of the business, and also meant I would be a little more grounded in Toronto and not on the road for 81 games a year. I wasn’t sure how serious they took me, and I figured they’d probably bring someone in with more television experience, but I figured hey, why not try.”

It’s the last weekend of spring 2018, and Joe Siddall finds himself sitting at an anchor desk on the second level of the Rogers Centre, along the leftfield foul line. He’s reviewing final notes and highlight tape before the cameras beam his and Jamie Campbell’s faces to Blue Jays Nation across Canada. The radio guy has indeed become the television guy. Much as was the case four years earlier, Joe Siddall was the Blue Jays’ man.

“It’s been awesome to this point,” says Siddall, when asked about the move from radio to TV, and from calling games to assessing them from the studio. “It’s a different format obviously in that you’re not sitting in a booth for three hours calling a nine-inning game. It’s much more analytical and opinion-driven, where I get to pick and choose the things I think are most relevant or important to a game, and how the Blue Jays are doing. There’s just as much prep work involved with the show, but I’ve been given a lot of creative freedom to offer the analysis I think is important and worthwhile for our audience.”

The upside of the new gig is that he’s now in Toronto for the season, as even the pre- and post-game shows for Jays’ road games are shot out of the sportsnet studio in the Rogers Centre. Siddall generally spends five days a week in downtown Toronto, and returns to Windsor when the Jays schedule allows. Tamara still joins him every Thursday, with the couple enjoying long weekends in Toronto and what the downtown core has to offer. Don’t call him a Torontonian though. Windsor is home, he insists, and always will be. In fact, the family’s home will be less of an empty nest this fall as youngest daughter Mackenzie, a recent graduate of UBC, has returned to attend MBA grad school at UWindsor. Their older daughter Brooklyn, a graduate of Guelph, works in the Windsor area, while Brett is playing for the Oakland A’s Double-A affiliate in Midland, Texas.

“The Sportsnet folks thought I might move to Toronto permanently, but I told them Windsor is our home and always will be,” says Joe. “They understood that and have been super accommodating to me. I couldn’t have asked for a better situation and I’m very blessed with what I’ve been able to do the last four years. It’s been a surreal journey, but we’re all good. We’re doing what Kevin wanted us all to do and that’s appreciating each moment and living life to its fullest. Because life can change in a matter of seconds. It really can. We miss him dearly. But we know he’s with us every day. I know he’s with me when I’m at the ballpark and going on the air. He’s with his mother and his siblings every day. His presence is with us always. And yeah, I think he’s pushed a few buttons for us here and there; like maybe a line on an e-mail, for sure. And that’s a good feeling.”

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