By J.P. Antonacci
Canadian Baseball Network
A road trip to Detroit can feel more like a homecoming for Toronto Blue Jays broadcaster Joe Siddall, who grew up just across the Ambassador Bridge in Windsor, Ont.
It also brings the memories flooding back.
Memories of listening to what Siddall considers “one of the best tandems ever on the radio,” Ernie Harwell and Paul Carey, broadcast the exploits of Alan Trammell, Lou Whitaker and other Tigers stars into the Siddall family’s living room – and sometimes into young Joe’s classroom care of a smuggled transistor radio.
He thinks back to first donning the tools of ignorance as a little league catcher in Windsor, where coaches like Bernie Soulliere inspired his lifelong love of the game.
And driving along Trumbull Avenue past the site of now-demolished Tiger Stadium recalls the day Siddall hit his one and only major league home run.
It was the summer of 1998. Siddall had signed with the Tigers the previous December as a minor league free agent, attracted in part by the fact that Detroit’s triple-A affiliate, the Toledo Mud Hens, is based a short drive from Windsor.
Of course, there was also the chance of playing for his childhood favourite team.
“The first time I put on the white uniform with the Old English D was surreal,” Siddall said of his first day at Detroit’s big-league spring training camp.
He was called up to the majors in July and stayed with the club the rest of the season.
Siddall was in the lineup for the first half of an August 7 doubleheader against the Mariners at Tiger Stadium. He led off the sixth inning with a solo shot off the façade of the upper deck, his only hit in four trips during a 6-3 Tigers loss.
“Surreal,” he said again. “I grew up as a little boy being the biggest Tigers fan in the world, and I got my first major league home run, my only one, as a Tiger.”
The ball caromed off the façade and fell back onto the field, where Mariners outfielder Ken Griffey Jr. picked it up and threw it into the stands. Tigers staff went out to the bleachers to retrieve the keepsake for Siddall.
“But the person wouldn’t give it up, because Ken Griffey Jr. threw it to him,” Siddall said.
So Griffey, the future hall of famer, agreed to sign a bat and ball to trade to the fan for Siddall’s home run ball.
That the homer came off his former Montreal Expos batterymate Jeff Fassero was ironic, Siddall added, as lefties typically gave him fits.
The box score from that game also shows that Siddall threw out fellow Canadian Rob Ducey trying to steal second base, an example of the defensive prowess so appreciated by Siddall’s pitchers.
“The only reason I got to the big leagues was because I could catch behind the plate. It wasn’t because of my hitting,” he laughed.
Cheering from the bleachers on that memorable afternoon were Siddall’s parents. His father, the late Bob Siddall, was a meter technician with the local hydro utility and worked a second job by night to support the family’s nine kids. Siddall’s mother Nellie remains a diehard Tigers fan who regularly tunes into games, while occasionally checking how her son is doing on the Blue Jays broadcast.
Nellie and Bob also cheered on Joe as a young ballplayer in Windsor, where he was exposed to tough competition at an early age.
“I grew up in a city that has often been referred to as – and still is – the hotbed of baseball not only in Ontario, but in Canada,” Siddall said. “I’m very fortunate to come from an area with a rich baseball heritage.”
He noted that all kids want to try catching, but their enthusiasm usually dwindles after a few foul tips. That wasn’t the case with Siddall, who thrived on gunning down baserunners and still gets excited when talking about the minutiae of positioning and footwork.
“I just always loved being behind the plate – being part of the game every pitch, being in control of the game and so involved,” he said.
He also enjoyed finding different ways to motivate his pitchers, and figuring out how to fool hitters by calling the right pitch sequence.
“I just found that so intriguing,” he said.
When he was 15, Siddall played on a midget select team coached by Soulliere, a former Baseball Canada vice-president who was elected into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in 2009. A few years later he suited up with the junior national team.
“You have to look back as a player and a person and just be grateful that those programs existed. And of course they’ve all flourished – we know what the junior national team does now, and the opportunities they provide to kids,” said Siddall, who besides his baseball talent was no slouch on the football field and basketball court at Assumption College School.
“You have to remember where you came from. I’m forever grateful to the people who ran baseball in South Windsor,” he said. “Because who knows, if baseball was not that available to me as a youngster, maybe I would have chosen another sport.”
Siddall appeared in 73 games over four major league seasons during his 13-year professional career. He made his debut as a 25-year-old in 1993 with the powerhouse Montreal Expos, forming an all-Canadian battery with pitcher Denis Boucher of Montreal, with Larry Walker of Maple Ridge, B.C., in the outfield.
The Expos were favoured to win the National League East the following year, possibly setting up an all-Canadian World Series against the Blue Jays, but the season was ended by a work stoppage.
“Of course, the Expos had the best team in baseball at the time of the strike. It would have been something special in Canada if it had come down to that,” Siddall said.
“I still think it’d be a wonderful thing if (Montreal) got another team. And how awesome would it be if it was in the AL East with the Blue Jays and New York and Boston? There would be some wonderful rivalries.”
Siddall remains active with Baseball Canada. He coached his own kids for many years, and recently produced a series of online instructional videos in which he passes on to young players the same fundamentals of the game – along with lessons about the value of hard work and dedication – that he learned from his parents and coaches in Windsor.
Now in his fourth season as a radio and TV analyst, he draws on lessons from his playing career – and from the work of broadcasters like Harwell and Carey, and longtime Blue Jays play-by-play man Jerry Howarth – to share his passion for baseball with Blue Jays fans around the world.
“Joe over the last couple of years has become one of my best friends,” said Howarth, who quickly formed a bond with his affable new partner. “He truly is one of the nicest people I have ever met. And he loves baseball like I do.”
Having never called a game before joining the Jays broadcast team in 2014, Siddall admits that his work behind the microphone is still a work in progress. But with a little help, he’s on the right track.
“When I took this job, it was the very first time I was doing it, and basically learning on the fly, on the radio side with Jerry and the TV side with Buck (Martinez). I couldn’t ask for two better mentors to teach me the tricks of the trade,” Siddall said.
“I’m very fortunate to come into this profession, having not done it before, with that kind of help and guidance each and every day.”