By Kevin Glew
Canadian Baseball Network
Against long odds, he rose through the South Windsor minor baseball ranks to become a big league catcher.
And now more than 18 years after he last squatted behind the plate in a professional game, he has persevered through personal tragedy to become a highly respected analyst on Sportsnet’s Blue Jays Central.
But through it all, Joe Siddall has never forgotten his baseball roots. And that’s what makes him a fitting selection for the Baseball Ontario Hall of Fame.
Siddall will be inducted, along with the Chatham Coloured All-Stars team (a trailblazing squad that excelled in the 1930s) and Canadian Baseball Network founder Bob Elliott, in a ceremony at the Brookstreet Hotel in Ottawa on Saturday.
Siddall will become just the second ex-big leaguer, joining Chatham, Ont., native Fergie Jenkins, to be honoured by the provincial ball shrine that was established in 2013.
“I grew up playing at Central Park here in Windsor and it’s still, to this day, just around the corner from where I live now with my wife (Tamara) and kids (Brooke, Brett and Mackenzie),” said Siddall. “And that’s where it all started for me. There were three diamonds and they’re still there.”
Siddall began playing organized baseball at age seven.
“I started on the tyke diamond at Central Park and it was Tyke and then Peewee and then Bantam and you kind of made your way around the three diamonds clockwise,” said Siddall. “And I have a brother Jim that’s two years older than me and Jim would pitch four innings and I would catch and then I would pitch three and he would catch.”
As the youngest of nine (eight boys and one girl) children, Siddall has maintained a close relationship with his siblings. His parents worked long hours to support their family. His dad was a meter technician with Ontario Hydro, while his mom looked after the children and ran a Tupperware business.
Siddall feels fortunate to have grown up in a Canadian baseball hotbed like Windsor where he received excellent coaching from Bernie Soulliere, Marc Picard and Al Bernacchi, among others.
“A lot of these guys are still coaching,” said Siddall. “It’s incredible what they have done for the Windsor community.”
And it was in youth baseball in Windsor that Siddall was introduced to the catching position.
“I loved putting the gear on and being behind the plate because it felt like you were always in charge of the game,” explained Siddall. “I was a catcher from a very young age and I continued to catch all the way up.”
While attending Assumption College High School, he played football, basketball and baseball, and it was Canadian Baseball Hall of Famer Father Ronald Cullen who coached Siddall on the ball team. Few Ontario high schools had ball teams in the 1980s, so Father Cullen would set up games across the border with Detroit schools.
The multi-sport standout would also suit up for the Windsor Selects, one of the most successful baseball programs in the country.
But it was Siddall’s skills on the gridiron that would earn him a scholarship from Central Michigan University. As a freshman quarterback, he practiced with the team, but did not play in any regular season games.
After his first year at university, he returned to Windsor and was playing for the Selects when he was invited to a Montreal Expos tryout camp at Lacasse Park. Siddall attended and impressed the Expos scouts so much that they offered him a pro contract.
“At first, I didn’t really understand how it worked,” said Siddall. “I remember saying to the Expos on the phone that I couldn’t play professional baseball, that I had to go back to school in a couple of weeks.”
But the Expos were persistent and they took Siddall and his parents out to supper to convince him to sign.
“I pondered it for a week and ultimately came up with the decision that I was going to pursue a pro career,” said Siddall. “It was not an easy decision because of what I was going to have to give up. I was going to have to sacrifice my education for a shot at professional baseball where we all know that the chances are slim and none.”
But Siddall felt like this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and that if it didn’t work out, he could resume his education in the future.
So he signed with the Expos and was sent to Instructional League in West Palm Beach, Fla. While in the Expos system, he credits minor league catching instructor Luis Pujols and pitching coordinator Rick Williams, son of former Expos manager Dick Williams, for helping him hone his skills.
“Rick was instrumental in helping me learn how to call a game,” said Siddall.
An amateur free agent in an organization rich with prospects, Siddall faced long odds to make it to the majors. But his defensive skills were very strong and he slowly climbed up the Expos’ ranks.
In 1993, his sixth full season in the Expos organization, he was playing for the triple-A Ottawa Lynx when he was called up by the big league club for the first time in late July.
He ended up competing in 19 games for the Expos that year. One of the highlights of his first big league stint was catching hometown hurler Denis Boucher in front of more than 40,000 fans at Olympic Stadium on September 6, 1993. With Maple Ridge, B.C. native Larry Walker in right field that day, the contest represented the first time in modern baseball history that three Canucks have been in the starting lineup for the same major league team.
“That was a very special day,” said Siddall. “I didn’t realize it was going to be such a big deal until I was in the dugout before the game and I was out there early, as I usually was, waiting for the starting pitcher to come out and then I would go and do my stretching and long toss with him. And when Denis came out of our tunnel and out of our dugout and we started walking towards the bullpen, the fans went crazy. And that’s when I think it really hit me . . . But we can talk about the [all-Canadian] battery all we want, the biggest draw was that Denis Boucher was pitching for the Montreal Expos.”
Making the day even more memorable for Siddall was that all three Canucks contributed to the Expos’ 4-3 win.
“Denis got a no-decision but he pitched very well. He pitched six innings and only allowed one run. I threw a guy out stealing and I think I also hit a double and Larry homered so it was pretty neat all-around,” recalled Siddall.
The Windsor native found himself back in triple-A Ottawa for the bulk of the next two seasons, before being recalled by the Expos towards the end of the 1995 campaign.
Prior to the 1996 season, he inked a deal with the Florida Marlins and he would suit up for 18 big league games with them that year. The veteran receiver then rejoined the Expos organization the following year and played another season in Ottawa, before signing a minor league deal with the Detroit Tigers – the team he grew up in Windsor cheering for – prior to the 1998 campaign.
“I’d always dreamed of being able to wear that old English D on my chest,” said Siddall. “I’d been a Tigers fan since I was a little boy, and I remember emulating Lance Parrish and Kirk Gibson and Alan Trammell, so to be able to put that uniform on was pretty special.”
Siddall was called up by the Tigers in July. Often toiling in front of friends and family, the versatile backstop enjoyed his longest tenure in the majors that season, suiting up for 29 games.
He also clubbed his only major league home run at Tiger Stadium with his parents in attendance on Aug. 7. It came off his former Expos teammate Jeff Fassero, then with the Seattle Mariners, in the first game of a doubleheader. The ball banked off the façade in the upper deck in right centre field and bounced back on to the field where Mariners Hall of Fame centre fielder Ken Griffey Jr. picked it up and tossed it to a fan in the stands.
Tigers staff attempted to get the ball back for Siddall and the fan finally relinquished it in exchange for a signed bat and ball from Griffey Jr. Siddall now has the ball at his Windsor home.
After his stop in Detroit, Siddall donned the catcher’s gear for the Tigers’ triple-A affiliate in Toledo in 1999, prior to inking a minor league deal with the Boston Red Sox in 2000. However, by early June that season, Siddall was not playing regularly with club’s triple-A Pawtucket affiliate and he decided he was going to hang up his playing spikes. He went in early the day after he made his decision to talk to manager Gary Jones, but then he saw his name was in the starting lineup, so he thought he would wait.
“I thought I’m going to play my last game and then go into the office after the game,” shared Siddall. “And wouldn’t you know it, I caught a perfect game from Tomo Ohka that day. So, of course, after the game everybody is celebrating and everybody was having lots of fun on the field and in the clubhouse and I didn’t want to rain on that parade. So I waited until the following day [to retire].”
So the last pro contest that Siddall ever caught was a perfect game.
The then 33-year-old Canuck returned home to Windsor and became a stay-at-home dad and helped coach his kids’ teams. He remained in involved in the game by helping the Tigers during batting practice at homestands starting in 2001 and a year after that, he began working towards completing his degree in Human Kinetics at the University of Windsor.
He always prioritized coaching his kids and he was coaching his youngest son, Kevin, when the 14-year-old was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma in August 2013. After a courageous six-month battle, Kevin passed away on Feb. 4, 2014.
After Kevin’s death, Blue Jays broadcaster Jerry Howarth emailed Siddall to express his condolences.
“I replied to him thanking him and I said, ‘I look forward to seeing you when you guys come to Detroit this summer.’ Then at the very end of the email, I wrote something along the lines of, ‘Maybe I’ll see you in the broadcast booth one day,’” shared Siddall. “And this was a week after our son’s funeral and I still, to this day, don’t know why I wrote that at the end of email. And I think still that if I didn’t put that at the end of the email, Jerry wouldn’t have thought about it. But Jerry replied right away and said, ‘How about right now?’”
At that time, Jack Morris had just resigned as the Blue Jays’ radio analyst.
Siddall and his wife, Tamara, were still reeling from their son’s death, but they discussed the opportunity and Siddall exchanged emails with Howarth, who connected him with Sportsnet 590 The Fan program director Don Kollins.
One week later, Siddall was asked to go on air with Jeff Blair so Kollins could hear him on the radio. After that spot, Siddall was invited to Florida to work some spring training games on the radio with Howarth.
“My wife and I talked about it and she said, ‘Go for it!’” recalled Siddall. “Of course, we had a whole different perspective on life [since Kevin’s passing] and from that point on, I just dove into it headfirst and I just said whatever they want, I’ll be there.”
It didn’t take Howarth and Kollins long to recognize Siddall’s talent and he was offered the radio analyst’s job after just his second spring broadcast.
Siddall would work alongside Howarth in the radio booth for four years, before being hired as the studio analyst for Blue Jays Central prior to the 2018 season.
Despite his high profile gig in Toronto, Siddall continues to make Windsor his home base. His wife, who works as a physician, travels to Toronto every weekend during the baseball season.
And his son, Brett, has followed in his footsteps and embarked on a pro career. Drafted in the 13th round by the Oakland A’s in 2015, the now 24-year-old outfielder spent the bulk of the 2018 season with the double-A Midland Rockhounds.
Through all of his success in baseball, Siddall has never forgotten his roots and the coaches in South Windsor that helped him achieve his dreams.
“It’s humbling to say the least,” said Siddall of his upcoming induction into the Baseball Ontario Hall of Fame. “I mean as soon as I hear the words Hall of Fame, I kind of go, ‘Well, hold on a minute here.’ There are just so many people who have done so many things and continue to do so to this day and Bernie Soulliere is one of them. He’s one of the people that continue to do things for youth baseball in Ontario and, of course, locally here in Windsor. So to me, those are the people that are the Hall of Famers.”