Tuesday afternoon at the corner of Hull Street and Lowell Avenue in Newton, 67 year-old Joe Siciliano ran baseball practice — just as he has done every May weekday since 1987.
Putting his guys through base-running and relay drills, Siciliano looked as enthusiastic as Pete Carroll on the sideline with the Seahawks in Super Bowl XLVIII. The old gray coach was laughing, grimacing, and gesturing nonstop. He was pumped and jacked as his teenage ballplayers went about their business with purpose and pleasure. A boring fundamental drill was somehow worthwhile and fun as the Tigers prepared for Game 1 of the inaugural Super 8 tournament. Top-seeded North (19-1) opens at home Wednesday afternoon against Catholic Memorial.
Joe Siciliano. Everyman. Teacher, coach, groundskeeper, grandfather, baseball lifer, sculptor of young souls. Every town should have one.
“The kids have to think you’re interested in them,’’ says Siciliano. “You have to let them know that you have their back, that you care about them. That, plus humor. I have nine grandkids and I can make every one of them laugh. If you can get kids to see the bigger picture and have them have some fun, that’s important. That’s what’s wrong with Little League now. The kids don’t have enough fun. Do they remember the scores? No. They’ve got to have fun.’’
No one has more fun or loves baseball more than this guy. He’s always itching for the next game. After lunchtime on gamedays, North students and staff are accustomed to seeing Joe Sis stalking the corridors in full uniform and cleats with a stopwatch and whistle around his neck. He might even be wearing batting gloves, saying, “Let’s play two.’’
“My father [a professor at Boston College] was a disciplinarian and our only outlet was to play baseball,’’ he explains. “That was it. I couldn’t do anything else except study.’’
Siciliano is a veteran math teacher at North and his department office overlooks the ballfield. His ballfield. Newton’s Parks and Recreation Department is officially responsible for the readiness of the field, but in the last three decades, Joe Sis has done more groundskeeping than Fenway’s Joe Mooney. If his baseball lawn needs any attention Wednesday, Siciliano will be out there with a wheelbarrow, rake, and bags of Diamond Dry.
“Last spring my brother was driving by the field at 5:30 in the morning,’’ remembers assistant coach Tom Donnellan. “He saw Sis with a flashlight in the shed getting ready to work on the field. He called me and said, ‘Hey, are you guys playing a 7 a.m. game, ’cause Sis is already out there getting the field ready.’’
Joe Siciliano was born in the North End. His family moved to Newton when he was in the fourth grade. A skilled third baseman, he graduated from the now-defunct Sacred Heart High School in Newton (26 senior class members) in 1964, and from Boston College in 1968. He went to work at Newton’s Day Middle School later that year and never left the system. “Mr. Holland’s Opus” meets “Field of Dreams.”
[Disclosure: My son played four seasons for Joe Siciliano from 2003-06.]
“Joe is all about the process and work ethic and being fair,’’ says Donnellan, part of the program since 2000. “He believes in treating everyone fairly. He treats the No. 20 player like the No. 1 player. We have guys who have no chance of playing in the state tournament and they are getting the same reps at practice as our best players.’’
North baseball teams have been good, but never great, traditionally trailing the likes of Walpole and Braintree in the Bay State Conference. Two years ago, the Tigers advanced to the Division 1 North final, and last year they went 17-4 overall. But no one was prepared for North’s magical run in 2014. The Tigers have only one loss, a 2-1 squeaker vs. Braintree. Playing the iron outside the conference, they beat traditional powers Catholic Memorial, Xaverian, BC High, and Waltham. Now they are the top seed in the state tournament.
“You never know in baseball,’’ said Siciliano. “But these kids worked really hard in the offseason.’’
The Tigers are led by starting pitchers Tommy Hodgson, southpaw Ted Rodliff (one earned run all season), Dylan Spordone, and relief ace Theo Resnick. The North staff gave up only 20 runs this season. They allowed 11 earned runs in 20 games, striking out 11.9 batters per game. North hit a mere .254, but committed only 31 errors. Junior outfielder Ben Porter has emerged as a Division 1 recruit and brothers Thomas and Alex Joyce help Porter in the middle of the order.
The Tigers benefit from a support staff that includes brothers Tom and Frank Donnellan and James Greeley, one of the North captains from 2006. When the Tigers played Arlington in the state tournament in 2006, Greeley studied an exhaustive Siciliano scouting report on the Spy Ponders and read, “Greeley should pick one of their guys off third base.’’
Greeley picked an Arlington runner off third base in the fifth inning of a 3-2 victory. The author of the scouting report was ecstatic.
Joe Siciliano (inducted into the Massachusetts Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame last winter) did not want me to write about him in Wednesday’s newspaper. He wants it to be about the kids. And he fears we’ll put the bad juju on Newton North.
Sorry. Some stories need to be told.