Welcome to CATCH IT! — Joe Castellano’s personal observations about what’s going on in the world of sports outside of The Sports Virus Podcasts
I was walking down a street in St. Louis near Busch Stadium last weekend when I ran into Syracuse Orange radio announcer Matt Park. We were both there covering the NCAA tournament.
I hadn’t seen Matt in years so there was a lot to catch up on. Unfortunately, Matt informed me that the former “Voice of the Orange” Joel Mareiniss had passed away earlier this month. (Read story here on Joel Mareiniss)
The news of Joel’s death took me back 20 years, to 1996, when we worked as radio broadcast partners on the Syracuse Chiefs broadcasts. That year the Chiefs were playing their final season at the old MacArthur Stadium. Our booth was either freezing or blazing hot, featuring none of the modern amenities that are in most minor league stadiums today. We were lucky enough to have a phone line that worked to get us on the air.
When I initially worked with Joel it was a major adjustment for me. The first 5 years of my minor league career were spent in Class A in Geneva, NY, Bend, OR and Rancho Cucamonga, CA where I worked alone for every game. That meant that if I wasn’t talking and there was a small crowd with no noise, every time I stopped talking there was dead air. Therefore, I was trained to talk straight through a three-hour-plus, nine-inning-or-more game every day.
With the Chiefs I would be doing road games solo and home games with Joel. I had to get accustomed to leaving air time for a partner and it wasn’t easy for me at first. Joel was doing the middle three innings of play-by-play and he loved to talk. It always seems like we were stepping on each other that first month. Plus, he was over 30 years older than me so all of my Seinfeld references were falling on two deaf ears.
Joel was kind of grouchy with me in the first month or so of the season. I think he was hoping to do more innings of play-by-play and was annoyed that he had to become familiar with another new partner. Matt Vasgersian was there the previous season and left after one year for a better job in Tucson.
Somewhere along the line things got better for us. The team wasn’t great, but they had some fun players to watch like CF Shannon Stewart and SS Miguel Cairo, who both had successful major league careers. Our catcher Rich Rowland took it upon himself to teach me the ropes in my first season in AAA. He was the one who told me I needed to wear a sports jacket on our flights (flights with a minor league team were a new concept for me since Class A only took busses). Ruben Amaro was one of our outfielders. He eventually became GM of the Philadelphia Phillies. Chris Weinke was our first baseman. It was his last year as a pro baseball player. He decided to return to football and had a scholarship waiting to play QB at Florida State. He eventually won the Heisman Trophy and played in the NFL. I remember him throwing footballs in the outfield one day and wondering why he wasn’t already on a gridiron somewhere. Especially since I think he was hitting about .220.
Richie Hebner was our manager and he was quite a character. I don’t think he could get through a sentence without using the “F” word. He was fun to be around. I remember our opener in Scranton with Richie coaching third base in 30 degree weather. He looked like a frozen stick. It started snowing and I thought to myself “do I really want to live in this part of the country?”
MacArthur Stadium didn’t draw big crowds and there was not a lot of nostalgia for that last season. The memorable characteristic of the park was the dimensions in center field which stretched out to 434 feet! Legend had it that Carlos Delgado was the only player to hit it over the fence in straight away center.
Shannon Stewart provided the most theatrics that I can ever recall in a two-game span. He started a triple play in Pawtucket with a catch near the fence (it looked like a trap to me) and threw the ball back into the infield to nail two runners who had taken off without tagging up because they also thought there was a trap instead of a catch.
The next day in Columbus, Stewart hit an inside the park grand slam. He lined one down the right field line and flew around the bases in no time on that artificial turf at Cooper Stadium.
As the season went along, I started to getting along better with Joel. We had some good laughs and even went golfing together several times that summer.
We both had to weather an extremely embarrassing broadcast one day when the Ottawa Lynx came to town for a doubleheader. The Lynx had no radio announcer and no PR director to help us with any notes and information. The roster had a few numbers that didn’t match the players on the field. The moment was rife for a major gaffe.
Game one of the doubleheader was supposed to have a kid named Rodney Henderson on the mound for Ottawa. As the game began I noticed that his uniform number wasn’t even on the roster, but we were assured by folks in the press box that Henderson was indeed on the mound.
What a great pitching performance we were seeing from Henderson. “Strike three!” I announced. “Got him with another slider.” “He struck him out!” barked Mareiniss.
Henderson was rolling. Eight strikeouts in the first five innings as I recall.
As we got to the 6th inning, all of a sudden there was a tap on my shoulder. The PA announcer Chris Granozio was trying to talk to me but I was on the air, so I motioned to write it down. That piece of paper provided bad news that I couldn’t believe. All along it was not Rodney Henderson having a great day. Jose Paniagua (who would eventually pitch in the major leagues) was the one dealing. Henderson was around though. He was flip-flopped and getting ready to start game two, all the while listening to us on the radio in the clubhouse and getting a nice kick out of all of it.
A bad day became worse when an AP reporter decided it was a good idea to mention it in his story which circulated all over the country. I felt like we were buffoons. From that day forward, I never trusted a printed lineup card. I would go down before the game and make sure of the manager’s lineup and if the rosters were wrong I was making phone calls before the game to find out why.
It’s funny how a baseball season can be so long, but go by so fast at the same time. I was starting to enjoy my time in Syracuse and developing good friendships with people like Matt Michael, the beat reporter from the Syracuse Post Standard newspaper and others working for the team. By the time August rolled around I was thinking about how much fun the final game at MacArthur Stadium would be and I was looking forward to the next season.
Then, for the first time in my career I experienced what most people experience at some point. There would be no next season for me with the Syracuse Chiefs. The team was giving up the rights to the broadcasts and the station would have full control of who the announcers would be. The WSYR station manager asked me to go to lunch and I was thinking that meant I would definitely be staying. Wrong. He took me to lunch to tell me that Ted DeLuca and Steve Hyder would be taking the mic the following season. No more Castellano and Mareiniss. Pretty sad.
Fortunately for me, Glenn Geffner left the radio position just down the Thruway with the Rochester Red Wings and I stepped into a great job there for six seasons, including opening a brand new ballpark (Frontier Field) and a Governor’s Cup Championship, both in 1997.
I’m not sure if Joel ever returned to the airwaves in Syracuse, but there were funny stories about him that will last forever.
The Chiefs had announcers like Marv Albert, Hank Greenwald, Greg Papa, Sean McDonough, Dan Hoard, Ken Levine, Doug Sherman and the aforementioned Vasgersian.
Hoard and Sherman accepted invitations to join us on the last broadcast at MacArthur Stadium. They came prepared with plenty of Joel stories, including two that I always tell.
Hoard (pictured left) was working with Joel and had a game where the trainer came running onto the field with his scissors bouncing off his side. Joel was focused on his scorecard, so when he looked at the field it seemed odd and sudden to him that someone would be running toward the mound who was not in a uniform. For some reason the scissors really stood out to him so he was in fear for the pitcher.
“…two outs in the inning…..and….wait a minute, there’ s a crazed lunatic running on the field! And, and, he has scissors!! He’s headed for the mound. Oh no!!” Hoard held in his laughter for a moment and said, “Joel, that’s just the trainer.”
There was also the story of Joel and Indianapolis radio announcer Howard Kellman. The Indians had a day game somewhere and made it to Syracuse in the evening. The Chiefs were playing another opponent that night so when Howard made it to his hotel room he decided to flip on the radio and see what was going on with the Chiefs.
“….well, tomorrow night the Indianapolis Indians come to town and that means long-time radio announcer Howard Kellman will be here,” said Joel “….folks, Howard has the worst toupee you’ve ever seen!”
Needless to say, it was probably sort of uncomfortable in that MacArthur Stadium press box the next day.
20 years has gone by fast. I didn’t even know that Joel suffered from Parkinson’s disease until running into Matt on that street in St. Louis.
The day after seeing Matt, Syracuse advanced to the sweet 16 with a win over Middle Tennessee. I know somewhere Joel is happy about that. Rest in peace partner and thanks for that one memorable summer.
Artwork courtesy of: Suzie Armagost.