Kevin Siddall will be on the minds – and the helmets and wristbands – of Canisius College baseball players this week as they battle for their second straight MAAC Tournament championship. He’s never far from the mind of a big-leaguer every night, too.
Siddall was a normal 14-year-old in Windsor, Ont., who loved sports. Baseball, hockey, basketball, volleyball. You name it, he played it. The family genes are good, too.
His father, Joe, was a former catcher with the Montreal Expos, Detroit Tigers and Florida Marlins. His older brother, Brett, is a sophomore outfielder/first baseman for the Griffs. His two older sisters, Brooke and Mackenzie, play hockey and softball.
When Kevin Siddall started having shortness of breath last summer, there was concern. But in mid-August, the family was stunned to learn he had non-Hodgkin lymphoma. He endured chemotherapy and several dozen blood transfusions as athletic teams around Western Ontario rallied in his support, but he passed away Feb. 4, a week before his 15th birthday.
As they have all season, the Griffs will take the field tonight in Lakewood, N.J., with a helmet sticker that says “FFK”, as in “Fighting for Kevin.” Lime green was the color used to support Kevin, so the Griffs will wear green wristbands with the acronym on it, green grip tape on their bats. They’ll also wear shirts that say “Fighting for Family” in support of the mother of first baseman Jimmy Luppens, who is battling breast cancer.
Family is an overused cliche in sports, especially at times with college teams. Not with this one.
“So many things the guys have done for myself and Jimmy’s family,” Brett Siddall said this week. “It’s been incredible to see the things they’ve done and how they’ve gone out of their way to make you feel better. Very touching for sure.”
The entire Canisius team took a bus to Windsor for Kevin Siddall’s wake.
“That team has used the word ‘family’ a lot, and they really mean it,” Joe Siddall said Tuesday afternoon by phone from the press box in Fenway Park, where he was working as a radio broadcaster for the Toronto Blue Jays. “It took on a whole lot of meaning this year with the kind of support they’ve provided. For the whole team to come on a bus to that service on a Friday night speaks volumes for their program.”
Canisius cracked the national rankings on Monday, earning the No. 29 spot in the College Baseball Newspaper poll. It’s trying for its second straight NCAA Tournament bid under coach Mike McRae, who has 12 Canadians on his roster. The Griffs have won 38 games and have the longest winning streak in the country (16).
“It’s pretty surprising, being a small school, but we’ve played pretty well and we deserve that ranking,” said Brett Siddall, who was named an All-MAAC outfielder on Tuesday after leading the conference in batting at .359. “At the same time, we know it doesn’t mean anything because we have a tournament to go win.”
“You have so many young kids in Ontario who love baseball, whose dream is to get a scholarship, play south of the border, pursue their dreams and get an education,” Joe Siddall said. “What Mike has done to get into Canada and get these kids, it’s almost like he’s got a sort of hidden secret. But it won’t be a secret much longer.”
Joe Siddall played 73 games as a big-league catcher for Montreal, Florida and Detroit from 1993 to 1998, and also played in Buffalo for Toledo and Pawtucket from 1998 to 2000. Since then, he’s been a stay-at-home dad, youth coach and had thrown batting practice for the Tigers for many years.
Blue Jays radio announcer Jerry Howarth saw an item about Kevin Siddall’s death in the Toronto Sun and sent Joe a condolence email. It arrived on Feb. 11, Kevin’s birthday. Joe Siddall said in a response that he was looking forward to seeing Howarth in Detroit and half-jokingly added “Or maybe in the broadcast booth one day.”
Howarth’s response? “How about right now?”
Jack Morris had left the Toronto booth and the Blue Jays brought Siddall to Florida for a tryout. And then the Jays hired him to work the full 162-game schedule.
“It’s irony to say the least,” Joe said. “You try to believe things happen for a reason, but we became disbelievers a little bit after what happened to Kevin. So this has been pretty amazing.”
Joe Siddall has been a good fit in the Jays’ booth with Howarth. As a former catcher, he has a good sense of what’s happening on the field. He’s already learning to be more concise in his explanations and seemed to transition very well last weekend when he spent a few days in the Sportsnet television booth alongside former Jays catcher and manager Buck Martinez.
“I like hearing him. I know there’s been positive feedback,” Brett Siddall said. “It’s like listening to him as a coach and a father. We’d be in the family room watching Tigers games, and he’d pipe in with thoughts just as the announcer would say them. He loves talking about baseball and loves the game. It’s a really good fit for him.”
The Siddalls try to text or Facetime every day. They talk about the Griffs, the Blue Jays or whatever else is on their minds. Joe Siddall’s wife and daughters come to Toronto for some games and have made a couple road stops, including over the weekend in Texas.
“We’ve tried to focus on staying busy. Whenever you have down time is when it gets tough, when you start thinking,” Brett said. “Staying busy and surrounding yourself with positive people is something we’ve both managed to do. It’s probably the best medicine for us to keep moving forward.”
Brett Siddall will stay busy this summer after the Canisius season playing in a wooden bat summer league on a suburban Milwaukee team part-owned by Hall of Famer Robin Yount and legendary Brewers announcer Bob Uecker.
“We were a close family to begin with, but we’re even closer now,” Brett said. “That’s what happens. You’ll never really want to understand the reason all this happened, but we know Kevin had a big impact on people’s lives. He’s been inspiring in Windsor and to people in many places. He had a huge impact in his short life.”
Much like the Kellys have been during Jim’s cancer treatment, the Siddalls were very visible on social media during Kevin’s ordeal and in honoring his legacy.
On the day Kevin Siddall passed, Brett tweeted: “I will see you again someday bro. You fought one extremely tough battle and you are a true warrior. I love you forever Kevin.”
Joe Siddall’s Twitter page is splashed with a Dr. Seuss quote that reads, “Don’t cry because it’s over. Smile because it happened.” And his bio includes a quote Kevin himself tweeted two days before Christmas – “Your life could drastically change in a matter of seconds. Appreciate each moment and live life to its fullest.”
When I asked Joe Siddall about the Twitter page, he paused and took a few seconds to compose himself. We didn’t really discuss it much. Pretty self-explanatory. Pretty powerful too.
“Both of us feel Kevin is playing a real part in all of this,” Joe Siddall said. “Brett is chasing his dream and you look where the Canisius program is going and this new road is getting kicked off for me. It’s too surreal to think otherwise.”