Marzano Made His Mark


Never did I think I would be mourning and memorializing John Marzano. When news of the former Big Leaguer’s sudden death at 45 raced through South Philly Saturday, it was a stunning testament to our fragility. And his.

Unlike baseball, life marches on with a time clock of innings. Over the years, I have read and written volumes chronicling Marzano’s star-crossed rise from Columbus-DiProspero Square Playground to Fenway Park. But, sadly, no words will bring him back.

What I recall most fondly about "John-John," or "Spanky" as his Little League coach nicknamed him, is his willingness to be a true ambassador of South Philadelphia, wearing his "Made in South Philly" bravado like a badge of honor. He found supreme comfort in the community that raised him, clinging to his roots during a career in baseball — always baseball — that began behind the plate and helped put him behind the microphone as a commentator for WIP Radio, Comcast SportsNet and

His home run trot to stardom as a player began on the fields near his beloved 12th and Wharton streets neighborhood in the shadow of Veterans Stadium. In the neighborhood of steaks, stickball and Schmidt, his boyhood hero — in the late 1970s, stocky John Robert Marzano was a young baseball prince, striking the ball harder and farther than any other.

Marzano excelled on every amateur level, from Central High School and All-American status at Temple University to U.S. Olympic glory in 1984 when he led the star-studded team of Mark McGwire, Barry Larkin and Will Clark in hitting. He even supplanted as the team’s starting catcher, BJ Surhoff, who went on to a respectable big league career.

McGwire told me "Johnny Marz" was one of the best he had ever played with. In 1985, Hall-of-Famer Ted Williams predicted, "John Marzano will make the Big Leagues almost immediately and be the Rock of Gibraltar for a decade." It was like getting a blessing from the Pope of Power.

When John was drafted by the Boston Red Sox in ’84, he moved through the minor leagues in fish-out-of-water places like New Britain, Conn., and Pawtucket, R.I., with relative success and speed in a conservative organization prone to favoring veterans. He reached the Majors in ’87 and seemed to be ready to wrap his mitt around his big-league promise as a bona fide starting catcher.

But by ’87, along the Yellow Brick Road to Fenway, he stumbled. Mentor and father John Sr. — the man who bought him a state-of-the-art pitching machine and sent him to pro baseball camps with money from his military pension — died of a heart attack. Marzano drifted into uncharted waters, struggling emotionally with his career in the crossroads. He was a mess, he once said, with little sympathy coming from the veteran-happy Red Sox managed by hardscrabble John McNamara, who did not get along with the kid from South Philly. With no baseball shoulder at home to lean on, the worst pressure was self-imposed. "I tried to be like Carl Yaztremski, Ted Williams and everybody rolled into one, and you can’t do that," John told me years later.

The team signed veteran catcher Rick Cerrone and the can’t-miss prospect found himself back on the bumpy roads of the minors. In retrospect, impatient win-now Beantown in the long shadow of the mighty New York Yankees probably was a poor fit for a Rock-of-Gibraltar rookie who needed playing time to grow at the major-league level. (In ’81, John declined a high school draft offer from the lowly Minnesota Twins, which may have been more willing to develop his talent.)

Meanwhile, his Olympic teammates were getting golden opportunities, making their stamps much swifter. The cool swagger melted; the tension mounted.

Some moments escape forever. Despite the situation, the Red Sox held on to Marzano through ’92, but labeled him a backup catcher, a tag that unceremoniously clung to him the rest of his career, through stops and varying success in Texas, Seattle and the Philadelphia and Cleveland farm systems.

In the end, John moved with poetry, purpose and passion — boldly and beautifully finding his way through family, community and baseball. He embodied our "South Phillyness," toiling hard in the warehouses of the gym, field, baseball academy and, recently, the newsroom, bench-pressing up to 375 pounds of sweat on those square, determined shoulders. It is the blue-collar mentality and Yo-Cuz, keep-it-real resolve that kept us in rhythm with John Marzano. We watched him emerge on the public stage from the caterpillar of youth to a mature butterfly.

Only about a dozen South Philly residents, who have water ice streaming in their blood, have made it to the Big Leagues since World War I. John Marzano was one of them. He went on to be an accomplished sports analyst.

The rare measure of Marzano’s short life is today friend Roger Clemens will be mourning his death in Texas, and so will I in Philly. John leaves behind the Marzano and Cava (his wife’s) families and a whole community diminished by his devastating death.

To me, he is still that raw, pug-nosed 16-year-old, pounding baseballs relentlessly into a cyclone fence at Columbus Playground during a practice drill with his dad. Up until a few years ago, the dents — sort of an indelible autograph — in the screen remained, a vestige of past promise. It was the way John did things — always making his mark.

Randy Giancaterino is a former editor of the South Philadelphia Review.