Three years ago this month, Joe Castiglione was inducted into the Red Sox Hall of Fame alongside Pedro Martinez, Nomar Garciaparra and Roger Clemens — heady company for a local radio guy. Not every Hall of Fame class is the same, and this one had as much absolute-value on-field star power as is virtually possible. Castiglione stuck out, obviously, not just for being a mere announcer among Red Sox giants, but for being the only guy still doing the damn thing that got him there, decades later, and I love him for it.
Still. I still love him for it. I have loved his voice and his style since I was a teenager, listening from the islands. He is a big part of why I’ll listen to certified buffoon like Yankees announcer John Sterling on my local radio station when the Sox aren’t on and I’m driving around, and I’m almost only listening to baseball on the radio in the car. When I’m in the car and Castiglione isn’t calling a game, I’ll take the dodo in hand, because Castiglione gave me the itch.
I am 39 years old and, from my perspective, he’s been on forever. He started in 1983 and was a mainstay of my formative years, much of it was spent puttering around, listening to him and Jerry Trupiano mope and moan through the meh games, which, WAAYYYYYY BACK! when, were pretty common. It seemed then, as it seems now, as the only honest response to mediocre baseball, the actually bad response to which is to engage dime-store psychology or boast about unwritten rules and whatnot. Castiglione doesn’t do this in the Any Press is Good Press era, which hasn’t gotten him roasted on Reddit or Deadspin or Twitter or wherever. It just makes him very good at his job.
If there is proof about his skill, it’s in the sheer number of partners he has seen come and go during his three-plus decades in the booth. WAAAAYYYY BACK! at this point, Trupiano was replaced by a bunch of guys who have, flash forward, turned into Tim Neverett, an eager-to-please partner prone to well-targeted bits of righteous indignation. I like Neverett. If he gets mad about a play, I’m pretty sure the Red Sox are in the right. I trust his judgment even in anger, which is good for a color man. (I know they switch roles during the games, but Neverett is clearly the second banana in a way former radio and current TV guy Dave O’Brien, to whom we will get, was not.)
Castiglione doesn’t do angry, though, nor do I remember him doing it when I was in young, but my mind could be playing tricks on me. Either way, I appreciate the calming influence now. I loved driving when I was younger, but that was until I owned a car in New York City in the early aughts, and now, nah.. Not even getting T-boned at 17 scared me off cars; that did. They are, real talk, death machines, and the only way we deal with this knowledge is to ignore it completely.
A good deal of the time behind the wheel it’s impossible for me to forget this, but baseball on the radio can help. It’s a devil’s bargain, and for this I get Castiglione. It’s almost worth the tradeoff, and this is no small thing.
He was born in Hamden, Connecticut, just east of New Haven and I-91, which makes him one of us — a handful of miles to the west and you never know. Hamden is the home of Sleeping Giant State Park, so named by the because seen from afar (nowadays you’d say “from the highway,” which is an anachronism w/r/t the name, but true), the rock formations look like Justin Tuck sawing logs. The Quinnipiac, apparently big NFL fans, held that a mysterious bend in the Connecticut River was caused by the titular giant Hobbermock slamming his foot down, and the good spirit Kelton narcotized him to prevent further water violence and, thus, the sleepy dude.
This nugget is perfect for Castiglione’s story in that he is our own sleeping giant — an inflexible part of being a Red Sox fan, one so enmeshed in the experience that it’s hard to grasp his enormity, like it’s impossible to grasp the enormity of simply being alive and having our feed on the ground, here, today, wherever we are. Furthermore, we miss it precisely because we are whizzing past it on I-91 with our eyes on the road ahead, floating in a space above the ground, one stop removed from reality, pretending it’s normal. It’s not.
Castiglione does removed very well. I mean this in the best of ways, but he has always announced games like it’s a balmy August 1st, and the heat is closing in on all sides. Relief, in the form of a great play for the Sox, is fleeting, even during wins. His despairing intonations on inning-ending popups are legendary, if only in my own head, for their ability to perpetually outdo one another, inning by inning, game by game, year by year and decade by decade. It’s the only emotionally honest response to a tin-can rally-killer, and he nails it every time.
It is not all doom and gloom, but to that despairing end, his career-defining line, “Can you believe it?,” after the 2004 World Series championship, is one of not of exuberance, like Trupiano’s WAAAAYYY BACK! (which, as you can see, makes for much better copy), but of extreme joy tempered by utter disbelief, resignation and mirth. He’s not blown away by the moment, though you get the sense he’s maybe standing too close to the blast zone to grasp its impact. That is to say he mostly felt just like the rest of us, but with a different sort of pathos. He isn’t just ecstatic that it’s over. He’s crushed.
He has admitted as much, in a way. In a 2012 interview with the Globe’s Chad Finn, he said that his favorite moment as Sox announcer was ‘’Everything in 2004, really. People asked me before the Red Sox won the World Series what the greatest moment I’d called was, and I’d say it hasn’t happened yet. It finally did.” It perfectly underlines the gripping tension in the way he talks: He’s making the best of a bad situation, because the perfect moment lasts just long enough for four words before it is fleeting and gone, never to be relieved. This is the inherent paradox of a pastime: We do it to kill time before we can do it again. Can I believe it? Of course I can.
Castiglione’s style is perfect, especially compared to his peers, who are all distinct but not quite right for me. Here is where I also note that while baseball on the radio is very good stuff, it’s not actually better than baseball on television. Baseball is as much about colors and curves and parabolas as it is about anything else, and some of those parts of the game cannot be adequately transferred to radio per se. If it is a particularly beautiful night at the stadium, you can be pretty sure, as a local announcer, that talking about the tequila sunset skies won’t quite measure up to seeing the real thing. Even a thousand words can’t cut it.
But a ball in the gap? That’s made for radio, and Castiglione’s horse-race approach toward balls in play, especially run-scoring extra base hits for the Red Sox at home, reliably provides a brilliant and tense and fun listening experience. Such a gapper is a) usually an obvious run-scoring play from the get go, b) especially in knotty Fenway, a lure for some bumbling in the field, c) often an appetizer for a close play on the basepaths, maybe even at the plate. From the moment the ball is hit, all these possibilities live in his voice, waiting to become realities, and you can hear them all as the play unfolds, somehow, in his pitch and tone; then, crescendo, comedown, hangover and a wait for the next race. It’s thrilling.
Castiglione also reads interstitial advertisements well, and this is no small thing. As a generation of live-read podcasters are learning, you don’t have to love reading ads, but you certainly have to not mind it. He may not enjoy announcing the beep-bop station identification, but I reliably get a kick out of him saying we’re listening to:
Red Sox Radio Network
So good! He knows what sounds good and what doesn’t, and this rolls into commercials like a swinging bunt. It’s an ad three times over, and it sounds like home.
Castiglione’s natural points of comparison aren’t Sterling, obviously, but the Boston guys he has been paired with and (now) against, especially: Trupiano and O’Brien. I can’t speak much to the former, but the latter’s ambition has forever been plain as day, and his passthrough to the NESN booth hasn’t diminished the quality of the WEEI broadcast in any meaningful way. This is not inherently an insult, but despite Finn writing in 2012 that O’Brien had a better voice, Castiglione is now, if he wasn’t then, the definitive voice of the Sox. Jerry Remy is more distinctive, beloved, famous and famously tragicomic; he sounds like the Red Sox, which isn’t exactly the same thing. Similarly, Don Orsillo was the best version of us — hardly representative, as our army of Twitter trolls proves hourly — as he was relaxed in a way that neither Castiglione, Remy or you and me can really fathom, which is why we loved him so. We wanted to be him.
Castiglione is not that guy, either. He’s more the man in the machine, the guy always keeping score in your basketball games, or keeping time for poker your blinds, or better, like the kid in Wet Hot American Summer canon who sits down at Camp Firewood’s “radio” microphone on the first day and doesn’t leave until the last day, born for radio. It’s a perfect little joke that works from microphone to microphone, decade to decade, like Castiglione himself. He’s there whether we care to tune in or not, and he’s better than we know. If we sleep on him, that’s on us.