Friends, family bid 'Marz' farewell

Friends, family bid 'Marz' farewell

PHILADELPHIA -- John Robert Marzano, a child of gritty South Philadelphia who went a long way from the brownstones and narrow one-way streets of his neighborhood, on Friday completed a life's winding journey a couple of blocks from where it had begun.

Marzano was South Philadelphia, and South Philadelphia showed up, red-eyed, to bid him farewell, six days after his spirit and contagious personality were, inconceivably, stilled in a fall down a home staircase that was possibly the result of a heart attack.

They filled every pew of the cavernous Annunciation BVM Church, rising two blocks from Marzano's birthplace, and spilled dozens strong into the foyer, with others standing stone-faced vigil on the sidewalks below.

Marzano was 45.

The death at such a young age of someone so full of optimism, encouragement and devotion stood in contrast to all the words intended to soothe and uplift at a Funeral Mass preceding Marzano's internment.

He enriched countless people during a varied life, and had most recently been known as the somewhat irreverent co-host of an MLB Radio and BaseballChannel.tv morning show, on which he would often appear mystified by the placement of graphics and use the speaking-hands of his Italian heritage to try to keep up.

Thus, a verse from the "Be Not Afraid" entrance hymn seemed hauntingly fitting:

"You shall speak with your words in foreign lands,
"And all will understand."

"We hurt, because we love," said Father Gary Pacitti, "and that same love opens the gateway to eternity. There's more to being a human being than meets the eye."

Love and hurt were evident in everyone's eyes on a somber morning, when Marzano's rich life was reflected in the quilt of people who had come to pay their last respects: Nattily-dressed media executives and jeans-and-T-shirt locals; Old Italian faces creased by the wrinkles of too much pain; young faces being introduced to the first pangs.

There were those who had come because they knew Marzano as a big-league ballplayer or as a local television personality or as a morning beacon for MLB.com, and many more who came because they knew Marzano's heart, soul and laughter.

"Johnny Marz was always looking for an opportunity to crack a joke, a reason to laugh. They may as well have called drawstring pants dropstring pants, because if Johnny Marz was near one, it would soon be at your ankles," said Petey Mollica, Marzano's lifelong friend.

Jamie Moyer, who had pitched for the Phillies in Milwaukee the night before, was there. So were other former teammates Dan Wilson and David Segui, and other ex-ballplayer-turned-media figures Mitch Williams, Harold Reynolds and Larry Andersen.

The MLB.com family turned out in full force and ashen-faced to remember their departed comrade, led by president and chief executive officer Bob Bowman, executive vice president and editor in chief Dinn Mann and Mike Siano, senior producer for BaseballChannel.TV.

Upon first taking the pulpit to address the gathered, Fr. Pacitti had begun with a peppery, "Good morning!"

It didn't work. This would not be a chipper, vibrant occasion. Silence filled the sanctuary -- possibly a first with Marzano present.

"You always knew when John Marzano entered a room," said Mike Barkann, at one time a fellow Comcast SportsNet personality. "You never had to ask, 'When did John get here?'"

John Marzano

Marzano was eulogized for his many endearing traits and positive influences, and it seemed meaningful that the first concrete mention of his claim to outside fame -- a 10-year career as a Major League ballplayer -- didn't come until one hour, 10 minutes into the service.

It came from Barkann, who noted Marzano's "love affair with baseball."

"My most enduring image of John is from an ordinary game during an ordinary summer," Barkann went on. "He stretched a single into a double -- barely -- and he popped up with that usual grim face.

"But if you look carefully, for a split second, you catch the glint of a smile. It's a smile that says, 'How great is this? How lucky am I?' How lucky were we?"

No one was luckier in that regard than Mollica, who recalled sharing a playpen and the ensuing years with Marzano. Their families' homes backed up against each other and "our friendship was prearranged, like some marriages can be."

"To accomplish what he did as an athlete, you have to master many skills and be disciplined. I think he got a start for that in that playpen," Mollica said.

He and Marzano were best men at each other's weddings.

"Husband ... father ... son ... brother ... grandfather ... Godfather ... uncle ... coach ... best friend," Mollica said. "You changed everyone's life, and we all love you. I will love you forever."

Many have professed their devotion to and admiration for Marzano since his shocking death, and now those latter-day friends and co-workers found themselves in a furnace in which the flames of those feelings have lashed for decades.

"Johnny was well-known in the neighborhood," Fr. Pacitti said, "and he was proud of his neighborhood and the neighborhood was proud of him. Here, 'neighborhood' is a social world.

"It combines family, friends, school, playground, church ... faith. You live with and for these people. Johnny did a lot of good with the gifts God gave him -- but he stayed close to the things that were important."

Outside, on a corner opposite the BVM Church, a produce truck pulled up and crates of fruit and vegetables were unloaded by the curb.

Inside, Barkann stood at a lectern and held up a picture for the congregation:

"John, with Ted Williams. He says, 'Mike, there's the best hitter who ever lived. The other guy is Ted Williams.'

"He kept friends, and was always looking for more. He was truly the Prince of South Philadelphia," Barkann went on, minutes before his voice would crack while recalling Marzano's love for whatever he was doing and wherever he was doing it.

"We'd have to throw him off [the set]. We'd have him on for a bit, and he'd sit there for the whole nine minutes. He didn't want to leave. He wanted to stay."

Nobody wanted John Marzano to leave them so early. They all wanted him to stay.

His body lay peacefully in the casket being carried by red-eyed pallbearers toward the church doors and Dickinson Street below.

The immediate family followed. His widow, Terri. Daughters Danielle and Dominique.

They pulled away for the final leg of John Marzano's journey, to Holy Family Cemetery in nearby Yeadon.

The sidewalks around Annunciation BVM Church gradually emptied, and life in South Philadelphia resumed. Pedestrians waved to drivers. A Vespa put-putted down one street. A wee Fiat, small enough to make that other car look like a Maxi-Cooper, rolled down another. Women with burlap bags on their arms circled the produce truck.

It seemed normal, but of course it wasn't. The Prince of South Philly was gone.

Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.