Editor’s note: Alicia Citari contacted Wednesday Journal on May 19 to report that Joe Citari died that day. On May 18, shortly after we posted this story online, Joe texted the author, Melvin Tate, to let him know he’d seen it.
In June 1981, the Oak Park and River Forest High School baseball team won the Illinois High School Association Class AA championship, defeating Brother Rice 8-3 in the title game. The win marked legendary coach Jack Kaiser’s only state championship.
This year is the 40th anniversary of the Huskies’ special season, and that normally would be cause for great celebration. But the enthusiasm has been tempered with the news that the star and co-captain of the team is in hospice with an incurable disease.
Last September, Joe Citari was diagnosed with ALS, more commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, after New York Yankees first basemen whose life and Hall of Fame career was cut short by the disease in 1941 at the age of 37.
It is a severe neurological condition that weakens muscles and impacts physical functions. For those who contract ALS, it becomes progressively difficult to move, speak, and breathe.
“I was not happy. It was a big-time shock,” said Citari during an interview with Wednesday Journal last week. “I have gone from being a normal person to someone who can hardly do anything in a year.”
Citari’s health has declined to the point where he was placed in hospice on May 4. It’s also been tough on his family, ex-wife Alicia, daughter Kaitlin and son Joe Jr.
“ALS is a horrific and unforgiving disease, and it’s been painful to watch,” Alicia Citari said. “Joe was always super athletic, and to see him weakened is hard to see. He struggles with everything and he tries to stay as independent as possible. It’s just hard.”
Joe Citari says that every day someone is at his house doing something for him. He is grateful for the support he has received from the community, in particular his former OPRF baseball teammates.
“We started [getting together] last fall, and it’s blown up since then,” Citari said. “They come by every weekend and we hang out.”
Alicia Citari said the reunification of the 1981 team as they rally around Joe has been a bright spot during a dark time.
“I can’t say enough about those guys,” she said. “Joe has an awesome group of friends from OPRF, and to hear them talk about baseball and high school is a really nice thing.
“Sometimes, life is so busy that you don’t really take the time to see your friends and family and do things. But I think this has forced [Joe’s teammates] to look at their mortality and bring them back together.”
Teammates were stunned to learn of Citari’s illness. As they did on the field 40 years ago, the former Huskies rallied around their leader.
“We’re seeing each other more now than we have in the last 40 years,” said 1981 OPRF co-captain Jim McBride. “We’re getting together to visit Joe, which is forcing us to get back together as a group. We’ve been able to reconnect and renew our friendships, and I think that’s cool.”
McBride said he’s been impressed by Citari’s determination to remain as independent as possible during the past nine months.
“I see someone who is strong,” McBride said. “His attitude has been amazing. What impresses me the most is that with everything he has going on, while you’re there with him, you don’t realize what he’s going through because he’s been tough about it. It says a lot about him.”
Citari was also determined and tough on the field — the leader for the Huskies in 1981, when they finished with a 30-4 record.
OPRF was a terrific all-around team with a stellar pitching staff led by Tom Kolzow, Pat McKune and Greg Shannon — who won the title game — along with a powerful lineup featuring Citari, McBride, Marty Bell, Mark Carroll, J.J. Dwyer, Tom Hildebrand (who played at Northwestern University and was later drafted by the Chicago White Sox), Mark Serkalend and Jim Wollensak.
Citari said the camaraderie the Huskies had was the key to success in that special season.
“We just came together and had a bunch of talented kids,” he said. “We jelled, and it just wasn’t at the end. We were like that the whole year.”
“We got along great together,” added McBride, who caught the final out in the title game. “My closest friends in life are from that team. We had great players and didn’t have any injuries, and I think the combination of our close friendships plus our talent was important.”
It helped that OPRF was coached by the legendary Jack Kaiser, who won more than 850 games in his illustrious career as the Huskies’ manager.
“He was great to play for,” Citari said. “He kind of kept to himself in his own way, and when we played well, he let us do our thing. He had his little idiosyncrasies as a person, but all of us got along with him and he was fun to be around.”
Citari, who hit over .400 with seven home runs in 1981, was the only OPRF player drafted directly out of high school that year, taken in the 16th round of the Major League Baseball draft by the Kansas City Royals.
He embarked on a nine-year career in the minor leagues, advancing as far as Class AAA, nearly breaking into the majors.
“Joe was the best player on the best team in the state,” McBride said. “Everyone looked up to him. He didn’t have enemies, and people liked him a lot.”
Alicia Citari shared an interesting story about the time when she and Joe went to an old-timers baseball game shortly after they got married — although she said Joe doesn’t think it’s true.
“I met George Brett [the former Royals’ legend who’s in the Hall of Fame] and George said that Joe was one of the best hitters he’d ever met — probably better than him,” she said.
After his playing career ended, Citari took over his father’s lighting business. But he stayed involved with baseball, coaching in several youth organizations. And — even as he was preparing to go into hospice — was on a Zoom conference last week with OPRF’s freshman team. He spoke with the players and coaches for more than 20 minutes.
Current OPRF coach Joe Parenti has never met Joe Citari in person, but he believes he is a big part of the Huskies’ rich tradition on the diamond.
“A lot of people remember the name,” he said. “He’s been around and stayed in touch with the community. People still pay attention to OPRF baseball, and the baseball alumni still have pride. They want to see us do well. OPRF baseball has an excellent tradition with a lot of success. It’s a good thing to be a part of.”
While baseball will be a large part of Joe Citari’s legacy, Alicia feels his role as a parent and the influence he’s made on his children is just as important.
“Everybody remembers him for baseball,” she said. “He taught kids the game, and he was good with adults too. But I also think his kids will be his legacy. They want to be like him.”
There is no cure for ALS, and no one knows for sure when the end will come. Until then, Citari will appreciate those who have aided him during his time.
“I was born and raised in Oak Park, and I want to thank the community for all its support,” Citari said. “So many have donated to my GoFundMe page and reached out to me, and I think that’s great.”
Citari’s sister, Theresa Sittler started the GoFundMe back in September and to date the effort has raised more than $31,000 to help with medical and living expenses. If you’d like to donate, visit gofundme.com/f/joe-citari.