Palladino left indelible mark on local sports scene

Republican-American sports writer Joe Palladino covers the Mickey Mantle World Series at Municipal Stadium in Waterbury in July. Palladino retired last week after decades covering sports in the area, including years covering Naugatuck with the former Naugatuck Daily News. –JIM SHANNON/REPUBLICAN-AMERICAN

Somewhere deep in the ether of the mid-2000s internet, there lies a comment on the old Naugatuck Valley League Football Blog. Someone had asked whether this aspiring sports writer eventually wanted to write for the Republican-American.

I don’t remember my exact response, but it was something like this: Why the hell would I want to work with Joe Palladino?

About a dozen years later, as the great JoePa retires from a three-decade-long writing career, I can admit it — I’m sure glad that I’ve gotten to call Joe a colleague and a friend for almost a decade.

Palladino didn’t want to make a public fuss about his retirement — he refused a celebration at the Rep-Am, telling managing editor Anne Karolyi, “I don’t want people sitting around staring at me like I’m in a casket,” which, yeah, the resemblance would be uncanny — but when I told him I planned on writing something in these pages, he was happy to have something appear in the descendant of his original publication, the Naugatuck Daily News.

Palladino began his writing career as a correspondent in the mid-1980s as he attempted to break into the business.

“I walked into the Naugatuck Daily News, and I said, ‘You guys should run movie reviews,’” Palladino recalls. “(Managing editor Tom Hennick) looked at me like I was nuts. They virtually paid me nothing, but that was OK, because I needed clips. They agreed on an outrageous fee structure, but it was great.”

He wrote those reviews and covered the Hartford Whalers for a few years, eventually coming on board full-time when the Rep-Am’s parent company purchased the small daily paper in 1988. He spent a year on the news side — “I can probably say now that I once fell asleep at a zoning board meeting,” he admits — and took over the sports editor role after Don Pascale’s retirement in August 1989.

I’ve done plenty of flashback stories over the years, and any time I’ve had a question about Naugatuck’s sporting past (or present), Joe’s been the first man to call. He ingrained himself in the borough’s sporting community for nearly a decade, irritating anyone from parents to legendary football coach Craig Peters.

“It’s a blue-collar town, and the best part of blue-collar towns is when their kids are involved in the school,” Palladino says. “They weren’t going to the opera; they were going to the Friday night football game. It created an atmosphere that was both admirable and torturous.”

“I often said that if I wrote 99 stories about Naugy football, I’d get yelled at that I didn’t do 100. I was always a type-A personality; I didn’t need anyone to fire me up. But working there really fired me up. You couldn’t mess up because there were a million people ready to come after you.”

As unsustainable as the small, community-focused, afternoon-daily newspaper turned out to be, Palladino thinks the Naugatuck Daily News still represents everything that’s right about journalism’s role in a small community.

“You need your local paper to know what’s going on in town,” Palladino says. “The way to survive now is to focus on unique content. The Naugatuck Daily News had the smallest circulation in the state, and people picked up the paper to know what’s going on in Naugatuck. Once you start doing that, you begin to see why what’s going on down the street is far more important than anything else going on in the planet.”

One particular story about the power of community journalism — especially when it’s focused on the local high school — still stands out after at least two decades.

“A parent said to me one time that she couldn’t understand why there would be two copies of the Naugatuck Daily News on the kitchen table all the time,” Palladino recounts. “Her kid, who was a swimmer, would run into the corner store and buy a paper after school because he couldn’t wait to get home and see what was in the paper from yesterday’s swim meet. He couldn’t wait to get home to see it — he had to get it right there. That’s the power of the local newspaper when people get engaged.”

There are plenty of ways in which Palladino engaged his audience over the years. Most of them involved irritating the reader in some way or another, but no matter how many times he cried wolf, posited an unpopular opinion, or beat a dead horse, there were two constants — people kept reading, and it was always connected to home.

As the Republican-American’s sports columnist for much of his 20-year tenure in Waterbury, he was unique among Connecticut’s other sports columnists in the way that he rarely strayed from the hyperlocal beat.

“Just being one of 30 writers at a UConn game seems like the dumbest thing, or one of 100 at a Red Sox game,” Palladino says. “What’s one sports writer going to say that the others aren’t? If you’re the only writer at a Naugatuck football game, now you can really say something.

Local sports writers Kyle Brennan, left, and Joe Palladino, who retired last week, are pictured covering the 2015 Class L boys basketball state final between Naugatuck and Bunnell at Mohegan Sun. –CONTRIBUTED

“I remember having an argument with (one writer). We all used to have a beat, but they stopped doing that (at the Rep-Am) in the early 1990s because they started running out of money. We’re at a Naugatuck High track meet, and he’s livid that he’s at the meet. He’s screaming about how he lost his Mets beat, and I said, ‘That’s not the real world. The real world is at this track meet.’”

Because the real world never stops, rarely did Palladino. He admits he didn’t take many days off — “In order to get these stories, you can’t detach,” he says — and he did more to usher the Rep-Am into the 21st century than anyone else. He was one of the first writers in the state to harness the power of Twitter, and he’s produced upwards of 1,400 videos in the last decade.

Our area, especially the sports community in this area, is filled with great people. Nobody’s done more in that arena than Palladino, whose work lives in an untold number of scrapbooks (and now, I guess, screenshots) and associated arguments.

Personally, he was extraordinarily welcoming to me as a teenage whiz kid starting to cut my teeth in a progressively bygone industry. He was always happy when I was assigned to cover a big basketball game with him, and coming from one of the best, that meant I must have been doing something right.

The borough, the Valley, the whole of Greater Waterbury and Litchfield County, and Connecticut’s local sports scene will miss Joe’s unfettering ability to stir the pot, shine the spotlight, and advocate for worthy causes like kids and preserving the past.

He assures us that he won’t be too far away in his retirement.

“After a month or so, there’s going to be a reckoning because I’m going to get restless,” Palladino says. “I’m going to figure it out, whether it’s a website or something. I’m still going to go to games — I love going to games. But it’s going to be nice when the game’s over, I won’t have to do anything.”

Unless, of course, that old journalist’s instincts kick in.

“Once you connect with the people,” Palladino says, “you can’t stop writing about them.”