Falling Under His Spell: Remembering Joe Walsh

Saved by the Bell

He’d stare out into the distance beyond the outfield for forty-five minutes, an hour, maybe more.

More than once in recent years, Harvard lost a season-deciding game at home.  Maybe it was a league championship game against Princeton. Maybe it was a division-deciding Ivy doubleheader against Dartmouth. When it happened at O’Donnell Field, Joe Walsh would sit in the home dugout for what seemed like forever, staring into the distance. Bats, balls, and bases would disappear around him as the sun descended beyond left field, and players, parents, and well-wishers would melt away in the direction of the locker room and campus, one by one. And Walsh would find himself alone, gazing past the trees that lined the outfield, a few feet from where a long fly failed to clear the warning track or where a screaming liner had dropped just a few heartbreaking inches out of reach, abruptly ending that year’s dreams. He’d sit, and he’d stare, and he’d think. Eventually, sometimes in near darkness, he’d get up, and start the long trudge home.

Those of us who knew Joe Walsh and Harvard baseball—and these were, in a lot of ways, pretty much the same thing for seventeen years—had some inkling about what he was thinking during these long sits. He would think about how tough it was, certainly. Walsh loved competing, wore the fact that he’d turned Harvard into a competitive, respectable program like a badge of honor. The big losses stung. For someone with his depthless well of optimism, for someone who believed to his core that he could get his non-scholarship band of gamers to the College World Series someday, the on-field news that it wouldn’t happen that year verged on cruelty.

But it’s very likely that Walsh sat there as long as he could because he just didn’t want to leave. He loved baseball too much to want to walk away from the field, even in the depths of the most painful moments with which the sport saddled him. He had once scrapped and fought for this, his dream job. Walking away would mean that the season had ended, and that there wouldn’t be Harvard baseball for months and months, and he wasn’t going to submit to that until the sun itself told him so. He’d savor baseball until the passage of time ripped it away from him. In this way, these long silences had the air of both grief and quiet celebration of the game he loved. And when he finally turned and noticed a lingering well-wisher who’d watched him stare out beyond the outfield, when he walked over to say hello, he’d be smiling.

Anyone who had any remotely meaningful interaction with Joe Walsh during his time at the helm at Harvard knows that Joe Walsh said a lot of things. He was as quick a wit as one could imagine, as memorable a cut-up as Dorchester, Mass., has ever produced. For a Crimson sportswriter in search of a pithy quote, he was a dream, and much ink will and has been spilled here and elsewhere about his better lines over the years. But despite all the great lines, I find myself coming back to those silences after his sudden passing at 58. Today, everyone who loved Walsh is like he was during those silences—sitting in that dugout, watching the sun set after a sudden loss, trying to make sense of it all.

I count myself among the folks in the dugout. Joe Walsh may stand alone in Harvard athletics in this respect: you could assemble a full complement of willing, enthusiastic pallbearers from the writers who covered him for the Crimson over the years. I sometimes felt slightly guilty about how in love we were with Walsh, wondering how it affected our coverage. We knew that the relationship between the coach and his players had to be much more complicated than his relationship with the press, more layered than what we knew and reported. Walsh and players alike eventually confirmed to me that this was sometimes true. But how would we not fall under the guy’s spell?

Some of the reasons we loved him were obvious—he was, again, a sportswriter’s dream. His Boston accent was slathered all over colorful reflections on the game, his players, and life. He was a goldmine of baseball stories, and it didn’t matter if you were a 20-year-old wannabe reporter built like a pile of wire hangers. Once he knew that you also loved the game, you were in, and he was willing to talk baseball with you for hours.

And Walsh appreciated the coverage more than almost any other coach. At the end of a chilly midweek game against Holy Cross that only Athletics Department staff, the Crimson beat writers and a smattering of parents had endured, he might greet the writers with a big grin and a wry, “Hey, fans!” After the 2001 season, which ended in a brutal series loss to Dartmouth, Walsh took the time to walk across the river to the Crimson’s building on Plympton Street. He left us a note, thanking us for our willingness to follow the team up and down the east coast, and complimenting us on our knowledge of the game. Coming from baseball incarnate, this was a massive compliment. As my co-beat writer, Brian Fallon, once wrote, “Postgame interviews with Walsh were the closest I ever came to student-faculty interaction in college.” His praise and his kindness were amplified, in our eyes, by his authentic love of and roots in baseball. And his utter lack of pretension gave his pats on the back a measure of oomph that we could’ve never absorbed from some tenured faculty member.

But there was something else that drew us, drew the writers to him. We were all kids who threw massive amounts of time into an activity—sportswriting—that, in all likelihood, would provide us with little tangible real-world benefit in a world of hedge funds and e-recruiting and LSATs and the like. Sure, The Crimson looks good as a line on a resume, but one could always satisfy that line with a few weeks’ or months’ participation and move on. The extra time—the midweek games, the road trips to Dartmouth and Princeton, the hours spent editing water polo pieces written by freshmen at midnight—was for love of the activity and the people around us. It wasn’t moving us any closer to superstardom, academic or otherwise. In the relentless, churning machinery of ambition and ego that is Harvard, it was tempting to doubt what we were doing with our time.

In Joe Walsh, we found complete and utter validation. Not only in his gratitude for the coverage, but in what he preached and in how he lived. Walsh recognized the link between us and his busload of players, many of whom would never play an organized game after their senior years but who busted it every day in practice, who squeezed problem sets in before the sun rose and who ran from the labs to catch the bus to the Beanpot Tournament. And he found in the writers a willing audience for some of the things that mattered to him, which I’ll clumsily attempt to articulate here: Go after what you love while you can. There will be plenty of time for the concrete caves. Play the game for the people around you and your school. Be loyal. Have fun. Work hard. Play the game the right way, but don’t be afraid of a little mischief, either. Have adventures. Hustle. Tell stories, and be worthy of stories about you. And if you do all those things, have faith that the truly magical moments, the ones that make it all worthwhile even when nowhere near enough people are watching, will take care of themselves.

These were values that made entirely too much sense for anyone else at Harvard to teach. They felt entirely too real. And they were his. Preached and lived.

Chase what you love? This is the guy who showed up at sunrise on Athletic Director Billy Cleary’s doorstop at work to show him how much he wanted the coaching job. This was the guy who confronted Trey Hendricks’s Harvard career advisor, the one who had told Trey that playing summer ball in Alaska wasn’t enough of a resume booster. As Walsh told The Crimson, “I said, ‘Are you kidding me?’ This is about the experience that he’s had. A kid from Houston, coming to Boston, playing in Northern New England, living on a farm with a family, and then going up to Alaska for a summer? Trey was fishing at two in the morning with the Land of the Midnight Sun out there and living with a family from Alaska. And then, his junior year playing on the Cape and getting drafted?  That’s a lot better than picking out ties for some law firm at lunchtime and making copies, saying that you worked in a law firm.”

Play the game for the people around you? Walsh once told me about visiting a catcher he was recruiting to see him play. The recruit’s battery-mate that day was a little wild, and Walsh noticed that when a ball made its way by the recruit, the catcher would audibly mumble and curse his teammate as he made his way to the backstop to retrieve the ball. The second time it happened, as the coach told it, Walsh was in his car before the catcher could turn around. On the other hand, if you were hitting about .197 for Walsh’s Crimson, but always the first up to greet a guy after a sacrifice, barking after pitches inside, top-step (the O’Donnell dugouts, of course, had no actual steps), ready to throw down for a teammate in the unlikely event that an all-out Ivy League donnybrook broke out—if you were that guy, Walsh couldn’t stop talking about you.

Don’t be afraid of a little mischief? When he coached at Suffolk, Walsh became legendary for sneaking his homeless baseball team onto the vacated fields of other college teams for practice. When he got tossed from a game at Columbia some years later, he took advantage of the unique physical geography of that athletic complex to watch the game from a parking lot that overlooked the park, and it wouldn’t surprise me if he directed traffic from there without missing a beat. After Harvard bested Dartmouth to win the division title in 2003, clinching even as Dartmouth’s fratty fans showered the Crimson with unseemly verbal abuse, Walsh quietly noted, with an impish grin, that the Old Man on the Mountain—New Hampshire’s only real national landmark—had collapsed that weekend. He didn’t have to say anything else—his grin and the wink in his whisper communicated everything you needed to know about how much he relished that symbolism.

Hustle? Steve Buckley wrote in the Herald yesterday about how Walsh would call in his radio show, ostensibly to talk Sox baseball of Celtics basketball, but always putting in a plug for the doubleheader he was coaching that weekend. Loyalty? Fallon and I would almost laugh at the occasionally incomprehensible decisions Walsh made, often in favor of playing his seniors, or at least we’d laugh until they worked out. We’d laugh less when he talked about keeping up with his former players, beaming as if discussing his own sons: men who had leadership positions in the military, men who ran baseball teams, men who were lawyers and doctors and political operatives. And men like Morgan Brown ’06, who had built himself into an All-Ivy shortstop, earned a Rockefeller Scholarship, worked in HIV prevention in India, dropped everything to pitch in with the earthquake relief effort in Haiti, and then returned to O’Donnell Field as a volunteer assistant.

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