For the Love of the Game
It’s Game 6 of the 2003 World Series.
All eyes are on 23-year-old Florida Marlins pitcher Josh Beckett, starting on three days’ rest with his team one win away from beating the New York Yankees and clinching the title. But while most spectators are watching the ball fly out of Beckett’s hand as he dismantles the Yankees’ lineup en route to a complete-game shutout, Harvard baseball coach Joe Walsh has his gaze set just above the open top button of Beckett’s jersey.
“He’s wearing the Harvard shirt,” Walsh remembers thinking. “You could see the ‘R’.”
Walsh and the Crimson had given Beckett a Harvard t-shirt when he joined the team for dinner on one of its spring break trips to Florida, and now it claimed a share—just a sliver, but a share nonetheless—of the spotlight on baseball’s biggest stage.
This is the reality of Joe Walsh. He is not, and probably never will be, a household name for fans of America’s pastime. Such is life in the Ivy League. But Walsh has lived the elusive dream of “getting a paycheck from doing something you love.” He’s an innovator, the first Northeast coach to hold a Scouting Day; he’s sent players to minor league fields and major league front offices; and, in the prestigious Cape Cod Baseball League, he’s coached some of the greatest athletes in the history of the game.
In his own way, through the countless relationships he’s forged over a career spanning three decades and a coaching philosophy rooted in a lifelong love affair with baseball, Walsh’s imprint on the sport can be felt at every level.
If Walsh never imagined he’d be a Harvard coach the first time he stepped onto the school’s baseball field, it’s probably because he had just jumped over the fence.
Suffolk University—where Walsh played college ball and began his coaching career—had no home field, so Walsh and his teammates would come across the river to Cambridge and use Harvard’s.
More than 30 years later, Walsh is the same blue-collar kid from Dorchester, still feeling most comfortable on the baseball diamond—regardless of its owner.
“You can’t be around Coach Walsh and not know how much he loves baseball,” says former Harvard pitcher Shawn Haviland ’07, now a farmhand with the Oakland A’s. “It goes beyond love—he lives baseball.”
Walsh also still carries an underdog mentality that got him through years of coaching a Division-III Suffolk team that managed to win despite negligible resources and prepared him as he made the transition to Harvard.
Before former athletic director Bill Cleary ’56 hired him in 1995, Walsh says there were doubts about his ability to make the switch to coaching Division-I talent. This was news to a guy who in 1988, his first year managing in the Cape League, had a first baseman named Dave Staton, “the greatest hitter who ever lived,” according to Walsh.
If even a serious baseball fan hasn’t heard of Staton, it’s because he only played 46 games in the majors. But the names of his backups might sound more familiar: Frank Thomas and Mo Vaughn.
After watching Walsh coach in the Cape (as well as pulling into work at seven in the morning to find Walsh waiting with a message: “No one wants this job more than I do.”) Cleary knew he had his man.