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Just two years ago, he seemed destined to become a mere footnote, a vague memory, the answer to an unasked trivia question. After watching the 2000 Harvard football season transform Barry Wahlberg from starting quarterback into forgotten reserve, few could have predicted that his senior year would find him chasing ghosts in the Crimson record books. Fewer still might have guessed that the records in question would come not in football, but in baseball.
“If he can stay healthy this year, he’s got a good chance of breaking some appearance records here at Harvard,” says veteran Harvard baseball coach Joe Walsh of his dynamic closer. “He always wants the ball, and I want to give it to him.”
Wahlberg, no longer a frustrated backup quarterback, has blossomed in his new role as the ace of the Crimson bullpen, leaving his disappointing memories of the gridiron behind. And while he is now able to look back on his football days without regret, he does so only because he has succeeded in making the difficult transition that could ultimately turn him into an all-time great.
Entering camp as a sophomore, Wahlberg was one of several competitors for the quarterback job vacated by Rich Linden ’00 and Brad Wilford ’00. Impressed by his live arm and overall athletic ability, football coach Tim Murphy slated the untested Wahlberg as the starter for the season opener against Holy Cross. But when he was intercepted three times while completing only four of his first 16 pass attempts, the sophomore was benched in favor of then-unknown junior Neil Rose, who took the job and ran. Sitting idle and discouraged on the sidelines, Wahlberg soon found himself daydreaming of diamonds.
“Football definitely wasn’t turning out the way I wanted it to,” remembers Wahlberg. “And growing up playing baseball since I was like four years old, it was already hard for me to take a year off from it.”
Unwilling to watch another baseball season go by, Wahlberg decided to approach Walsh. Though the flame-throwing righty was not officially recruited by the Harvard baseball program out of high school, Walsh maintains that he was aware of him, and had hoped that he would attempt the switch. Offered a spot on the Crimson nine if he wanted it, Wahlberg quickly made the decision to play baseball—and only baseball.
“It was a decision I had to make to either be mediocre at both sports, because I would have to divvy up my time, or try to excel at one,” Wahlberg explains. “And I think the direction I went was towards baseball, because I thought that I could maybe have a career after school in baseball. In football I was physically hindered in some ways, height-wise especially.”
The choice was one that might have seemed unnecessary to Harvard athletes of decades past, as both Walsh and Wahlberg will testify. While Crimson history is loaded with quarterback/pitchers—most notably Milt Holt ’75, who garnered All-Ivy honors in both sports—the days in which an Ivy athlete can realistically star in two major sports have for the most part passed.
“It’s a tough thing here, combining [baseball and football] with the academics,” Walsh says. “I think the commitment that both sports have now in the weight room has changed dramatically since those days—and also there wasn’t spring football. There was always fall baseball but there was never spring football.”
Wahlberg admits that progress in the offseason has become an increasingly important criteria for playing time, and that missing reps in the weight room—or in spring football—is often devastating to one’s development as a player. Especially at quarterback, a position which by definition implies leadership, time spent away from the team can sometimes severely damage camaraderie and coordination.
But while his abbreviated football career may have left something to be desired, Wahlberg nevertheless attests that he would not give it up for anything.
“The experience of being on the football team has taught me a lot of things that have transferred to the baseball field,” he says. “Leaving the team was a tough decision, but one that has really worked out for me so far.”
Even after making the brief but significant journey across the Harvard Stadium parking lot, Wahlberg still had to confront the equally difficult task of re-learning the game he had left behind.
“The two sports are two completely different attitudes,” he says. “Baseball’s a lot more laidback, it’s not an in-your-face type game, so it was tough at first.”
But once Wahlberg toed the O’Donnell Field rubber, fitting in was not a problem—a major league fastball tends to command instant respect.
“It’s still early for us to start looking at the gun machine, but we’ve been getting 90 [miles per hour] readings on the kid, and that’s a magic number,” Walsh says. “He’s got a pretty nasty slider to go with it, and he developed his change as the season went along last year. He’s a three-pitch pitcher coming out of the bullpen.”
But a nasty arsenal is certainly not all that Wahlberg brings to the table for the Crimson.
“What makes Barry special isn’t his stuff,” says assistant coach Matt Hyde. “It’s that ability he has to dominate even when he doesn’t have his best stuff, to dig down for that something extra.”
Indeed, talk to anyone within the Harvard baseball program about Wahlberg, and you will hear similar descriptions—“competitor,” “bulldog,” “tough,” “intimidating”—in short, everything you would expect to hear about a former quarterback. But talk to him in person, and you will see a different creature, a calm, laidback Floridian, the epitome of self-mastery.
Though the two sides may seem contradictory at first, any pitcher will tell you that to be a successful closer takes a rare combination of composure and sheer aggression. If those are indeed the major criteria for success, then Wahlberg is the ideal closer.
“It’s hard to balance that out, to be aggressive but then not get emotional when a guy hits a ball in the gap,” he says. “But you have to be under control at all times, you can’t let one pitch affect you the next pitch. You’ve just got to realize that you’re one pitch away, one out away, from getting out of that jam, and that’s why they make it four bases that you have to touch to score a run.”
Whatever the reasons behind Wahlberg’s success, the Crimson is hopeful that his efforts can help elevate its young pitching staff to new heights. Past pitching staffs have been plagued by overuse and frequent wear-and-tear injuries, a problem that a reliable closer can alleviate.
“We really think he’s going to be a big confidence-booster,” Walsh says. “Our starting pitchers know they don’t have to go out there and get nine, like [Ben] Crockett and [Justin] Nyweide really did last year, getting a lot of complete games. Barry’s improved, and that’s going to be big news for our Ivy League opponents.”
In a year in which the nearby Boston Red Sox have begun to question the traditional wisdom of using a single closer, Wahlberg and the Crimson are posing a strong counter-argument. With a slew of veteran relievers—seniors Brendan Reed, Matt Self, Ryan Tsujikawa and others—available to bridge the gap between the starters and Wahlberg, Harvard will look to its bullpen to lead their team to unfamiliar territory.
“First and foremost I want to win another Ivy League championship,” Wahlberg says. “Then I want to not just be competitive in a regional but win a regional. I think that in the past we’ve had the starting staff deep enough to win the regional, and now we have the bullpen to go with it.”
Though O’Donnell Field remains forever in the expansive shadow of Harvard Stadium, a constant reminder for Wahlberg of what he left behind, he forges ahead without regret. This bulldog is a closer, and he won’t rest until he has accomplished his goals.
“I think Barry’s mental and physical toughness are going to be important to us,” says senior catcher Brian Lentz. “It’s definitely an asset, having him to go to time and time again. He’s going to be a real positive for us.”
If so, then maybe the Harvard football program can claim an assist on this one.
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