When Harvard baseball takes the field for its 2017 season opener against Lafayette, two of the team’s coaches will have the distinction of commencing their “first year” with the team—a slight misnomer given that they both have over six months of experience working within the Crimson’s coaching structure.
Technically, though, Ron Rakowski and Tom Conley are first-year assistant coaches. The titles don’t translate to a lack of experience. Talking to them within the confines of Dillon Fieldhouse leaves one with the impression that Harvard baseball is in experienced hands—and the new duo hasn’t even relayed any hand signals yet.
Rakowski, who graduated from San Francisco State in 2002, is the new pitching coach and assistant recruiting coordinator. Conley, a 2012 graduate of UMass, is the new first base coach and primary coach for the catchers.
In their short time working with the Crimson thus far, both have bought into the culture that Joseph J. O’Donnell ’67 Head Coach Bill Decker has created in the clubhouse—and have worked to transition that to the players.
“We’re all working together, we all lean on each other, and [we’re building] a culture where we compete every day and we are great teammates,” Rakowski said. “It’s one where we’re all working towards the same goal. We want the players to be leaders, not just here on the baseball field, but in the community and in the classroom.”
Rakowski and Conley were brought onto the Crimson coaching staff in the mid-late summer of 2016 as part of the program’s transition away from previous assistant and volunteer assistant coaches Mike Zindler and Ernie Mays.
“I am excited for our players and program that Ron will be our pitching coach moving forward,” Decker said in July 2016, speaking on Rakowski’s hiring. “He brings a wealth of experience and success to the program and is truly passionate and enthusiastic in his ways, especially when it relates to the coaching, mentoring, and day-to-day relationships with players.”
Conley joined the team soon after Rakowski, coming to Cambridge in August after receiving his master’s degree from Trinity earlier in 2016, where he worked with the Bantam catchers and hitters for three seasons. Though his coaching career is shorter than Rakowski’s, Conley first experienced success as a coach in his very first year—the 2012-13 season—of volunteer assistant coaching at Bryant. That season, the Bulldogs went 45-18-1 and advanced to the Manhattan Regional in what the team’s website describes as “one of the greatest, and most historic, seasons in Bulldogs history.”
“We had a really good team that year,” said Conley, describing his learning experience as a first-year coach out of college. “It was fun to be a small part of it—that was a great experience for me right out of the gate. I had a great head coach at Bryant. [Bulldog head coach Steve Owens] was a really competitive guy, demanded a lot from the players, and at the same time rewarded them when they played well. [He] tried to pick them up when they were down.”
Rakowski, for his part, brings a wealth of experience at all levels of baseball to the Crimson dugout. Since graduating in 2002, Rakowski has coached at the Division I, Division II, Division III, and junior college levels, primarily working with pitchers. His learned credo of improving all characteristics of a student athlete is something he’ll be carrying over to O’Donnell Field.
“Coaching is coaching,” Rakowski said. “Wherever you go, whether that’s Division III or Division I, ACC or Ivy League, whatever it is, I think the trick is to help the student athletes develop not only as players, but as people as well. I think that’s the one universal thing.”
RECRUITING ON A HIGH LEVEL
Rakowski’s passion is evident when he talks about the academics-athletics nexus. Since part of his duties are to assist with recruiting at Harvard, he’s big into examining how the two pillars can complement each other when recruiting top high school talent.
“Baseball is really based around making it a positive experience for the players,” Rakowski said. “I tell people all the time that at a lot of institutions, especially in academic institutions, there can tend to be friction between the athletic and academic sides. The biggest thing I’ve found here is how wonderful the relationship is between the athletic and academic components here at Harvard. They really work to help the other.”
Decker has praised Rakowski’s recruiting know-how in the past, and the new Crimson pitching coach also has experience getting high school recruits to the next level. During his tenure with the Crusaders, Rakowski helped 27 players earn All-Patriot League recognition. In addition, he mentored five players selected in the MLB draft.
“I know the coaches here at Harvard, our staff and all the other coaches here in the athletic department, and our athletic administration, work extremely hard to make sure our student-athletes get everything they need from an academic standpoint,” Rakowski said. “In return, the academic side of the school really embraces the fact that we have the largest athletic department in the country. And they embrace that and they allow those kids to really enjoy that experience here.”
Rakowski and Conley’s sharp focus on intimate player development holds quite a bit of promise for the pitchers, catchers, and the rest of the team as they prepare to travel to Washington, D.C. on Mar. 3.
“You go to some places, and you don’t see that really good balance,” Conley adds. “When the players cross the river and come over here, there’s just a different mindset, and they’re all baseball. And then they go back over, and it’s all class. I’ve been really impressed with it.”
—Staff Writer Bryan Hu can be reached at email@example.com.