Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Joe Walsh

Harvard baseball coach Joe Walsh died yesterday at the age of 58. Probably he had a heart attack; his death was sudden and unexpected.

I got to know Joe when I was dean; I tried to get to know all the coaches, because they are sometimes the most important teachers Harvard students have. Of course I don't mean to put baseball strategy on the same plane with econometrics. I mean that the coaches are among the few people at Harvard who understand that their job is, in part, to build character, and who have the opportunity, day in and day out, to steer students away from dishonorable behavior and toward ways of living of which they can be proud. There are others who do this when the occasion arises, of course; at their best, deans and advisors do it. But their contacts are intermittent and often transactional. A coach does business with his charges every day.

Joe was more authentically Bostonian than anyone now at Harvard except some service workers and police officers. South Boston Irish is a nationality of its own within the city limits; Catholic Memorial and Suffolk are where the fortunate ones of its children have the opportunity to be schooled. Joe talked South Boston as his native tongue, both the accent and the figures of speech. I can't think of another authority figure at Harvard about whom I could say that.

Joe was proud of being at Harvard and proud of his players--except when he wasn't, because they were not living up to the standards of excellence in which he believed and which he thought ought to be universal at Harvard. We talked about some students who were having problems, and were my advisees or were in my classes; he knew a lot more about them than I did.

Some of Joe's recruits have gone on to amazing successes--- in my world, the most prominent example is Jeff Hammerbacher of Cloudera. Joe knew them all, inside out.

He was a smart, inventive coach of the game. Harvard games are fun to watch; if you are a fan but haven't been to a game, you should do it next spring. The games move quickly; the players have problem sets to do after their doubleheaders. There is more strategy and trickery, and there are more hit and runs and double steals, ways of testing the opponent's weaknesses. And there is far less backing out of the batters box, except to get a sign from the third base coach. Joe coached the game like a kid having fun and like a savvy pro all at once.

Here is the last email I received from Joe, after I sent him a copy of my book on baseball language. Typical Joe. I am glad the Red Sox gave him a moment of silence last night while I happened to be there, and I am sorry I never got that chance to talk shop with him and his team this spring.
Hello Dean,   Many, many thanks for the copy of your masterpiece "Baseball as a Second Language"  It was an enjoyable read this weekend which I hope to share with our ballclub at Harvard.  My kids have always accused me of speaking "the language of baseball with a Boston accent."  Your book really brings out how baseball lingo is ingrained in our culture.  As I was reading it , more and more examples kept popping into my head.  I would like to invite you to share some of your ideas in writing the book and your passion for the game with the team.  Once we start practicing on a daily basis in the bubble, I think the guys would really enjoy a pre or post practice gathering.  How is your research going on baseball getting its start at Harvard ?  
                On another note, I know you had an interest in Morgan Brown  05' when he was a student at Harvard.  He is now our volunteer coach, I am proud to say.  He has done some tremendous work since graduating.  Presently, he is in Ethiopia ( near the Somali border) heading Oxfam's famine relief efforts.  If you are ever looking to do another book, Morgan and 2 of his classmates would be worthy subjects.  They are truly 3 young men, who loved baseball, that are making a huge difference in the World today.  I'm very proud to have been their coach.
And Joe, I'm proud to have known you.