Joe Walsh, Life Lessons and my Son

Pictured: My son, Jaxon, looks at the memorial left for Joe Walsh near his familiar third base coaching box.
Pictured: My son, Jaxon, looks at the memorial left for Joe Walsh near his familiar third base coaching box.

Note: It is nearly 4 a.m. as I finish putting these thoughts on paper. What I have below is no doubt poorly-written; it is raw, unedited, it's the best I am capable of right now. Our staff doesn't often pen by-line pieces as we prefer to work behind-the-scenes and supply information to quality storytellers. This isn't about a quality piece however, an is not meant for the headline section of What it is about is the rush of emotions during a contrasting day of providing that behind-scenes information while also needing an outlet for my personal sadness. I don't write this for publicity purposes. I write it mostly for myself as well as to connect with others who have been positively and profoundly impacted by having known Joe Walsh. If you have stories, photos, anything that you wish to share about Joe and his amazing interactions with others, feel free to contact me. I look forward to hearing your stories.

-by Kurt Svoboda, Assistant Athletic Director  

The morning of July 31, 2012 came crashing down as I received word that our baseball coach and dear friend Joe Walsh had suddenly passed. No doubt his wonderful family was hit harder than I. For those close to Harvard athletics and baseball at all levels, the world is considerably less bright than it was just a few hours ago.

As I distributed media information and connected rapidly with the digital world socially, I disconnected with everyone near my office door, which was shut more today than perhaps all year combined. I wept softly and intermittently throughout the day while working as I reflected on Joe's family and the feeling of profound loss surrounding anyone close to the game of baseball.

At one point in the afternoon, a former player, Dan Zailskas delivered an impromptu memorial to O'Donnell Field. Seventy rose buds forming a number "2" to commemorate Joe's chosen uniform moniker and a Harvard baseball hat with a note written under the visor. It was a fitting tribute coming from a player who embodied the hard-nosed style reflected by so many of Joe's players. Throughout the day, numerous people came to pay their respects and this is where I choose to write this disjointed piece.

As tough of a day as it was in the office, I had an absolute obligation to meet in picking up my nearly 19-month old son, Jaxon, from daycare. As late afternoon approached, I hadn't yet had an opportunity to see the roses at O'Donnell Field and because of that, I departed feeling somehow even worse than I had in the immediate hours of the tragic news.            

On my way to get Jaxon, trying to compose myself, I was overcome with the need to see those roses – and the thought that Jaxon needed to see them too. I needed my toddler to see how much one person meant to so many.

Joe Walsh was an amazing man in nearly all facets of life. I know a lot of coaches and, while I stay away from words such as 'always' and 'never,' I will never again know a coach who rides the emotions of wins and losses in the way that Joe did. Each loss ate away at his very fiber.

I recall a particularly tough loss several years ago… in the communications field, we are in the office for lengthy amounts of time before and after games. It is routine for members of my staff to be the last ones out of the complex on game days with everyone else having departed hours earlier as we work on writing releases, editing videos, updating statistics, media and websites. On this day we were having all sorts of computer problems and I didn't leave until 3.5 hours following the end of the day's doubleheader. I walked past the baseball field and was surprised – and not at all surprised – to see Joe Walsh sitting by himself on the top of the dugout bench. Still in uniform. Sitting there, staring at the field. I am talking almost complete darkness after a 12-hour day preceded by his lengthy commute from his home in New Hampshire. I didn't' stop to talk as I went by and I know for a fact that he didn't see me. We had had that conversation numerous times before and had it again at that moment without needing to speak.

Joe loved good baseball, win or lose. He loved the perfectly-executed suicide squeeze, hit-and-run, the pickoff play on the trail runner and bunt defense.  He just loved the nuances of the game. Of course he loved baseball all the more when winning, which he did 569 times. But he came as close to dying as a person can with every loss and I do not say that lightly. To use a tired cliché, he wore his heart on his sleeve and he nearly died 564 times in his coaching tenure. On a lighter note, Joe was a baseball purest and what most likely tore at him the most were the three ties associated with his all-time coaching ledger. A tie in baseball? Come on. I can see him cringing and then chuckling at that last part.  

Now about those last two paragraphs - they don't matter in the least. While wins and losses mounted on both sides and Joe rode that rollercoaster, in the game of life he was the undefeated exemplification of humanitarian, educator, family man and friend. He cared for others, advocated for his players in placing them with summer baseball teams around the country; he spoke of his family often and, when asking how someone was doing, he was actually interested in the answer. Imagine that.

I've known Joe since I was a kid going to baseball clinics on Cape Cod and I was heartily amused at the prospect of working alongside him when coming to Harvard in August of 2005. We always had baseball in common and spoke often about issues surrounding the game in his typically animated fashion. I loved his stories and, when I say he had a million stories, he had more than that. He had more connections to the baseball world and he retained every piece of information - every backstory with an indescribable zeal. He was pure comedy and I won't attempt to do him any justice in that realm.

After meeting my now-wife, Joanna, he always asked about her first, amused at the sudden cultural addition to my world with Joanna being a classical flutist. When our son was born, each interaction began with "how's my man, JAXON? How's my next shortstop doing? When are we goin' to the cage for some BP?" Joe's interest in Jaxon was as genuine as anyone in my immediate family and he insisted on seeing Jaxon every time we brought him to the athletic complex. I recall one visit to see Joe at the baseball field before a practice. Jaxon was not in top form, crying the entire time – and Joe just ate it up, immersing himself in the joy of an infant's development.

I am so deeply sad for Jaxon that he won't grow up with Joe's encouragement, cagey wisdom and lessons about the important things in life – writing hand-written notes, seeking out tough conversations in-person and putting one's heart into every endeavor.

I had to give Jaxon one last moment with "the Deuce" on his baseball field – even knowing that Jaxon didn't understand. We stood by the makeshift memorial. Earlier in the day, assistant coach and former player Morgan Brown had moved the baseball hat onto a tee because the wind had been blowing the cap around. Jaxon picked up a rose. "RED!" Jaxon loves flowers so that was a hit. I explained why the flowers were here and we then walked around, letting Jaxon go barefoot so that he could enjoy the grass on his little feet. Joe would have chuckled at his path from first-to-third.

After walking for a while, Jaxon motioned that he wanted to be picked up, which is a rarity for my independent little guy. We then had one of those amazing father-son moments; as his little eyes studied mine, I knew that he understood my utter sadness in that moment contrasted by my deep outward affection toward him. He leaned-in for an exceptionally rare hug. And then another and another. And then he grabbed my head with both hands and pulled it gently to his forehead. And with that we smiled at each other and carried on, headed for a father-son dinner.

I don't care what activities my son chooses to participate in as he develops and grows. Right now he will be a salsa music-playing botanist and that's just fine with me. Whatever endeavors with which he chooses to engage, I wish him only to do with a degree of passion that Joe Walsh brought every day – both to his profession and to what truly matters in life – people and relationships.