Former St. John's baseball coach, player Russo dies at 74

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NEW YORK (AP) — Former St. John's baseball coach and player Joe Russo, who captained the team to the College World Series in 1966 as a slick-fielding shortstop and returned twice as the program's skipper, has died. He was 74.

The university announced Monday in a statement that Russo died Sunday after a long illness.

Russo played four years at St. John's under coach Jack Kaiser, and was selected to the College World Series all-tournament team in 1966. He took over as coach of the program in 1974, when Kaiser became the school's athletic director.

Russo went 612-310 in 22 seasons with St. John's, including CWS appearances in 1978 and 1980. The second of those squads included future major league All-Star pitchers Frank Viola and John Franco.

"So sorry to hear of the passing of my @StJohnsBaseball baseball coach, Joe Russo," Viola, the 1988 AL Cy Young Award winner, wrote on Twitter. "Believed in me from the start. Gave me the opportunity to shine right from the get-go. Deepest condolences to entire Russo family. You are all in our hearts."

Among other future big leaguers Russo coached at St. John's included Rich Aurilia, C.J. Nitkowski, Terry Bross and Wayne Rosenthal.

"Coach Russo was greatly respected in the college baseball community, not only in the Northeast, but throughout the country," said Nitkowski, who pitched at St. John's for two seasons before being selected No. 9 overall by Cincinnati in the 1994 baseball draft.

"The two years I spent in a Johnnies uniform under Coach dramatically changed both my baseball and personal life. ... His track record on the field speaks for itself, but his impact on so many of his players over the years is likely greater than he ever realized. He will be missed, but his impact and legacy live on. Thanks, Coach."

Russo was the Big East Conference coach of the year in 1990 and '91. He also led St. John's — while playing as Team USA — to the Pan-American Games in Argentina in 1995, his final year at the school. Russo was inducted into the American Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 1997.

"I am saddened by the news of the passing of Coach Joe Russo," said current St. John's coach Ed Blankmeyer, who took over for Russo in 1996. "His Hall of Fame coaching career elevated St. John's to national prominence."

Russo also taught English, social studies and physical education for several years at Christ the King High School in Middle Village, a few miles from the St. John's campus in Jamaica.

"Coach Russo gave me an opportunity to shine and be myself," said Tom Danulevith, who pitched for St. John's from 1990-93 before being drafted in the 15th round by Philadelphia. "He treated me very well, but was always clear what his expectations were. He was straightforward and firm. Coach was also very hard-nosed when it came to the game, took no crap, and was about protecting his players. If you played hard for Coach, he fought hard for you. Anyone who didn't put in the effort didn't see the field.

"Coach was keen to realize when he had players that could be coaches on the field and he let those players lead the team. He was always the manager and called all of the shots, but he let his key guys lead on and off the field. That helped build trust with his players and provided confidence as well."

Russo is survived by his wife Cecelia, daughters Katherine and Christine, son Joseph Jr., and several grandchildren. Funeral arrangements were not immediately available.

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