TORONTO – In these anticipatory and anxious days before the Hall of Fame’s Class of 2020 is unveiled Jan. 21, Justin Morneau is trying to consider the possible arguments against the candidacy of Larry Walker. All he can come up with is the contention that playing at Coors Field inflated the longtime Colorado Rockies right-fielder’s numbers. The former Minnesota Twins slugger and 2006 American League MVP from New Westminster, B.C., is having none of it.
“You don’t use that against guys at Wrigley where the gaps are 362 (feet away), or you don’t use it against guys that have played in other hitter-friendly ballparks,” says Morneau, a leading member from the generation of Canadian players directly influenced by Walker. “But you just do it there because it’s Colorado and it’s the easy thing to do.
“He could do everything. Gold Glove, great arm, steal bases, drive in runs, hit home runs when you needed it – absolutely everything you could ask a guy to do on a baseball field. If that’s not a Hall of Famer than I don’t really know what is.”
That sentiment was fairly unanimous Saturday as the Canadian baseball community gathered in Toronto for Baseball Canada’s annual awards banquet.
Walker, an important supporter of the program and a coach with the senior national team, was unable to attend the festivities this year. But with him trending at 84.8 per cent of the 144 known ballots collected by the crew at Baseball Hall of Fame Vote Tracker in his final year of eligibility, a common discussion thread was the possibility that a second Canadian could soon be enshrined at Cooperstown alongside Ferguson Jenkins.
The opinions among those gathered are biased, to be sure, but the support for Walker speaks to the influence his career had on the game across the country.
“When I was 12 years old I was playing at Larry Walker field,” says Scott Mathieson, the just-retired right-hander from Langley, B.C., who spent eight years as the star closer for Japan’s iconic Yomiuri Giants. “I remember when he’d be on TV or in highlights, my dad (Doug) would point him out and he’d say, ‘Look, Canadians can make it. This is a Canadian who’s the best player in the league at the time.’
“I hope he gets into the Hall of Fame. He should be in. His numbers are better than a lot of guys in there.”
The JAWS metric created by Jay Jaffe, which blends career and seven-year peak WAR totals for comparison to average Hall of Famers by position, supports that assertion, as Walker’s score of 58.7 compares favourably to the 56.8 average for outfielders.
Only 10 Hall of Fame batters have a higher career OPS than his .965. His slugging percentage of .565 would rank eighth between Rogers Hornsby and Johnny Mize. His main deficiencies against the average Hall of Famer are in games played (1,988 versus 2,158) and plate appearances (8,030 versus 9,087).
And, of course, there’s that pesky Coors Field nonsense, which both unfairly diminishes his career .865 OPS in away games and absurdly penalizes him for happening to enjoy his peak years in Colorado. It’s a ludicrous school of thought which presupposes that any hitter who plays in Denver will miraculously start putting up monster numbers.
“Exactly,” says Morneau, who won a batting title with the Rockies in 2014. “Before I signed there, (Michael) Cuddyer told me, ‘Listen, any time you hear talk about Colorado, the first thing someone will say is about the altitude and how it’s a hitter’s ballpark.
“They don’t give credit to the hitter, they give credit to the conditions and the elements first, and then they talk about the hitter. It’ll drive you nuts because it’s almost like there’s a built-in excuse for every guy that plays in Colorado.’
“Is it a great place to hit? Yes,” adds Morneau. “But you have to take advantage of it, and he did.”
Along the way Walker, who was inducted into the Canadian Baseball of Fame in St. Marys, Ont., in 2009, also made efforts to help and nurture the ascending base of Canadian talent he helped inspire in the first place.
Morneau, for instance, would get bats from Walker while he was in the minors and during his big-league debut June 10, 2003 — a rare interleague matchup between the Twins and Rockies in Minnesota coincidentally enough — there were more surprises.
“Before the game he sent over a bat that said, ‘Make Canada proud,’ and he signed it,” recalls Morneau. “We took a picture, him, Corey Koskie and myself behind the plate before the game and after the game, most of the time you get the lineup card from your team, but he took their lineup card and got the whole team to sign it and sent it over. So I have the lineup card for both teams, most guys just have the team they play for. He took care of me a lot.”
“It was just nice to have a voice,” explains Morneau. “Somebody when you’re struggling to go to, someone who’s been there, someone who’s been through all of it. Someone other than your hitting coach or a teammate.
“I just felt like he was looking out for me. If he saw me doing something I shouldn’t be doing it, he’d take care of that. He was like a big brother to me, and I tried to continue that because of what he did for me.”
To pay it forward, Morneau kept close tabs on Canadians in the Twins system like outfielder Rene Tosoni and left-handers Scott Diamond and Andrew Albers, and others across the majors. To this day he texts regularly with young San Diego Padres slugger Josh Naylor.
“I just try to be a voice for these guys because I understand what they’re going through when you’re a young player trying to find your way,” says Morneau. “To have someone who has been there is helpful.
“It’s similar to Steve Nash in basketball, a guy who won an MVP in a sport where Canadians typically don’t dominate or succeed. He let us all know it was possible. And not only possible to make it, but also possible to be among the best, and among the best for a long time.”
A spot in the Hall of Fame would certainly reaffirm that, although for the Canadian baseball community, enshrinement or not there’s no doubt about his place in the game.
“It’d be important, because you know Larry Walker the person, and obviously the fact that he is a real person and a genuine person, and somebody who we all connect with and call a friend,” says Greg Hamilton, Baseball Canada’s director of national teams. “He cares so much and so deeply about the next generation of the game in this country, and it really would resonate because the guys know him.
“Sometimes you have star personalities who you don’t really see and aren’t involved. He’s connected with us and touched us all. He’s genuinely involved with us, and every one of us will champion this and hope he gets this deserved honour.”