TORONTO – Rising through the ranks of youth baseball in the Metro Vancouver area and graduating into the more competitive levels of the sport in British Columbia during the 1990s, Jeff Francis remembers that Larry Walker’s name was everywhere.
"He was the standard for the height of baseball in Canada," says the left-hander from North Delta, who pitched in 254 games over 11 big-league seasons. "If you went to a provincial championship, his picture was on your T-shirt. Or if you went to play in Maple Ridge, you were playing at Larry Walker Field. The fact that he played for the Montreal Expos helped, too, so even people who weren’t baseball fans knew who he was.
"He was that unreachable dream for kids who let you know it was reachable, that a Canadian could go do it."
Those words are worth considering amid the ongoing debate over Walker’s case for the Hall of Fame, his candidacy boosted by a 12 per cent gain in the 2018 election, pushing him to 34.1 per cent. Still, that’s a long way from the 75-per-cent threshold needed for selection, and the dynamic right-fielder from Maple Ridge, B.C., who starred for the Expos and Colorado Rockies before closing out his career with the St. Louis Cardinals, has but two years remaining on the ballot.
In general, the debate about Walker seems to centre around how much playing 597 of his 1,988 career games at hitter-friendly Coors Field influenced those numbers.
We’ll get to that.
But focusing exclusively on his stats overlooks his impact on Canadian baseball, an element of his accomplishments that’s pretty much wholly ignored in the United States.
From the volunteer coaches who offered him up as local inspiration, to the path he forged in the professional game for up-and-coming players from north of the border, his successes played well beyond big-league fields.
A generation of Canadian major-leaguers point to him as an idol, an influence and a source of encouragement on their way up. Since then he’s also helped many others coaching with various national team programs, from the juniors to World Baseball Classic squads.
Should it matter?
Well, the criteria given to voters by the Hall of Fame reads as such: "Voting shall be based upon the player’s record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character, and contributions to the team(s) on which the player played."
"Character" and "contributions to the teams on which the player played" can certainly be stretched to support a wide array of outlooks. But for voters on the fence about Walker for the Hall of Fame, factoring in his legacy in Canadian baseball is something that should tip the scales.
"Growing up I had Larry Walker and from Calgary, where I’m from, Chris Reitsma, as a pitcher to look up to, but there wasn’t that much," says Jim Henderson, the 35-year-old former Brewers and Mets reliever. "When I was on my first junior national team, it had Adam Loewen and Jeff Francis and Russell Martin, all those guys, and that was that next wave of players. But those guys paved it for us.
"When we were kids, those were the guys we watched. It’s amazing now to see the young Canadians coming up now, and us, we’re passing the torch on. It’s exciting and it’s amazing how it comes from such a small group with guys like Walker."
Pete Orr, the former Brewers, Phillies and Nationals utilityman, was a 39th-round pick in 1997, the year Walker won National League MVP honours.
"I don’t want to say it gave you more hope, but there was a recognition that if he made it, why not myself," says Orr, now a pro scout for the Brewers. "Still to this day when I see Canadian big-leaguers I get excited and Larry was one of the best players in the world when he was doing it.
"Larry’s been great for all Canadians. For a lot of guys around my age, he was their idol growing up for sure, he was our Canadian hero. The numbers speak for themselves and he carried himself in a way that made us proud to be Canadian."
Rene Tosoni, the former Minnesota Twins outfielder now coaching in the Atlanta Braves system, grew up in Port Coquitlam, B.C., and regularly played at Larry Walker Field.
"When we played there, we’d always think, ‘maybe he’s going to show up today,’" Tosoni recalls laughing. "Seeing the Canadian guy, a Hall of Famer in my eyes, one of the best players I watched, it was like, Canadian guys can make it."
Francis broke through with the Rockies in August 2004, two weeks after Walker was traded to the Cardinals. He only played with him once, while Walker was on rehab assignment in double-A, but they’ve since been on national teams together.
"One of the stories you’d hear about him coming through the Colorado system was about his intangibles, his instincts for baseball," he says. "They’re not flashy, but those were things I appreciated hearing about him, like what a good baserunner he was. He knew exactly how to run the bases, didn’t make those mistakes. His baseball instincts were better than anyone."
That’s among the reasons why he dislikes the Coors Field factor being counted against Walker. Other players don’t seem to have their stats adjusted for park factor and Francis points out that during his MVP season of 1997, for example, his home/road splits included the following: 20/29 home runs; 30/16 doubles; 1.169/1.176 OPS.
In other seasons it’s more pronounced and his career home/road OPS split is 1.068/.865 over 1,988 games and 17 years in the big-leagues. But his peak years also came during his time with the Rockies and it’s impossible to say with certainty that playing elsewhere would have vastly diminished his numbers.
"I’m biased, along with most Canadians, but I don’t see a reason why he shouldn’t be in the Hall of Fame and if you want to hold Coors Field against him, I don’t see that as a rational reason," says Francis. "They don’t (subtract from the stats) for pitchers. It is a good place to hit and people do hit well there, but he’s hit well everywhere. Not a lot of people have done a lot of the things he’s done."
Especially from Canada, the benefits of which continue to augment an already Hall-worthy career.