To fully appreciate what a remarkable culmination enshrinement in the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum is to Larry Walker’s career, you need to first consider the way his journey began. The 54-year-old from Maple Ridge, B.C., was never predestined for greatness in the sport like, say, Ken Griffey Jr., whose play from a young age tantalized all who saw him. Instead, Walker was, first and at heart, a stay-out-of-my-crease-or-else goalie twice cut by the Regina Pats of the Western Hockey League. Needing an outlet for his elite natural athleticism once he decided he was done on the ice, some right-place, right-time serendipity brought him to the diamond on a consistent basis for the first time. Once there, the keen evaluations of scout Bob Rogers and executive Jim Fanning led to his signing with the Montreal Expos for a mere $1,500.
Walker started out in pro ball with the Utica Blue Sox in 1985 and there’s one adjective most commonly used for his game in those days: Raw. “You have to picture this,” says Bob Gebhard, the Expos farm director at the time who later lured Walker to Denver as GM of the Colorado Rockies. “Larry’s at first base. They put the hit-and-run on and he takes off for second. Meanwhile, the ball was hit into right field, a fly ball, and as Larry rounds second, the third-base coach is telling him, ‘Go back, go back, it’s a fly ball.’ So, he cut across behind the mound — he didn’t know he had to go back and retake second base — and then he slid into first base. The throw came in and he got into an argument with the umpire about being safe.”
Back then, nobody in their right mind would have envisioned all that he would accomplish across 17 big-league seasons — the .313/.400/.565 slash line, the 383 home runs and 2,160 hits, the three batting titles, seven Gold Gloves and one MVP award. Nor could they have foreseen the impact he’d make on Canadians in the game. The Expos simply identified the talent and provided him the runway, and Walker adapted and adjusted after every mishap, never allowing a mistake, no matter how big or embarrassing, to stand in his way. In hindsight, the club’s patience and the player’s determination turned out to be the catalysts for an unforeseeable Cooperstown trajectory.
“It was a lot of years of listening. It was a lot of years of watching. And I learned and absorbed,” Walker says during a contemplative moment on the eve of his Hall of Fame induction. “As I always tell kids: it’s hustle, sportsmanship and be a sponge. Just those three things. Take in everything that you see and hear and try it, at least. Everything might not work for how you are as an athlete or how you perform, but you don’t know until you try. Some things stick and they can stick with you for your whole career. That was the big thing for me — from not being able to hit the ball out of the cage in batting practice and hitting .223 my first year — just work, work, work, work and good things happened.”
Among Walker’s many admirable qualities is the gift of understatement.
How good were the things that happened?
“Oh man, he could do anything at the plate,” says Dante Bichette, his longtime teammate on the Rockies’ famed Blake Street Bombers squads. “He was like a big Tony Gwynn to me, a Tony Gwynn with power. He could hit any pitch; he could hit to any part of the field. He was a really smart hitter. He always seemed to know when a pitcher was trying to get him out a certain way and he would make that adjustment.
“Something I loved about him most: One time he had a man on third with two outs and he laid a bunt down the third-base line to score the winning run. He was out to beat you any way he could. And that was just at the plate,” Bichette continues. “I played with a lot of Hall of Famers, I can’t tell you one that was more well-rounded than him. He was he was the whole deal, man.”
Justin Morneau, the longtime Minnesota Twins slugger from New Westminster, B.C., who was mentored by Walker throughout his career and remains close with him now, struggles to find a suitable comparable for him in today’s game. “He could hit a ball just as hard down the left-field line as he could down the right-field line and over any part of any fence in any ballpark. I mean, it’s just incredible,” says Morneau. “He could do something that very few players in the history of the game can do, which is the combination of average and power on top of the defence and baserunning. He was such a good all-around player. It’s hard to put into context. The skill-set that he had is just so rare.”
Darren Holmes was the Rockies’ closer when Walker joined the club in 1995 and spent four years as his teammate. “When you’re that good, the confidence that you have — you’d never see Larry down, you’d never see him hang his head,” says Holmes. “He always wanted to be in the fight, wanted to play every day. He was just a pro, just a really, really good player.”
Gebhard guided Walker through some of his humble beginnings in pro ball and then had a front-row seat during his MVP season in 1997. “Larry was a true five-tool player,” he says. “He’s maybe the best baserunner that I’ve been around in my 55 years. He has a great instinct on the basepaths and, of course, he had the natural running speed. He could go from first to third or score from second base as well as anybody I’ve ever been around.”
Joe Siddall came up through the Expos system about three years behind Walker. “He had that sixth tool, too — like, he had instincts beyond,” says Siddall. “He would bait players [when he was in the outfield]. When the major-league team used to have the exhibition against the triple-A club, there was a triple-A hitter hitting and Walker is in right field and the ball is going over his head. But he did the old deke like he was going to catch it, all the runners froze and he just played it off the wall. That kind of stuff.”
Some of the credit for Walker’s success belongs to Bob Strumm — at least indirectly. As the head coach and general manager of the Pats during the mid-1980s, he twice passed on Walker in favour of other goaltenders. “The second time he kicked his bag all the way down the hallway he was so upset,” Strumm remembers. “This guy had a fire burning unlike most young athletes you meet. But the goaltending position is tough to make, even in junior hockey, because you kind of have your depth charts slotted fairly well in training camp.”
Walker grew up playing with longtime Boston Bruins star Cam Neely and Rick Herbert, a defenceman who survived the final cuts to make the Pats. At the end of camp, there was an opportunity with Swift Current and Herbert’s dad ended up driving Walker two-and-a-half hours west on the way back home to B.C. “We drove into the town, stopped at the rink and I looked around and I don’t know why, but I just said, ‘You know what, this isn’t for me,’” remembers Walker. “So we continued on driving back home to Maple Ridge and that’s when it ended. And then baseball kind of came knocking on my door.”
First up was a provincial tryout for the junior national team. Walker won a spot, eventually representing Canada at the 1984 world junior championship in Kindersley, Sask., the springboard to his signing with the Expos in November 1984. The next summer he was in Utica, N.Y., where his infamous baserunning gaffe occurred, but he really started making strides the following summer at A-ball Burlington, especially once manager J.R. Miner moved him from third base to right field.
When Dave Dombrowski joined the Expos as director of player development for the 1987 season, “everybody kept describing [Walker] to me as this great young, talented player with a hockey mentality,” he says.
“He played the game so hard with such intensity,” Dombrowski continues. “But the other part was you would have to teach him about the game of baseball more. A lot of idiosyncrasies from day to day, he just hadn’t been exposed very much to that. He was a great athlete. You looked at the tools and he relied on his athletic ability to make strides. Really, it was just a matter of taking a guy who was wise, instinctive and hard-nosed and teaching him more about the game of baseball, which he easily learned.”
That Walker is the 333rd person named for induction to the Hall of Fame is only fitting given his obsession with the number three — his favourite. “We all have some sort of stupid-stition, if you want to call it that, that we rely on to kickstart us and make us go into that comfort mode.” he says. “For me it was always doing the things with three.”
Morneau, who wore the same No. 33 out of respect, is also the superstitious sort. “We were sitting there one day and we’re looking at the alarms on our phones,” he remembers. “I said, how do you set your alarm? We both took out our phones and it was like, 8:33, or 9:03, there was no time in there that didn’t end in a three.”
During Walker’s spectacular MVP season in 1997, he stole his 31st base with three weeks remaining in the season and then didn’t make another attempt until the final week, when he went 2-for-2 to finish at 33.
“Larry had several opportunities to steal bases, because he could steal one whenever he wanted,” says Gebhard. “I said, ‘Jeez, Larry, you haven’t stolen a base in weeks. What’s the deal?’ He turned around and said, ‘What’s my number?’ I said, ‘No. 33.’ He ended up with 33. That number could have been 45 or 50. That’s how Larry was.”
He was other ways, too. “He can belch the ABCs,” Darrin Fletcher, Walker’s teammate on the Expos, said back in 2009.
Holmes remembers how Walker “would do some crazy stuff.”
“I remember one story,” says Holmes. “He was scuffling and he went into the locker-room after an at-bat and he shaved three-quarters of his whole body and then got dressed and came back out. I don’t know why. The body hair was everywhere in the bathroom. He’s just a piece of work.”
Bichette laughs at that memory. “There was a little superstition there,” he says. “I remember times when he would just get in the batting cage and hit right-handed, and he’d say, ‘Hey, if I can hit right-handed, then left-handed should be easy.’ He had different ways. We just said, ‘We’re not worried about you, Larry. Okay? We’ve got other things to worry about. We know you’re going to be fine.’”
A lot of the antics were rooted in Walker’s competitiveness. Tim Leiper, the longtime Canadian national team coach, remembers teaming up with Walker in a golf game against Team Canada manager Ernie Whitt and director of national teams Greg Hamilton.
“After my first shot, Larry goes, ‘Is this the way it’s going to be all day? Because this is horseshit,’” Leiper relays. “And legitimately it scared me. I ended up playing the best round of golf in my life. We kicked Greg and Ernie’s asses.”
Walker crushed his 1987 season at double-A Jacksonville, but he still wasn’t adept at handling breaking balls and off-speed pitches, so the Expos volunteered him to play winter ball. “They asked everybody on the team who wanted to go and I think I was the only one that said no and I was the only one that went,” he says.
They sent him to Hermosillo in Mexico and on a routine scoring play, his career nearly came to an abrupt end. As he stepped on home plate with his plastic cleats, his foot slid and “my leg locked and the weight of my body kept going over my leg, my knee bent backwards in the other direction and completely tore my medial collateral, lateral collateral and anterior cruciate ligaments in half.”
The Expos flew Walker to Denver for surgery and Dr. Larry Coughlin, the team physician, travelled down from Montreal to be part of the procedure. “The type of surgery he had then was very unique,” says Dombrowski, “and not very many people realize how close his career may have come to an end. Fortunately, the doctors did a great job, but there was a question mark on how he would proceed.”
Walker missed the entire 1988 season — “I was laying on my dad’s sofa for a few months,” he says — but posted a .782 OPS up a level at triple-A Indianapolis the next year, earning a 20-game stint in the big leagues. While he only hit .170/.264/.170 during that time, he won a job out of camp the next spring and he never looked back.
“He had everything,” says Dombrowski, who by then had been promoted to GM. “At that point it was a matter of just letting him grow as a player. What was good about him is that he was so good defensively, good baserunning, good arm, he still was a valuable big-league player while he was learning how to finish the hitting aspect.”
Mike Aldrete was among the veteran players on the 1989 and ’90 Expos teams. “He was raw, but what sticks out most for me is that you could see he was going to be a good big-leaguer,” says the former utilityman, now first-base coach for the Oakland Athletics. “He got along well in the clubhouse. He paid attention and it was really important for him to do things right. He was a guy I wanted to play with for years to come.”
The men’s 100-metre dash at the 1988 Seoul Olympics took place on Sept. 24, in the midst of the Expos’ fall instructional league. Siddall and Walker were all set to gloat about Ben Johnson’s victory over American Carl Lewis in the clubhouse when news broke about his positive test for stanozolol. “We were all fired up — Canada, Canada, Canada — and we just get hammered, our lockers are all taped up with [news stories], all this anti-Canada, cheating steroid scandal,” says Siddall. “We both got that one.”
Walker made sure Siddall didn’t wear it on his own, and when the catcher arrived at his first big-league camp, he found a welcome gift in his locker. “Larry kind of took me under his wing as a fellow Canadian, loaded up my locker with batting gloves, spikes,” says Siddall. “He was very gracious to me. He was awesome.”
Morneau received similar treatment. When he was in double-A, a box of bats unexpectedly arrived in the clubhouse. He opened it up to see it was a shipment of Larry Walker Louisville Sluggers. On June 10, 2003, when he debuted in the majors against the Rockies, Walker sent over a signed bat that said, “Make Canada proud.” He posed for pictures with Morneau and fellow Canadian Corey Koskie before the game and afterwards sent over the Rockies’ lineup card, signed by everyone on the club. “He took care of me a lot,” says Morneau, noting that Walker’s generosity continued even after he became established in the majors. “He taught me that no matter how much success you have, you still treat people the same, you still look out for people, and if you’re in a position to help people, you do that.”
Walker took that to an extreme in 2006, after Morneau won the AL MVP award. When Walker won the MVP, the Rockies had a special edition purple Harley Davidson built for him as a gift and he was curious what the Twins were doing for Morneau. “And I said, ‘Well, they gave me my trophy back,’” says Morneau. “I had heard that the Tigers got Justin Verlander a Rolex engraved for winning Rookie of the Year. I wasn’t expecting anything. Larry finds this out and he has these World Series type rings made – three of them – one made for me that was intact and two more that he had cut into thirds. One side said, average/RBIs/home runs, then the other side said his stats and the top was diamonds in the shape of a home plate. So he has one. I have one. And then I have the original ring. He’s just one of the most generous people.”
By the midpoint of the 1991 season, Walker really started settling in as a big-leaguer, finishing his second season with an OPS of .807. “Buck Rodgers (the Expos manager) told me once, ‘You’re going to know when you belong in this league. It’ll hit you,’” says Walker. “And he was right. I didn’t think anything of it until a year and a half later, I went back to that moment and was, ‘Yeah, I feel good in this moment right now. I belong.’” He was selected as an all-star for the first time in 1992, had a similarly strong ’93 and was enjoying a monster ’94 when the strike hit, a blow the Expos franchise never recovered from.
Gebhard, who had taken over as GM of the expansion Rockies, figured the Expos would have to part with Walker once the strike ended and pounced on him immediately. That first season in Colorado, he got the post-season experience he’d been robbed of the previous season when the Rockies clinched a wild-card spot.
“We’re at the top of the stadium and a bunch of fans saw us up there with our champagne and they started screaming,” says Bichette. “So we started signing our hats and throwing it down to them. They went crazy so we started signing everything and throwing it down to them. I don’t know how many clothes we had left on, but that’s the best time I had with Larry. He loved to win. Those were great years there.”
Everyone who encounters Larry Walker has a Larry Walker story. Most have several. Jimmy Van Ostrand, the mental skills coach for the Toronto Blue Jays who played for Walker at multiple tournaments with the national team, remembers an incident from the portion of the 2009 Baseball World Cup played in Italy. “Post-game, they would do these pretty elaborate spreads. You’d be served a five-course meal. It was legit,” says Van Ostrand. “In the middle of the second course in one of these meals, guys were kind of doing different stuff, throwing an olive, killing time doing dumb things. At one point, Cole Armstrong goes to throw a grape at somebody and inadvertently squares up Walk in the eye. Cole’s at the end of the table and it’s just like, death stare. Cole instantly shrinks, like, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry.’ He feels terrible. Walk’s eye is red — like it got him good. That stopped all the food throwing. The next day, we get on the bus and Walk is in his usual seat, fully taped up, bandage over his eye, huge patch, everything. And we think he’s joking, but we’re not sure, and Cole is scared to death this whole time, thinking, ‘I just blinded a Hall of Famer.’ But it was nothing, Walk was just messing with him and it was beautiful. For a 48-hour period, Cole was wondering why he had been throwing grapes all over the place.”
Walker was notorious for not wanting to take batting practice on the field before games. Holmes once asked him why and Walker explained that on the field, he’d be tempted to hit the ball as far as possible, but in the batting cage, he was better focused on what he wanted to accomplish. Sound reasoning, but former Rockies manager Clint Hurdle at one point tried to change that. Morneau, who played for Hurdle with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2013, remembers that “he was trying to get Larry to hit on the field or whatever, and he’s flipping him balls, and he’s hitting every ball off the top of the cage,” Morneau recalls. “Hurdle finally looks at him and says, ‘What are you doing?’ Larry says, ‘I’m trying to hit the ball off the top of the cage and get it to come down and hit you on the top of the head.’”
But the hijinks are only part of Walker’s legend.
“He has a total knack for feel and timing of when to give information and when not to, knowing that the best information at the wrong time is more detrimental than something good,” Leiper says of the way Walker mentors players. “You can’t duplicate that feel and knowledge.”
The best example came before Canada beat the United States 8–6 at the 2006 World Baseball Classic. Dontrelle Willis was the American starter and Stubby Clapp was looking for advice on how to hit the lefty. “Stubby says [Willis] does all this crazy stuff. ‘I don’t know where to pick him up, I don’t know how to approach this guy,’” says Leiper. “And Larry said, really simply, ‘Just eliminate his lower half. Just look at his upper half and the delivery won’t look the same.’ Perfect information at the right time. Stubby hit a leadoff triple and it helped swing the biggest game in our history.”
For Gebhard, a 6–5 loss to the Angels in Anaheim in which Rockies manager Don Baylor used all the team’s catchers comes to mind. “In the ninth inning, someone slid in and cut Jeff Reed’s face and we had to take him out of the game,” he says. “I was in the stands and had no idea who was going to finish up the game. Well, who do you suppose volunteered? Larry Walker. Don quickly said, ‘Get out in the grass, get going,’ and he put Neifi Perez in to catch. We lost the game. But Larry wanted to catch.”
Walker built the bulk of his Hall of Fame credentials during his 10 years in Denver. He hit 49 homers, stole 33 bases and posted an OPS of 1.172 during that MVP season in 1997. He won a second straight batting title with a career-best average of .379 in 1999. But during his time there, the Rockies only made that one trip to the post-season in 1995.
Walker had two more kicks at the playoff can after he was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals ahead of the deadline in 2004. The Cards lost to the curse-breaking Boston Red Sox in the World Series that year and fell short to the Houston Astros in the NLCS the next. By then, neck and back problems limited what Walker could do on the field. His body had no more to give.
The merits of his career were debated as the politics of the Hall of Fame balloting played out. But ultimately there was no doubt he was deserving in so many ways. He was a gifted athlete who learned the game on the fly and figured out how to do one of the most difficult things in all of sports — square up a ball moving at high speeds with a round bat — and handle the incessant failure inherent in the game, something that beats down even those strong of mind.
Leiper remembers a national team player once asking Walker how he dealt with failure. “It was one of the greatest things I heard him say, he goes, ‘I never failed, I either got it done or I didn’t,’” says Leiper. “It was such a refreshing and professional way to think about things, but also a total telltale sign of his greatness. He went into slumps like everyone else but he never wore it. I either get this done or I don’t. And if I don’t get it done, I’m going to get it done the next time. There’s so much complexity in the simplicity of it.”
In that way, Walker understood the sport’s psychology long before the mental game became an industry within the industry.
“it was never win or lose for me; it was always win or learn,” says Walker. “I wanted to always learn something and to be able to learn. You have to fail and you have to be able to take that failure, especially in this game. As a hitter, failing 70 per cent of the time makes you Hall of Fame worthy. So it’s a lot of self-belief and just accepting doing bad. I always had belief.”
Walker never let the game overtake him, even when it easily could have as he was running back to first base without retouching second, failing to recognize spin and getting mauled by pitchers preying on his inexperience. In the process he earned himself a place in Cooperstown’s hallowed halls, an honour accomplished in his own unique way.
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