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Second Canadian gets ‘call from the Hall’

Larry Walker dreamed of playing professional hockey but wound up becoming an MLB star

Editor’s NoteThe COVID-19 pandemic forced the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., to postpone the 2020 Hall of Fame induction ceremonies—originally slated for this summer—until July 25, 2021. Sports Collectors Digest will honor the 2020 Hall of Fame class this summer with a series of articles about these baseball legends who sat down earlier this year and talked about their careers. In this issue, Larry Walker. Coming next: Derek Jeter.

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How does a kid who was born in the westernmost province of Canada, grew up collecting hockey trading cards and set his sights on being a goalie in the National Hockey League end up in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown? It’s a long story, one you might recount by the fireplace on a cold, wintry night in Maple Ridge, British Columbia.

That’s the proud birthplace of Larry Walker, the aforementioned hockey-obsessed youngster who took that surreal journey from the ice rink to the baseball diamond. Walker is only the second Canadian-born Major League Baseball player to get “the call from The Hall,” and, in his homeland north of the border, that makes him a national hero. The first player was longtime pitching standout Ferguson Jenkins, who hails from Chatham, Ontario. Jenkins contacted his fellow countryman right after the news broke in January about Walker’s selection.

“I have to tell you, it was pretty cool hearing from Fergie,” Walker said. “When something like this happens, you hear from a lot of people. You look at the names coming up on your phone and say, ‘Wow! Look, it’s Fergie or Alan Trammell or someone else who played.’” Jenkins waited quite a while to welcome a fellow Canadian to Cooperstown. Jenkins was named to the Hall of Fame in 1991.

Walker, 53, had his doubts about whether he would end the long drought and whether “The Hall” would ever come calling. It was a bit nerve-racking for Walker as 2020 approached. He knew this was his 10th and final year of his eligibility on the Baseball Writers’ Association of America (BBWAA) Hall of Fame ballot.

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In January, as the announcement neared, Walker thought he might fall short of the 75 percent of BBWAA votes needed for enshrinement. He even tweeted before the vote was revealed, saying that while he may come up a little short, he wanted to thank all those who supported his bid to get into Cooperstown through the years.

“It was how I really felt, and I wanted to put it out there. If I didn’t get in, I still would have felt honored that so many people felt I was good enough to even come close to getting into the Hall of Fame,” the five-time All-Star said. “When I got the call, I was speechless. I was in disbelief when I heard them say that I didn’t come up short this time. It was the best call I ever got. It was amazing.”

In Canada, the announcement became one of those “Where were you when?” moments. People gathered in pubs, sports bars, and restaurants in various parts of the country waiting for the news. MLB Network carried the announcement live. “My friends told me cheers broke out at these gatherings when the announcement was made.”

Fans in Colorado, where the right fielder played for nearly 10 full seasons (1995–2004), were pretty excited, too. Walker played in the major leagues for 17 years (1989–2005), spending time with the Montreal Expos and the St. Louis Cardinals, in addition to the Rockies, with whom he “did the majority of my damage.” So Walker will be shown wearing a Rockies hat on his Hall of Fame plaque. He’s the first player to represent Colorado in Cooperstown.

“It was a hard decision, being from Canada and having played for Montreal,” Walker said of the Rockies/plaque decision. “But when you consider all the games I played for Colorado, all the time I spent there, it’s the right decision. All three teams will be mentioned on the plaque and I’m honored to have gotten a chance to wear all three of those uniforms.”

Walker’s large Canadian fan base was impressed that he had such a huge impact on the game. He compiled a lifetime .313 batting average, with 383 home runs and 2,160 hits, and helped shore up his team’s defense with a flashy glove and a strong throwing arm.

His accolades were plentiful and thought to be HOF-worthy during his playing days: A Most Valuable Player award in the National League in 1997, three National League batting titles (1998, 1999, 2001), three Silver Slugger awards (1992, 1997, 1999), and seven Gold Glove awards (1992, 1993, 1997–1999, 2001, 2002). All this from a guy who wasn’t crazy about the game called America’s national pastime.

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“When you are born in Canada, you enter the world with a hockey stick and skates, and that was where my mind-set was at,” he said. “Baseball was what you did for a couple of weeks in the summer while you were waiting for hockey season to start.”

That scenario made pro baseball scouts shy away from Canada. But once Walker was recruited in the mid-1980s by the Montreal Expos, Canadian athletes started getting a second look from scouts. The search north of the border for “the next Larry Walker” was on. Walker was credited, both during his playing days and afterward, with helping baseball’s popularity grow in his country and getting kids in Canada to dream about making it to the major leagues.

The left-handed hitter played baseball in the Maple Ridge youth leagues. They played 15 games a season at most. “I never played baseball in high school,” he said. “The school didn’t have a baseball team. In fact, as a kid, I played more softball than baseball.”

Larry played on the same fast-pitch softball team as his older brothers (Barry, Carey and Gary) and father Larry Sr. They were usually in the same lineup for the Maple Ridge Lanes softball team. Larry’s mom, Mary, worked for the bowling alley that sponsored the team. Larry Sr. was extremely proud that he could play softball with his four sons. The winning Walker family-dominated team was legendary throughout the Vancouver area, where Maple Ridge was a suburb.

While all the Walkers were superb athletes, Larry stood out because he had a natural swing, and effortlessly hit for power. Still, softball was just a leisure-time pursuit for Walker and was not taken as seriously as hockey. Walker played hockey whenever he got a chance. For hours at a time, whether it was at a rink, on a frozen pond, or even on an ice-covered driveway, Walker and his friends were totally captivated by the sport.

One of Walker’s friends, Cam Neely, became a National Hockey League legend, playing for the Vancouver Canucks (1983-1986) and making a name for himself as a member of the fabled Boston Bruins (1986-1996). Walker and Neely played hockey together almost every day as youngsters.

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It wasn’t as if Walker didn’t do everything he could to become a professional hockey player. He started playing organized hockey at about age 7, went from PeeWee through Juvenile Hockey, as most Canadian kids did, and held his own minding the net. But Walker couldn’t catch a break when it came to making the jump to Junior Hockey, a major step on the road to an NHL career.

Walker had several tryouts with Junior Hockey teams but never made a team. He got an offer to try out for a team in Swift Current, Saskatchewan, 1,000 miles away from home. Though only 16 years old, Walker made the trek to Swift Current but was disappointed in the condition of the rink and didn’t like the town. He returned home. “I just about gave up on my dream of playing pro hockey for a while. I started playing baseball just to keep active.”

Joining the Coquitlam Reds, a traveling baseball team in British Columbia, Walker got a chance to show off his “pretty” swing and long-ball power while playing shortstop for the club. He put in some time at first base as well.

In the summer of 1984, Walker was asked to attend a tryout to represent Canada in the World Youth Baseball Championships. Walker easily made the team. Canada didn’t fare too well at the competition (won by Cuba), but Walker did.

Unaware of who was in the stands during the World Youth Baseball Championships, Walker said he was shocked when he was contacted by Bob Rogers and Jim Fanning, scouts for the Montreal Expos. “They offered me $1,500 to sign. Big money, eh? But it wasn’t about the money. I wanted to be a professional athlete, so I was thrilled…Baseball found me, not the other way around.”

Walker was just what the Expos were looking for—a power hitter from Canada, the type of guy who could become the face of Canadian baseball and the Expos.

“I was lucky that some good eyes were watching me. Right place at the right time. I didn’t know what to expect when I signed with the Expos. Playing baseball in Canada as a kid, I never saw a slider, a forkball, a really good curve. I thought everything would be a fastball. There was a lot I had to learn. But I figured I’d just go with it. There were even some rules of the game I didn’t know.”

Walker recalls a now-famous story from his early days in the pros, in 1985, when the Expos sent him to the Utica (New York) Blue Sox, a Class-A minor league club in the New York-Penn League. During a game early in the season with the Blue Sox, Walker singled with one out. The next batter hit a sinking line drive to left-center. With the hit-and-run on, Walker was running on the pitch. He rounded second and headed for third. But the left fielder made a great catch, and Walker heard his third-base coach yelling for him to get back to first base.

“So I run across the diamond past the pitcher’s mound and get to first base before the throw. I get called out. I can’t believe it. I clearly beat the throw. Glynn runs over and I can see he’s kinda upset. And I said, ‘I was safe. I beat the throw.’ He said, ‘You weren’t safe. You have to go back the way you came and touch second and then go back to first.’ And I said, ‘Why? I already touched second.’ The coach shook his head and just laughed. My baseball education was underway.

“As I look back, I’m not sorry that happened. I tell that story to kids who are trying to the learn the game and get a little frustrated. It really helps.” Walker readily admits that he needed a lot of work honing his baseball skills to become one of the game’s elite players during his career.

“When I started out, I think they nicely described me as having raw talent,” he said. But “they” were right. The promising youngster developed into a five-tool player, a star who could hit for average, hit with power, field, run, and throw. That kind of all-around talent is rare in the game, even for players who grew up playing baseball their entire lives.

“People have always told me I’m athletic. I have the ability to pick up sports quicker than other people. I took up 10-pin bowling after I retired and I threw a perfect game two years later. I just love the challenge of trying to learn something new. Baseball was new to me.”

But “I was a great learner, a good listener. I just soaked up anything that anybody ever told me about the game.”

Walker credits a critical eye for some of his success. “I learned from watching other players. I loved to watch other players and see what they were doing. If they did something and were successful with it, I would try it and maybe add my own twist to it. I also watched the bad things they did because I didn’t want to repeat them myself. That was another way to learn.” During his first year with the Blue Sox, Walker only hit .223, but his manager, Ken Brett—the brother of Hall of Famer George Brett—kept the struggling youngster in the lineup. Brett admired Walker’s work ethic. After that first season in Utica, the Expos were considering releasing Walker, but his coaches went to bat for him and urged the Expos’ front office to reconsider. They did, and Walker was sent to the Florida Instructional League in the fall of 1985, he worked tirelessly to make himself into a hitter: “I wasn’t afraid to give it all I had…It did take me some time to figure it all out. Actually, a couple of years.”

In 1986, Walker played for the Burlington (Iowa) Expos in the Midwest League and the West Palm Beach (Florida) Expos in the Florida State League, Single-A clubs. His improvement was remarkable. He hit a combined .288 with 33 home runs and 90 RBI.

At West Palm Beach, 19-year-old Walker first met Felipe Alou, who managed the club. Alou would later manage Walker with the Montreal Expos. Walker made the move to Double-A ball in 1987. He played for the Jacksonville (Florida) Expos in the Southern League and kept impressing the Montreal brass. He was named to the league’s All-Star team after hitting .287 with 26 homers and 83 RBI.

The stage was set for Walker to make his major league debut, but while playing winter ball in Mexico in January 1988, Walker tore up his right knee, placing his career in jeopardy. “I thought I was done.” But doctors repaired the knee and, over seven months of rehabilitation, during which he missed the entire 1988 season, Walker recovered.

In 1989, Walker was back playing for the Indianapolis Indians, the Expos’ Triple-A club in the American Association. Walker needed some time to regain his full strength and shake the rust from his baseball skills. But 1989 turned out to be a solid season. With a .270 batting average, 12 home runs, 59 RBI, and 36 stolen bases by Aug. 16, Walker earned a call-up to the big club. He was in the major leagues and he was there to stay.

Once again, he needed to adjust to this new level of play. “But putting on a major league uniform was a turning point of my life. What an opportunity. I will always be grateful to the Expos for giving me that chance.” He only hit .170 with the Expos for the remainder of the 1989 season. In 1990, he returned to the big club and hit .241, and slammed 19 home runs, which tied a club record for homers by a rookie (fellow Hall of Famer Andre Dawson had done it in 1977).

The Expos liked what they saw in Walker and felt that he was a star of the future. He had also built up a quite a following, becoming a fan favorite in Montreal almost from the time the team had called him up from the minors.

In 1991, Walker hit .290 in a season highlighted by a great second half. He hit .338 after the All-Star break. In May 1992, the Expos replaced then-manager Tom Runnells with the team’s bench coach, Felipe Alou, as the Expos began developing a core of young talent. Those players included Walker, Marquis Grissom, Delino DeShields, Alou’s son Moisés, Mel Rojas, and John Wetteland.

In Walker’s view, Alou was the perfect manager for the team—easy to approach and easy to talk to. “It was fun to watch how well he communicated with the guys. A lot of managers don’t have that communication skill. He was hands-on. He’d take you aside and talk to you. He did that with the whole team. You were comfortable around him and could say anything to him.”

In 1992, the Expos won 87 games and finished second in the National League East to the Pittsburgh Pirates. Walker had a great season, batting .301 and winning his first Gold Glove and Silver Slugger awards. He was also named the Expos’ Player of the Year.

In 1993, the Expos won 94 games but still finished second in the NL East, this time behind the Philadelphia Phillies. While Walker won another Gold Glove, his hitting fell off. He only batted .265, but he drove in 86 runs and collected 22 homers.

By 1994, the Expos were poised to do great things. And they did, until the players’ strike derailed the season. The work stoppage started on Aug. 11 and, at the time, the Expos were sailing along, leading the NL East by six games. Walker was leading the National League in doubles with 44, and had 19 homers and 86 RBI when play was halted. He was also batting .322.

The strike forced the cancelation of the remainder of the 1994 season and all of that year’s postseason. The strike brought an abrupt end to the Expos’ dream season, one that could have brought the financially struggling franchise a world championship. The work stoppage did not end until April 2, 1995.

“I often think about what could have been with that Expos team. That was a good team. If we could have won it all that year, things might have gone differently for the franchise and it might still be in existence today. But we didn’t.” The Expos would eventually move to Washington, D.C., in 2005, becoming the Washington Nationals.

On April 8, 1995, Walker, a free agent who wasn’t offered a contract by the Expos, signed with the Colorado Rockies. Walker was lured to Colorado by the natural beauty of the state, and the thin air in Denver’s Coors Field didn’t hurt his batting average. Walker combined with three other big bats in the Rockies’ lineup—Dante Bichette, Andres Galarraga, and Vinny Castilla—to form the Blake Street Bombers. Each player hit over 30 homers in the 1995 season, which helped lead the team to a Wild Card berth and a trip to the postseason. Colorado became the first-ever Wild Card team in the National League as Major League Baseball revised its postseason format.

With Walker’s help, the Rockies got into the postseason after just three seasons in existence. But the Rockies lost to the Atlanta Braves in the NL Division Series. Walker hit a three-run homer off Braves hurler Tom Glavine in Game 2 for his first postseason home run.

With the 1995 season, Walker started a 10-year run in which he hit .334 with 258 homers and 848 RBI for the Rockies. He also had 126 stolen bases and 297 doubles.

While winning the National League Most Valuable Player award in 1997, Walker was batting .402 as late into the season as July 17. He would come in second in the league in batting with a .366 season average; Tony Gwynn hit .372. Homers were another story. Walker led the National League with 49 in 1997, and also had 130 RBI and 46 doubles. He also hit .346 on the road. One of the reasons always given for Walker not being elected to the HOF sooner is that his stats might have benefited from playing in the hitter-friendly air of Denver.

“I’ve heard all of the arguments, but the Colorado Rockies are still a major league team. I’m good with people who think that you get some advantages from playing there, I guess. But you still are going up against other major league teams, other major league players, other major league pitchers. You still have to hit and field. You still play the game the same way. I played where I played and I am never going to shy away from that. I had some pretty good years with the Rockies.”

Walker won batting titles in 1998 (.363) and 1999 (.379), becoming the first player to hit above .360 in three consecutive seasons since Al Simmons of the Philadelphia A’s in 1929-31. Remarkably, he was injured in 1998-99 and had to adjust his batting technique almost every day so he could take a pain-free stroke. It was nothing anyone could detect but enough so he could keep going in spite of his injuries, which included an extremely sore right elbow and a strained rib cage.

Still hurting in 2000, Walker only played in 87 games but maintained a .309 batting average. Over the offseason, Walker began a new fitness regimen and returned stronger in 2001. He won his third batting title, with a .350 average.

The 2001 season featured Walker’s 300th career home run. While the slugger was enjoying his time in Denver, Walker was hoping the team would make it to the postseason. The Rockies hadn’t played in October since Walker first got there in 1995. Even though he had another great season in 2002, the Canadian baseball legend still couldn’t propel his team to the playoffs. Walker batted .338 in 2002 with 26 round-trippers and 104 RBI. He also led the team in doubles with 40.

In 2003, he hit below .300 for the first time since 1996, batting .284, an average many players would happily take. Plagued by injuries, Walker missed much of the early part of the 2004 season. When he finally returned, he hit .324 and that sparked interest from the St. Louis Cardinals, who were hoping to reach the postseason. Walker, at age 37, was traded to the Cardinals on Aug. 7, 2004.

“I’m not a baseball historian, but when you talk about organizations, you usually talk about the Yankees, the Dodgers, the Cubs, the Cardinals. It’s just an iconic organization that people know around the world, a uniform that people recognize around the world. I’ll never forget the first day walking into the clubhouse and putting on that uniform with the incredible Cardinals logo on the front. It was an incredible moment for me.”

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In the last two months of the 2004 season with the Cards, Walker batted .280 in 44 games with 11 home runs. St. Louis won 105 games, winning the National League Central Division. The Cards beat the Dodgers in the NLDS with Walker hitting .333 with two home runs. The Cardinals then beat the Houston Astros in the NLCS with Walker hitting two home runs and collecting five RBI. Unfortunately, St. Louis ran into a red-hot Boston Red Sox team in the World Series, and were swept in four games. But Walker batted .357 with two home runs.

The 2005 season was Walker’s last. He hit .289 but was hampered by injuries. St. Louis again made the postseason but lost in the NLCS to the Astros. “Unfortunately, I wasn’t involved in any World Series championships, but the playoffs and my World Series appearance were quite gratifying.”

After retirement, Walker made it a mission to strengthen Canadian baseball. He served as hitting coach and first base coach for many of his country’s national teams, including the 2011 and 2015 Canadian national baseball teams, which won gold medals at the Pan Am Games.

Walker has received many honors, including winning a record nine Tip O’Neill awards, given annually to Canada’s best baseball player. The award is named after James Edward “Tip” O’Neill, one of Canada’s first Major League Baseball players. Primarily a left fielder during his career, O’Neill played from 1883 to 1892 for a number of teams, including the St. Louis Browns. Walker is also in the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame (2009).

Now, Walker is about to enter the National Baseball Hall of Fame, making him a baseball legend in two countries. Not bad for a kid born with a hockey stick and skates instead of a bat and ball, eh? 

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