Larry Walker: From hockey wannabe to the Baseball Hall of Fame

Perhaps Larry Walker was destined to be a baseball player.

Why else would the baseball gods have blessed the kid from Canada with a thunderous bat, speed on the bases, instincts, and an arm that unleashed lightning bolts from right field?

On Wednesday, Walker will be inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. But before he became Larry Legend and the first Rockies player elected to the Hall of Fame, all Walker wanted to do was play hockey.

“Being Canadian, you’re born into this world with a stick in your hand and skates on your feet,” said Walker, a native of Maple Ridge, British Columbia. “So that’s how I was as a kid. You played hockey, and that’s all that really mattered.”

At age 16, with dreams of being an NHL goaltender, he was invited to training camp by the Regina Pats of the Junior A Western Hockey League. If he made the team, scouts would take notice. But he got cut. He was invited back the next year and failed again.

“When I was cut for the second year in a row I had the opportunity to go to Swift Current,” he recalled. “I drove into the town and I stopped at the rink and I looked around, and I don’t know why, but I said, ‘You know what? This isn’t for me.’ And I decided I wasn’t going to pursue hockey.

“We turned around and drove back home to Maple Ridge, British Columbia, and that’s when it ended. And that’s when baseball kind of came knocking on my door. I didn’t knock on its door.”

Walker’s father, Larry Sr., played semi-pro baseball. Walker, his dad and his brothers — Barry, Carey, and Gary — often played together in a fast-pitch softball league. Walker never played baseball at Maple Ridge Senior Secondary because it didn’t have a team. He played volleyball and hockey in high school.

He learned his rudimentary baseball skills in a Canadian amateur league in Vancouver, roughly the equivalent of the Senior Babe Ruth Leagues in the United States.

During the summer of 1984, Walker played with the Coquitlam Reds in Vancouver, made Canada’s national team and played in the 1984 World Youth Championships in Kindersley, Saskatchewan. That November, Walker got a call from Bob Rogers, an Expos scout who signed Walker to a minor league contract for a $1,500 signing bonus.

He spent 1985 through most of 1989 in the minors, batting .274 with 73 homers and 258 RBIs in 437 games.

In his first season in pro ball, in 1985, he hit only .223 with two home runs in 62 games while on loan to the unaffiliated Utica Blue Sox of the New York-Penn League.

“I’d never seen a forkball, never seen a slider,” Walker recalled. “I didn’t know they existed. I had never really seen a good curveball. In Canada, as a kid, we’d play 10, maybe 15 baseball games a year.”

Jeff Huson played with Walker in Class-A ball in 1986 in Burlington, Iowa. Then the two were teammates in Triple-A Indianapolis in 1989 and for a short time together with the Expos later that season. Huson was blown away by Walker’s raw talent and his ability to pick up the game.

“Larry was raw, but you could see what a great athlete he was,” said Huson, now a Rockies analyst for AT&T SportsNet Rocky Mountain. “I remember they tried him out at third base but his arm was so strong that he kept throwing the ball over the first baseman’s head. Sometimes it would end up in the stands. So they put him in the outfield.”

Walker credits Ralph Rowe with helping turn him into a major-league hitter. Rowe was a hitting coach in the Expos organization and after the 1995 season, and a number of winters to follow, Walker honed his skills under Rowe while playing in the Florida Instructional League.

Once Walker began to learn the nuances of the game, his athleticism began to shine through.

“When I talk about Larry, I say he is the best athlete I ever played with,” said former Rockies first baseman Todd Helton. “I played (college) football too and played with some great athletes, but the guy could do everything.

“Of course, he was a Gold Glove outfielder with a cannon of an arm, but the thing he did best was run bases. That’s not going to help you get into the Hall of Fame, but you throw that on to everything else the guy did and he was amazing.”

Larry Walker

Montreal Expos: 1989-1993, 674 games
Colorado Rockies: 1994-2004, 1,170 games
St. Louis Cardinals: 2004-05, 144 games
Major league debut: Aug. 11, 1989 vs. San Francisco Giants
Final regular-season game: Oct. 2, 2005 vs. Cincinnati Reds

Quotable

Those who played baseball with Walker, or watched him play, were often astonished by his skills:

“An amazing talent. People always toss around the term ‘five-tool player’ pretty liberally, which they shouldn’t. But I tell people that Larry was not only a five-tool player; he was elite in all five categories.” — Walt Weiss, former Rockies player and manager who was Walker’s teammate in Colorado from 1995-97.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that Larry is a Hall of Famer. I’ve played with a lot of Hall of Famers — Andre Dawson, Tim Raines, Gary Carter, Mike Piazza — and as far as all-around, every part of the game, Larry is the best I played with.” — Tim Wallach, Walker’s teammate with the Montreal Expos.

“Larry Walker was a special player that could do it all. Talk about having an instinct for the game. Larry Walker was that player — and a lot of fun.” — Hall of Famer pitcher Pedro Martinez, who played with Walker in Montreal in 1994.

“People talk about five-tool players, but Larry Walker had a sixth tool: his baseball sense and anticipation. He won the MVP award in 1997, but if he weren’t playing at the same time as Barry Bonds, he may have won three or four MVP awards. He was the best at deking runners, hands-down.” — Eric Young, Walker’s Rockies teammate from 1995-97.

“I remember as an Expo. I always felt pretty comfortable against lefties, because I felt as though I could throw a breaking ball down and away from them and I could locate my fastball on their hands. They had a lot of good players in Montreal, but I thought Larry was the toughest hitter of them all, even though he was left-handed.” — current Rockies manager Bud Black, who, as a pitcher for San Francisco, faced Walker from 1992-94.

“I think the most extraordinary stat, for me, is always going to be his 1997 season, the year he won the MVP. He hit 29 of his 49 home runs on the road and his home OPS (1.169) was ridiculous, but his road OPS (1.176) was even higher. That was pre-humidor at Coors Field, so he kind of had to bust down the door to win the MVP. But considering what he did on the road, a writer would have been embarrassed not to vote for him.” — Manny Randhawa, author of The Blake Street Bombers

Trophy case

• National League MVP (1997)
• Five-time National League All-Star (1992, 1997, 1998, 1999 and 2001)
• Seven-time Gold Glove winner (1992, 1993, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2001 and 2002)
• Three-time Silver Slugger winner (1992, 1997 and 1999)
• Three-time National League batting champion (1998 .363; 1999, .379; and 2001, .350)

Numbers game

Games: 1,988
Hits: 2,160
Doubles: 471
Triples: 62
Home runs: 383
RBIs: 1,311
Stolen bases: 230
Batting average: .313
On-base percentage: .400
Slugging percentage: .565 (15th all-time)
OPS: .965 (18th all-time)
Career WAR: 72.7

Super Stats

• Walker is one of just seven players in MLB history with a career slash line of at least .313/.400/.565. The six others are all in the Hall of Fame (Babe Ruth, Jimmie Foxx, Ted Williams, Lou Gehrig, Hank Greenberg, Rogers Hornsby).

• Walker and Barry Bonds are the only two players in MLB history with at least 300 home runs, 200 stolen bases and an OPS of at least .950.

• Walker’s road OPS of .865 is equal or higher than that of Hall of Famers Willie Stargell, Ken Griffey Jr., Reggie Jackson, Orlando Cepeda, Tony Gwynn, Al Kaline, George Brett and Roberto Clemente.

• In Rockies franchise history, Walker ranks second behind Helton in runs (892), doubles (297), home runs (258) and RBIs (848). He ranks first in franchise history with a .334 batting average, a .426 on-base percentage and a .618 slugging percentage.

Moments in time

• First home run: On April 20, 1990, with the Expos. He hit a solo homer off the Mets’ Ron Darling in the second inning of Montreal’s 2-1 win at Shea Stadium.

• The Throw: On July 4, 1992, at San Diego’s Jack Murphy Stadium, Walker, playing in right field, fielded a one-hopper hit by Padres shortstop Tony Fernandez and threw him out at first base.

• First Rockies home run: On May 7, 1995, he hit a blast off the Dodgers’ Hideo Nomo at Coors Field.

In the clutch: In the 1995 regular-season finale at Coors Field, the 3-year-old Rockies needed to beat the Giants to earn the National League wild card and become the youngest expansion franchise to ever make the postseason. The Rockies overcame an 8-2 deficit for a 10-9 victory. Walker was 3-for-4 with a double, homer and three RBIs. He finished the strike-shortened season with 101 RBIs in 131 games.

• Hat trick: On April 5, 1997, Walker returned to Montreal’s Olympic Stadium and hit three home runs and drove in five runs. Manager Don Baylor wanted Walker to go for four home runs but Walker asked to come out of the game so teammate John Vander Wal could get an at-bat to stay sharp.

• All-Star Game mischief: On July 8, 1997, in the All-Star Game at Cleveland’s Progressive Field (then Jacobs Field), Walker turned in his most colorful at-bat when he faced off against intimidating lefty Randy Johnson. The two were briefly teammates with the Expos, but now Johnson was pitching for Seattle and Walker was a star with Colorado. Earlier in the season, when Johnson started against the Rockies, Walker chose not to play, explaining: “I faced Randy one time in spring training and he almost killed me.”

In the All-Star Game, Johnson theatrically threw a fastball 7 or 8 feet over Walker’s head. So Walker spun his batting helmet around and switched sides in the batters’ box and hit right-handed for one pitch. He switched back to the left side and drew a walk.

“I didn’t even know if I was allowed to do that,” Walker told The Denver Post at the time. “I looked like Colonel Klink out there.”

Walker was criticized for ducking Johnson in his career, but actually, Walker hit .393 (11-for-28) against Johnson.

• Home run attire: On Aug. 18, 1999, vs. the Braves at Coors Field, the Rockies donned their widely panned futuristic black jerseys. But it didn’t bother Walker, who hit two homers — an opposite-field shot off Kevin Millwood in the first inning and a three-run, walk-off blast off John Rocker.

• 2004 playoffs: After he was traded to St. Louis in August 2004, Walker made the most of his time with the Cardinals. It had been five years since Walker last appeared in the postseason, but in Game 1 of the NLDS against the Los Angeles Dodgers, he followed up Albert Pujols’ first-inning homer with a solo blast in the third. He hit another solo homer in the seventh.

In Game 1 of the World Series vs. Boston, Walker was 4-for-5 with a third-inning homer off Red Sox starter Tim Wakefield, and also had two doubles. Although the Cardinals were swept in four games, Walker slashed .357/.438/.929.

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