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Larry Walker’s rise to Hall of Famer a testament of hard work, patience

TORONTO – Imagine, for a moment, if Bob Strumm had said yes instead of no to Larry Walker.

The long-time hockey executive was the head coach and general manager for the Regina Pats in the mid-1980s when he first crossed paths with the newly minted baseball Hall of Famer. At the time Walker was a big, aggressive goaltender who didn’t take kindly to anyone coming near him in the crease, and he twice earned invitations to training camp with the Western Hockey League club.

Strumm cut the teenager both times, the second ahead of the 1984-85 season, a decision that set off the chain events leading Walker to a $1,500 signing bonus with the Montreal Expos, and the beginning of a career rewarded with a place among the game’s greatest in Cooperstown.

“The second time I cut him he kicked his bag all the way down the hallway – he was so upset,” an overjoyed Strumm says over the phone from Las Vegas. “He wanted to win the Stanley Cup. You know what? As great an athlete as he was – I didn’t realize how great he was – he probably would have played in the National Hockey League as a goalie. This guy had a fire burning unlike most young athletes you meet.

“And here he is going into the baseball Hall of Fame.”

There were countless hurdles for Walker to overcome first, as despite being the junior national team’s shortstop that year, Walker was incredibly raw on the baseball field. It took the vision of Expos scout Bob Rogers, who caught a glimpse of him that fall in an adult baseball tournament in B.C., to see past what he wasn’t and to believe in what he could be. And none of it would have happened had Strumm chosen Walker to back up starter Jamie Reeve with the Pats.

“Well, I’d have to say I would probably be missing a few more teeth, that’s one thing,” Walker says in pondering what might have been had he continued to play hockey. “And I don’t know if the success would have been there in hockey as it turned out to be in baseball. There’s probably a better chance maybe back home in Maple Ridge, doing some kind of a job there and this conversation would never be happening. It was a decision I made pulling into a town in British Columbia and deciding I just didn’t want to do it no more. I was (17) years old at the time, I don’t know how a kid that age makes that decision, but it’s a decision I made, and then baseball found me and away it went.

“Just a couple of lucky no’s and some good eyes that were watching me at the time and then the Montreal Expos signed me and I got that chance. I rolled with it.”’

***

Walker’s selection in his 10th and final year of eligibility on the Hall of Fame’s writers’ ballot was agonizingly close. He garnered 304 of the 397 votes cast, clearing the 75 per cent threshold of 298 votes by a mere six checkmarks. Public projections based on the running results tracked by Ryan Thibodaux and his crew suggested he would fall just short.

Based on past discrepancies between the results of public and private ballots, Walker did some math in his head and figured he’d end up around 73.3 per cent. As he went about his day trying to keep things as normal possible – he skipped a workout but did some yard work and hung out with guests gathered at his home – he sent out a tweet in which he braced for the worst.

“The tweet was me being open,” he later explains. “I’m not a big social media guy. I have been following a lot on Twitter with the accounts Ryan Thibodaux has. He keeps a lot of us up to date on how it’s going so I was religiously following along with that. I just wanted to give my honest thoughts and that’s how I felt.”

Still, the nerves started to kick in around 4 p.m. ET and that’s when he settled in to await the final tally. He’d been told that if elected, to be near his phone around 5:15. When the time came, he figured he’d give it a 90-second window before moving on. He was on the verge of telling everyone to stand down when the phone rang with a New York area code.

“Oh shit,” he remembers saying out loud. “And then maybe, ‘Oh my God.’”

Jack O’Connell, the Baseball Writers’ Association of America’s national secretary/treasurer, was on the line. This is how it went down.

In 2014, he made it on only 10.2 per cent of the ballots cast. Four years ago, he was only at 21.9 per cent. The turnaround, a product of the changing makeup of the electorate and a better understanding of his career thanks to advanced metrics, is remarkable.

“These last two, three weeks, watching the tracker and seeing what was going on and watching people’s votes come in, sitting there looking at it and watching the number stay around 85 (per cent) past 200 votes, it honestly got me interested because there was a chance,” says Walker. “In past years, that never existed. Even though last year I had a blast following along and was so joyful to see it up around 65 and then to end up at 54, it was incredible. And honestly, if this year it would have come up a little bit short, I’d probably be saying the same thing, how incredible that that many people think I’m good enough to come this close. Fortunately, I’m saying enough people thought I was good enough that I didn’t come that close. I made the last hurdle.”

***

Early in his baseball career, there were plenty of hurdles. Walker felt rich after getting the $1,500 from the Expos, noting that it was worth about $2,000 Canadian after the conversion, and drove to Florida from Maple Ridge for his first spring training.

The conversion to baseball full-time after being devoted to hockey was hard, in part because he didn’t really know what was in store for him. A real path had yet to be carved to the majors for Canadians, who at that point weren’t even eligible for the draft. And he was behind other players in so many ways.

“I had no idea,” Walker says of the challenges that awaited him. “As I signed that contract and drove down to Florida for spring training and played baseball, I never really knew the rules of the game or much about the game. The history of the game. I’m a hockey player. You grow up in Canada, you’re born into hockey. That’s what’s in your blood and veins. So baseball was something I had to learn along the way. Once I figured it all out and learned how to play and got better and became more successful, then the road became a bit clearer of what the possibilities were.”

He debuted in Utica in the short-season New York Penn League, batting .223/.297/.307 in 62 games during the 1985 season. Walker remembers the season well because, “I know how bad I was and the Expos knew how bad I was, too.”

But the fire Strumm had noticed in him on the ice carried over to the field, too, and he worked and worked and worked to overcome his deficiencies. The next year at A-ball Burlington things started to click, especially once manager J.R. Miner moved him from the infield corners to right field, where he could both leverage his arm and ease his mind.

“You feel a lot less stress in the outfield. You’re not involved in almost every play,” says Walker. “There’s a lot going on out there, but it’s not to the extent that you’re 90 feet, 110 feet from guys hitting rockets at you. I think that, in a roundabout way, helped my hitting.

“The biggest thing for my whole career was that thing between your ears. Mentally I was able to beat the game at a young age and I carried that with me. For me, that was my biggest strength throughout my career, mentally beating that game. Even when I was injured and having to come back from so many damn injuries, the worst thing is getting injuries and doing rehab. I was so tired of doing rehab. By the time I retired I was calling uncle on that. The mental part of the game, even at that stage, was big in my career.”

Walker debuted in the majors on Aug. 16, 1989 against the San Francisco Giants, emerged as a regular in 1990 and proceeded to play 1,988 games in the majors, batting .313/.400/.565 with 383 homers, 471 doubles, 230 stolen bases and 154 outfield assists.

Few players of his generation offered as complete a package.

“He could do everything,” says Justin Morneau, the longtime Minnesota Twins first baseman from the generation of Canadian players directly influenced by Walker. “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.”

***

The case against Walker often centred on the amount of time he missed due to injury, and a belief his numbers were inflated by hitting in Denver’s thin air while playing for the Colorado Rockies.

Criticizing someone for the former, a direct result of the hard edge with which he played the game, is incredibly harsh when you consider his total production on the field, leading to a career 72.7 WAR as calculated by Baseball Reference.

The latter has been dispelled countless times – during his MVP season of 1997, for instance, his OPS at home was 1.169 versus 1.176 on the road. To argue he was a Coors creation was incredibly lazy, as Jayson Stark of The Athletic clearly showed.

Walker had heard such talk from his playing days onward. While in general avoiding the type of politicking that sometimes happens during a player’s Hall candidacy, he also consistently distanced himself from the thin-air debate. Even in his moment of vindication, he refused to wade in, or criticize his critics.

“I’ve said that all along, every year, forever, I’m good with people that are against it because they feel there are advantages you get, I guess,” says Walker. “But in the long run, it’s a major-league baseball team, it’s a franchise just like every other one, you go up there and battle with the rest of your teammates to try and beat the other guys across the way and I’ve never looked at it past that. To answer these questions is a fine line of right and wrong, good and bad, fair and not fair, whatever the right wording is. I don’t even know. It’s such a weird subject to talk about because I think you can really go to other Hall of Famers that played in other ballparks that affected their goods and bads and it’s really a conversation that could probably never end when you’re bringing up players and their home and road splits. I did really, really well there and I’m grateful I did really, really well there because it helped me get to where I’m at right now.”

In doing so, he became not only the second Canadian, and first position player from the Great White North, selected to Cooperstown, but also the first player from the Rockies. Perhaps now that garbage argument will finally be put to rest.

***

Walker’s big moment belonged not only to him. For a Canadian baseball community that multiplied as his accomplishments in the majors multiplied, there’s important meaning in Walker joining Ferguson Jenkins in the Hall.

There was plenty of joy Tuesday night when the news broke.

“This is truly an amazing moment for Canadian baseball and Canadian baseball fans but most importantly for Larry Walker and his family,” Greg Hamilton, Baseball Canada’s director of national teams, said in a statement. “Larry was a tremendous talent on the baseball field and was an athlete that young Canadian ball players could look up to and someone that Canadians from coast-to-coast-to-coast were thrilled to call their own.

“A proud Canadian who still impacts the game north of the border through his association with our national team, Baseball Canada could not be more proud for Larry on achieving this honour that he so richly deserves.”

Then there’s this from Joey Votto, the Cincinnati Reds first baseman on a Hall of Fame trajectory, too.

The impact isn’t lost on Walker, who was inducted into the Canadian Baseball of Fame in St. Marys, Ont., in 2009, even as he’s reluctant to take credit for it.

***

Walker doesn’t forgive easy, and he definitely doesn’t forget.

In the summer of 1997, he and Bob Strumm, then general manager of the IHL’s Las Vegas Thunder, crossed paths at Dodgers Stadium.

Well, sort of crossed paths.

Strumm and a friend decided to catch a ballgame and they showed up early to watch batting practice. Seeking to say hello, Strumm asked an usher to give Walker his business card in the dugout and he did, but the former goalie declined to come out to meet his former coach.

Walker proceeded to homer in his first at-bat.

“He was still bitter about not getting a chance to be a WHL goalie,” Strumm says laughing. “He big-leagued me. We still laugh about it to this day.

“There’s no question and I admit without a doubt that we made a mistake. … Even for then he had great size for a goalie. He was 6-2, at least, and in those days a lot of the goalies were smaller. He was overactive, a little hyper in the net, which is understandable if you know him. He was so tough, that anyone who came into his crease would be in deep trouble. He got into a couple of scraps, actually, during his time in training camp. We just didn’t keep him.

“In junior, it’s so tough. I consider myself an architect, and yet in goal you’re usually in good shape knowing who’s coming. He was a wild card.”

Yes, he certainly was, one that as it turned out needed a nudge out of the crease and into a batter’s box, so he could swing not at pesky forwards, but at baseballs en route to the Hall of Fame. He might never have got there had Strumm said yes.



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