Walker Makes A Late Push, Joins Jeter as 2020 Hall of Fame Inductees
In the spring of 1998, Rockies outfielder Larry Walker attempted to make a diving catch in an exhibition game, banging his left elbow against the ground, like he had banged it so many times before. Difference was, this time, the elbow became a season-long pain for Walker.
"I threw him batting practice in the cage, every day," said Clint Hurdle, the Rockies hitting coach at the time. "And it was amazing the way he would manipulate his approach at the plate so he could swing the bat. Some days, there was no sign of a problem. Other days, he might not be able to bend the elbow or there would be a shooting pain as he swing.
"He would figure out a way to work around it so he could be in the lineup. It was incredible how he got things done."
Incredible? Yeah, incredible. Hitting "with an arm and a half," as Hurdle put it, Walker won the first of three NL batting titles with a .363 average.
"He was so driven," said Hurdle.
And Walker received his ultimate baseball reward for his career-long determination on Tuesday night, joining former Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter in being elected by veteran members of the Baseball Writers Association of America into the National Hall of Fame and Museum, the first player who ever wore a Rockies uniform to earn the honor.
He put together a big-league career that covered 17 seasons that began with the Expos, included nearly 10 years with the Rockies, and concluded with slightly more than one season in St. Louis. The NL MVP in 1997, Walker won batting titles in in 1999 and 2001, in addition to 1998, and was an All-Star selection five times. He was awarded seven gold gloves and three Silver Sluggers.
The Hall of Fame is located in Cooperstown, N.Y., just down the road from Utica, where Walker made his professional baseball debut, an 18-year-old Canadian, signed by the Montreal Expos as an undrafted player, just two years after Walker gave up his childhood dream of being a professional hockey player to dabble in baseball.
"He was raw when he showed up," said Gene Glynn, a former Rockies coach who in that summer of 1985 was the third base coach for a co-op rookie league team, which featured players from five teams. "But he probably learned the game faster than anybody. He would recognize what needed to be done and learn right away. He was never intimidated."
Glenn laughs at the mention of a game in which Walker took off from first base on a fly ball to right field, never looking up as he rounded second base, only to see Glynn signaling him to return to first base because the ball had been caught. Just a few feet from third base, Walker turned and headed directly across the field, stepping on the pitchers mound as he raced back to first, where he was called out for not touching second base.
"He said, `I already touched it on my way to third,'" Glynn recalled.
Walker laughs about it now.
But why not. He has reason to smile.
From that learning experience at Utica, he developed into one of the most impactful players in baseball of his era, which was underscored on Tuesday when he became the seventh player since 1966 to be elected in his final year of eligibility, joining one-time Montreal teammate (2017) and former Seattle DH Edgar Martinez (2019) as the third player in four years to earn his entry into Cooperstown in his 10th and final season.
It wasn't easy. He made a mad dash in the last four years, in his quest for the 75 percent voting support from veteran members of the BBWAA necessary for induction. He went from from receive 21.9 percent support in 2017 to 76.63 percent this year, making a final-year-on-the-ballot record-setting jump of 22 percent.
He, however, was able to celebrate on Tuesday night, not only his recognition, but also the feeling that Walker's induction will open the door in Cooperstown for future Rockies candidates, like Todd Helton, who was on the ballot for the second time this off-season, and Nolan Arenado.
And to think, his childhood ambition was to be an NHL goalie.
"I'd be missing a few more teeth," he said when asked what he things would have happened if he had continued to put on the skates. "I don't know of the success would have been there in Hockey that had enjoyed in baseball. I'd probably be home in Maple Ridge (B.C.) working right now."
Instead, he's in baseball heaven, looking forward to that moment on July 26 in Cooperstown when he takes part in the induction ceremonies in Cooperstown, along with Jeter, and veteran committee inductees Ted Simmons and the late Marvin Miller, the original executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association.
"He earned it," said Hurdle. "He deserved it."