The way Larry Walker figures it, when it comes to the Baseball Hall of Fame, he is playing with house money.
“I grew up playing hockey,” said Walker, a native of Maple Ridge, B.C. “Baseball was never on my radar until I was offered $1,500 U.S. and couldn’t wait to sign that contract. Off I went. “I learned to play baseball in the minor leagues.”
Now, however, Walker finds himself very much in Hall of Fame conversations. The odds are against him being elected by the veteran members of the Baseball Writers Association of America. In the voting announced on Tuesday, Walker finished eighth with support from 54.6 percent of the voters. That’s a 20.5 percent increase from his previous high, but still more than 20 percent shy of the support he will need next year, his final year on the ballot, to be elected.
“For that to happen it would be two historic years of voting,” said Walker. “Going into the Hall of Fame next year is improbable in my mind.”
Adding to Walker’s challenge is that in 2014, the Hall of Fame reduced the maximum number of years a player could remain on the ballot from 15 to 10.
But there is the Veterans Committee, which is a composite group drawn from owners, executives, former players, and media members, that could eventually punch Walker’s ticket to Cooperstown.
Walker’s showing this year does bode well for him.
There are only six players no longer eligible for the BBWAA Hall of Fame ballot who ever received at least 40 percent support and were not eventually enshrined in Cooperstown – Marty Marion and Maury Wills, once each; Steve Garvey, three times; Tony Oliva and Rogers Maris, twice each, and Gil Hodges, 14 times.
Hodges is the only one of the five who ever received at least 50 percent, reaching that level 11 times, including surpassing the 60 percent mark in 1983 (63.4), 1981 (60.1), and 1976 (60.1). What’s more, 28 players who at some point finished behind Hodges in the voting eventually were elected for enshrinement in Cooperstown.
It is something to consider about Walker’s eventual possibility of enshrinement.
“The thought of the Hall of Fame is surreal,” he said. “It was never on my mind growing up. The Stanley Cup was, not the Hall of Fame.”
How raw was Walker back in that summer of 1985, when he made his pro debut with a co-op team in Utica, N.Y.? The late Ken Brett, his manager that season, used to love to tell the story about the day Walker took off full speed on a fly ball hit to the outfield. When he realized the ball was caught, he was nearly to third base, and quickly cut across the field, stepping on the pitcher’s mound on his way back to first.
When the other team appealed the play because he did not touch second base on the way back to first Walker was called out.
Brett had to race out to first base to make sure Walker didn’t get ejected during his argument about being called out.
So, it’s not like Walker hasn’t beaten the odds before in his pursuit of baseball.
He evolved into as complete an outfielder as there was in his time, an impact player with both his offense his defense, where he excelled because of his speed and arm strength. And there was that athletic twist he employed with the high right field wall at Coors Field. With a man on base, with a fly ball hit to right it wasn’t unusual for the baserunner to be getting ready to tag up when the ball hit high off the wall, having been deked by Walker acting like he was lining up to catch the ball.
The talents of Walker were on display. Rarely did that runner get to advance because Walker would so quickly turn, field the carom off the wall, and fire a strike to second or third base.
“I tried to be good in every aspect of the game,” said Walker. “When I was in the minor leagues I worked because I wanted be as good as I could at every aspect of the game, base running, defense, stealing baes, and hitting.”
And yes, Walker did spend most of his career with the Rockies, playing in Coors Field, where he had 30.1 percent of his career at-bats, and there are voters who hold that against him because of the ballpark’s reputation.
“There are ballparks that help players one way or another, and in some cases, they benefit pitchers,” said Walker. “I took advantage of Coors Field. If I didn’t take advantage of it, I’d probably would not be talking about the Hall of Fame. The Rockies would have released me.”
But Walker is still talking about the Hall of Fame, and he does it in a measured tone.
Each year, he offers a public thank you to those who voted for him and does not complain about the ones who did not.
“I don’t assume anything is going to happen, so I don’t set myself up to be heartbroken,” he said. “What is surreal for me is being able to say I made it (on the ballot) all 10 years. Some guys don’t even get that opportunity.”
But then most guys never had the career that Walker did.