Larry Walker settled in at first base after a one-out hit and took his lead. The next batter lined a ball to left center field. Walker whipped around second and was halfway to third when the leftfielder made a marvelous running catch. Walker’s instincts kicked in and he immediately slammed on the brakes and made a beeline for first, right past the mound and directly across the diamond. When Walker, standing on the bag, was tagged out for not retouching second base, his baseball education began in earnest.
From that point forward, Walker absorbed everything taught to him and, ironically, became one of the game’s smartest and most savvy players, in addition to being one of its most talented. By the way, that base running indiscretion didn’t take place on a Maple Ridge, British Columbia Little League field but a Minor League diamond when Walker was a prospect in the Montreal Expos organization.
Walker likes to tell that story as to why he became such an astute base runner. Growing up in a hockey-crazed nation, Larry’s first passion was the Canadian National Pastime. He hoped to be an NHL goalie. Good thing he had a backup sport.
It’s not often an athlete in baseball is 6′-3″ and 230 lbs. and can run with most anyone, field with a grace that is in conflict with that size and naturally hit for power and average. That was Walker and, initially, he was a somewhat well-kept secret who wowed the bilingual audience at Stade Olympique in Montreal. It was upon arrival in Colorado that the rest of North America began to learn about Walker.
In his first year with the Rockies, he helped lead them to their first post-season by hitting .306 with 36 home runs and 101 driven in. That proved to be a tease. In 1997, Walker became Colorado’s only MVP thus far, hitting a league-best .366, a league-best 49 HR, 130 RBI, and he threw in 33 stolen bases. The next year, he hit .379. In fact, he would hit better than .350 four times with Colorado. Over 17 seasons, including a decade with the Rockies, he won seven gold gloves, three batting titles, and was selected to five all-star games.
One of the great stories and most famous incidents involving Walker occurred at the 1997 all-star game when pitcher Randy Johnson, the 6′-10″ lefty, theatrically threw over Larry’s head. Walker, not missing a beat, put his helmet on backwards and stood in for a pitch righty against him! Because he infamously missed a start against the “Big Unit,” in the regular season, some believe he was ducking him. Most of those folks probably don’t realize he hit .393 for his career against Johnson.
One final affirmation of Walker’s greatness in a baseball uniform: Jim Tracy was asked if Carlos Gonzalez was the most-talented player he had ever been around. His answer: “Best I’ve seen since watching Larry Walker as a kid in Montreal.” High praise… for both men. Walker’s final numbers: a .313 average, 383 homers and 1,311 RBI.
Baseball is not a game played on paper. On paper, they win.