Walker Gets His Chance To Shine
LYNCHBURG, Va.--Just the mention of the event causes Neil Walker to break into a large grin.
"The 1994 All-Star Game? I was there," he says. "I was only 8 years old but I remember it like it was yesterday."
Walker sat in the upper deck at Three Rivers Stadium along with his father Tom, a former major league relief pitcher, and watched the National League post a thrilling 10-inning victory as Fred McGriff tied the game with a home run in the ninth and Moises Alou won it with an RBI double in the 10th.
What Walker remembers most about that game is batting practice. Walker's two brothers were sitting in the field boxes and were able to snag an autograph from Ken Griffey Jr.
"I was so excited when I saw that autograph," Walker recalls. "I thought that was so cool. From that day on, Ken Griffey Jr. became my favorite player. It's one of the best memories of my childhood."
A dozen years later, the All-Star Game returns to Pittsburgh and its shiny new baseball gem, PNC Park, and the 20-year-old Walker is now one of the Pirates' top prospects. The 6-foot-3, 211-pound switch hitter is the catcher at high Class A Lynchburg two years after the Pirates made him their first-round draft pick from Pine-Richland High in Pittsburgh's North Hills suburbs.
This time around, Walker will be a part of the festivities, likely the starting catcher for the United States team in the Futures Game, which will be played July 9.
"It's really unbelievable to think I'm going from sitting in peanut heaven for the last All-Star Game to getting a chance to play in the Futures Games in my hometown and representing my hometown team," Walker says while sitting on a couch in the home clubhouse at City Stadium. "I'm really excited. It's a great honor to think I'm one of only four catchers in the entire minor leagues who will be playing in this game.
"It's going to be very special to play at PNC Park. Every time I drive by it in the winter, I start daydreaming about what it would be like to make it to the major leagues with the Pirates someday and call PNC Park home."A Minor Setback
Although Walker got off to a slow start this season while spending the first six weeks on the disabled list, the Pirates are optimistic he can get to the major leagues sooner rather than later.
"There is obviously a lot to like about Neil Walker," general manager Dave Littlefield says. "He's a good hitter with power. He plays a premium defensive position. He has the bloodlines because he comes from a baseball family. He knows the game. We were very happy to have had the opportunity to draft him and nothing has happened to change our mind."
Not even surgery on Walker's left wrist last November. Walker tore a ligament while swinging at a pitch on the next-to-last day of the Arizona Fall League season.
"My wrist kind of rolled over and I felt this sharp pain," Walker says. "I knew something was wrong."
As well known as he was as a baseball player at Pine-Richland, Walker also made his mark in football, as he was an all-state wide receiver and a big-hitting safety. However, Walker was never injured playing either football or baseball until last fall.
"I didn't know what to do," he says. "It was just weird to be walking around over the winter with a cast on my wrist and not being able to play once spring training began."
Walker did not make his season debut with Lynchburg until May 14 and was hitting just .273-1-15 in his first 35 games and 132 at bats.
"Since I had never been injured before, I guess I was a little naive about what it would be like when I came back," he says. "I just figured that once the wrist healed, I'd step right back in like nothing had ever happened.
"I didn't realize it would take a while to get my timing back and knock all the rust off my swing. I had 35-40 at-bats in extended spring training, which I thought were enough but they weren't. It's just taken me some time to get back into a groove."
The Pirates, though, have no doubt Walker will get back on track and weren't apologizing that one of their organization's top jewels was selected to play in the Futures Game despite so-so numbers.
"The game is more about the potential a player has and what he projects to be," Pirates farm director Brian Graham says. "Everyone knows how talented Neil Walker is and how high of a ceiling he has. He has a chance to be an exceptional player."
Walker showed that in his previous two professional seasons. He hit .271-4-20 in 52 games with in the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League and .313-0-7 in eight games with short-season Williamsport in 2004, then hit .301-12-68 at low Class A Hickory and .262-0-12 in nine games with Lynchburg last year.
While Lynchburg manager Gary Green is in his first season in the Pirates organization, he is familiar with Walker. Green is also a Pittsburgh native, managed Walker's older brother Matt in the Tigers system, and has known Tom Walker for many years.
"Neil obviously has a chance to be a very good major league player, and what really stands out about him to me is how well he understands the game," Green says. "He has very good instincts and a real good feel for the game for such a young guy. And he doesn't force things. He lets the game come to him."Already a Celebrity
Walker, 20, is easily the most well known prospect in the Pirates system, both because of his talent and because of his notoriety in the area.
"He's already a celebrity in Pittsburgh," says Lynchburg first baseman Brad Rea, one of five Pittsburgh-area natives playing for the Hillcats.
The Pirates haven't had an everyday player from Pittsburgh since Bill Robinson patrolled left field in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and Walker gives fans hope that he could help the local franchise eventually break a streak of losing seasons destined to reach 14 this year.
Yet, Walker handles the pressure of being looked at as a potential savior quite well. In fact, he embraces it.
"I'm sure there has to be a lot of pressure on him but you could never tell," says Lynchburg left fielder Mike Carlin, who along with Hillcats infielder Dan Schwartzbauer shares an apartment with Walker. "He's always in the middle of everything in the clubhouse, cracking jokes and having a good time. He's just a high-energy guy. He's always fired up. Whenever I need a little energy boost, I just go hang around Neil."
Where Walker will play once he gets to Pittsburgh is open to debate. Catcher Ronny Paulino is having a fine rookie season with the Pirates, which could mean Walker eventually will move to a corner infield or outfield position.
While Walker professes a great love for catching and no desire to switch positions, he is anxious to get to Pittsburgh in whatever way possible, and he embraces the responsibility of someday playing in his hometown.
"People in Pittsburgh are passionate about sports and about their hometown team, whether it's the Steelers, the Pirates, the Penguins, Pitt basketball, whatever," Walker says. "I couldn't imagine anything better than having the chance to play for the Pirates, and it's been a dream forever.
"I wanted the Pirates to draft me and it was the best day of my life when they did."
Even better than that night at the 1994 All-Star Game. He and Pirates fans hope even better days are ahead.