From Canada To Cooperstown: Larry Walker's Path To The Hall Of Fame
Signed by the Expos as an amateur free agent in 1984, Larry Walker first generated buzz as a prospect in 1986. The Maple Ridge, B.C. product grew up playing hockey and did not play baseball in high school but signed with the Expos after he impressed them playing summer ball.
Despite the late start to his baseball career, Walker quickly showed he was a force to be reckoned with on the diamond. Walker was a fixture of Baseball America's top prospect reports and rankings during his time in the minors. When he reached the majors in 1989, it was the start of a 17-year career that would earn him seven Gold Gloves, three batting titles, an MVP award and, ultimately, election into the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Here are Walker's writeups, from the pages of Baseball America.
Midwest League Notebook
Jon Scher (Sept. 10, 1986)
"We can’t let Larry Walker escape to the Florida State League without a few comments, provided by Burlington Expos manager Junior Miner:
'Sometimes you can go five or six years without running into a guy like Walker. We can take our time with him, but I don’t see why we should. If he masters this league, then let’s move him up… He’s already a big-league power hitter. All we’ve got to do is make a ballplayer out of him.'
In case you haven’t heard, Walker is a 19-year-old former hockey player from Maple Ridge, British Columbia, who played little amateur baseball prior to signing with the Expos last summer. He struggled in his debut season with Utica (New York-Penn), but exploded this summer in Burlington. Walker left the Midwest League with a .290 batting average, 29 homers and 74 RBIs in 95 games. The Expos tried the 6-foot-2, 185-pounder at third and first base, but he’ll probably settle in the outfield.
'Oh they’d love to have a Canadian star,” Miner said of the parent club. “This time, I think they’ve got one.'
Postscript: Walker was batting .333 after 51 at-bats at West Palm Beach, with six doubles, two homers and 11 RBIs.
Walker Named Midwest League No. 2 Prospect in 1986
Jon Scher (Oct. 1986)
2. Larry Walker, of, Burlington. The Expos are drooling over this Canadian-born power hitter. Signed as a raw talent out of Maple Ridge, B.C., last summer, Walker hit just .223 with two homers at Utica (New York-Penn) in his pro debut.
Somehow, over the winter, Walker became a monster. The 19-year-old batted .290 in 95 games at Burlington, mashing 29 homers (at the time, the league’s top figure) and driving in 74 runs. That forced the Expos to move Walker to West Palm Beach (Florida State), where he hit .283 with four more homers in 38 games.
Although some say he needs to make more contact — 112 strikeouts in 331 at-bats — the biggest knock against Walker is that he lacks a position. He was tried at third base, then shifted to left field. That should become his home.
“He has major-league power,” said Springfield manager Gaylen Pitts. “Anyone who can hit like that, you find him a place to play.”
One manager predicted Walker would hit 30 homers a year in the big leagues.
Walker learns the outfield
NL East Organizational Notebook (Dec. 1986)
After batting .223 with two homers at Utica (New York-Penn), 18-year-old Larry Walker was invited to the Expos’ 1985 fall instructional camp. Walker, a Canadian who played no high school baseball, worked diligently with Ralph Row.
The work paid off. Walker hit .290 with 29 homers and 74 RBIs in 95 games at Burlington (Midwest), forcing a promotion to West Palm Beach (Florida State). Better competition didn’t faze the lefthanded power hitter, who batted .283 with four homers at West Palm.
This fall, Walker was back in the Expos instructional camp. His mission: learn to play the outfield.
“His outfield work improved almost as much as his hitting did during the instructional league last year,” said Junior Miner, who managed Walker at Burlington and served as an instructor at the West Palm camp. “He proved to everyone that he’ll be able to play left field.”
Miner said Walker has a strong arm, and may develop into a candidate for center or right field as his mechanics improve. He’s been a man without a position since he signed as a free agent in 1985, spending time at third base, first base, and the outfield.
Expos instructors were pleased with the way Walker implemented what he was taught this fall. “He was really surprisingly good, considering he never really had any instruction before (signing),” Miner said. “He’s a great athlete, and he was one of the best pupils we had.
“He’s liable to make the Double-A squad next spring. They want a Canadian up there (in Montreal) badly.”
Walker Named Expos No. 9 Prospect After 1986
Jon Scher (Jan. 1987)
9. Larry Walker, of, 20, 6-2, 185, L-R. A former hockey player from Maple Ridge, British Columbia, Walker was the rage of the system last season (.288-33-90 with 18 steals at Burlington and West Palm Beach).
Walker also struck out 144 times, but scouts say he has a textbook swing and makes good contact when he doesn’t try to hit the ball 500 feet. And he’s not helpless against breaking balls and lefthanded pitching, even though he has played only 1.5 years.
The next step is finding Walker a position. After trials at first base and third, he has been moved to left field.
Walker Named Southern League No. 3 Prospect In 1987
Rubin Grant (Oct. 10, 1987)
3. Larry Walker, of, Jacksonville
Walker is a lefthanded hitter who can hit for average and power. He batted .289 for the Expos with 58 extra base hits (25 doubles, 7 triples, 26 home runs) and 83 RBIs. He needs to cut down on strikeouts, 120 in 474 at-bats. He’s solid defensively.
“Natural hitter with power potential,” Charlotte manager Greg Biagini said.
“Above average speed… good all-around player.”
Chattanooga manager Sal Rende said, “Smooth swing… can do all five things well… must improve temperament.”
Walker’s only 20, so he might need a season at Triple-A before going up to Montreal to stay.
Walker Named Expos No. 5 Prospect After 1987
Ken Leiker (March 25, 1988)
5. Larry Walker, of, 21, 6-2, 195, L-R. He suffered torn ligaments in his right knee during the winter season in Mexico and will miss the 1988 season. The damage was severe, but doctors are optimistic that he will recover completely.
Walker is the best Canadian-born prospect in Expos’ history. He has a flawless lefthanded swing, generates above-average power (53 homers the past two seasons), runs well and was adapting quickly to the outfield. The Expos shifted him from third base to left field last season and planned to play him in center at Triple-A this year.
Walker still gives away too many at-bats (264 strikeouts the past two seasons), but scouts say his concentration tightens with runners on base.
Walker Named American Association No. 3 Prospect In 1989
George Rorrer (Oct. 1989)
Larry Walker, of, Indianapolis. Walker came back strong from a knee injury that cause him to miss the entire 1988 season. In 114 games for Indianapolis, the Expos’ Great Canadian Hope (he’s from Maple Ridge, British Columbia) hit .270-13-59. Despite wearing a knee brace, he stole 36 bases.
“The sky’s the limit for this kid,” Indianapolis manager Tom Runnells said. “He has outstanding defensive skills and a better than-average arm.”
“He has a lot of power and a good home run stroke. The more he works on hitting, he’ll hit for a higher average because he has speed.”
Walker Named Expos No. 3 Prospect After 1989
Jon Scher (Feb. 25, 1990)
3. Larry Walker, of. Walker battled back after missing all of 1988 with a serious knee injury. He showed flashes of major league form after being called up. Walker has what farm director Dan Duquette calls “raw power skills,” and will steal bases with abandon, bad knee and all. He had some difficulty with inside fastballs against major league lefties, but considering his rehabilitation, the Expos were happy.
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Expos’ Walker does it his way
Jeff Blair (April 10, 1990)
The Expos’ Great Canadian Hope has pretty much decided to do things his way. When the Expos suggested to Larry Walker that he consider playing winter ball, he said no.
Walker changed his offseason conditioning program this year, concentrating more on free weights, Nautilus training and leg work. The year before, most of his efforts focused on building up aerobic capacity, because he was rehabilitating the right knee he seriously injured during winter ball in 1988.
And he decided to take off his knee brace. The Expos said that decision didn’t bother them, because their doctors had told Walker he’d only need to wear it for a year.
“But it was my decision, ultimately,” Walker said. “No one told me to leave it on or take it off. I did it myself. My knee tightened up when I wore it, because your leg expands as you run and, if you’re wearing a brace, there’s no place for that expansion to take place.”
But don’t think for a minute that Walker, a 23-year-old right-field prospect, is completely headstrong. In fact, he’s taken totally to new hitting instructor Hal McRae.
“Most hitting coaches seem to want to work with your hands and stance,” Walker said. “Hal does that too, but he also works with your knowledge of the plate and things like weight balance. He was a hitter. He realizes it’s important that when you go to the plate, your head isn’t full of a bunch of different ideas about a lot of things.
Their relationship is one of the reasons the 6-foot-2, 205-pound Walker made the most of the lockout, shrugging off the anger he felt when he was dropped from the 40-man roster earlier in the winter.
“From what we’ve seen in the early stages of camp, I’d have to say that Larry’s development has been the most exciting thing,” assistant general manager Dan Duquette said. “He’s shortened his swing and is really driving the ball, maybe as good as he was before the knee injury.
“I think he really sacrificed himself this offseason to get into shape. Being here and having the start he’s had has given him a big edge on the other people fighting for that position, no question.”
Walker, scheduled to be a nonroster invitee to the major league camp, was expected to challenge Mike Aldrete, a lefty hitter like himself, and righty-swinging Marquis Grissom for the vacancy created by the departure of free-agent Hubie Brooks.
“There was a certain amount of disappointment at first, because I was so geared up for the majors,” Walker said. “But once you get into a camp and see all the coaches, you begin to lose that feeling. I know it’s early, but I realize the break this has given me, and I plan on making the best of it.”
Walker hit .170 with four RBIs after joining the Expos last Aug. 16. He got off to a hot start, replacing Brooks after he was benched by manager Buck Rodgers. He had a hit and three walks the day he was called up, then went 3-for-4 with two RBIs and turned in a superb defensive effort three days later against the San Diego Padres.
But he slumped, and Rodgers put Brooks back in the lineup. Brooks then went on a final-month rampage.
While Expos fans took to Walker, the feeling was Rodgers hadn’t built up any emotions one way or another based on what he’d seen.
“I think that’s an accurate assessment,” Duquette said. “I don’t think Buck had any strong feelings one way or another about Larry. I have the feeling that’s going to change once he shows up here, though. I think he’ll be as excited as we are.”
“Because of the way things turned out, I’m not certain how much I really learned from being up in Montreal last year,” Walker said. “But I did realize one thing: I love the major league lifestyle.
“I got a taste of it… and I want to go back.”