Whether they grow up playing hardball, stickball or whiffle ball, big leaguers cling to the same childhood fantasy: They’re standing in the backyard or the schoolyard, and they dream of hitting the climactic homer or throwing the final pitch in a World Series. That cliché has become as synonymous with the major league baseball “experience” as the bubble on an unsuspecting player’s cap or a shaving cream pie in the face.
As a youngster in the Pittsburgh bedroom community of Gibsonia, Pirates second baseman Neil Walker dared to dream from both sides of the plate. But his imaginary brush with fame ended with a singular, provincial twist: It always came at the confluence of the Monongahela, Allegheny and Ohio Rivers.
Unlike Jerry Seinfeld in the famous “puffy shirt” episode, Walker wanted to be a Pirate. He made that declaration to his parents, Tom and Carolyn, each time the family car took Route 279 past Three Rivers Stadium on the way to another game.
“Neil got the itch,” Tom Walker said by phone. “His older brothers were playing, and his sister was a tomboy and she played as well. When he was 6 or 7 he’d go by that ballpark and say, ‘I’m going to play there someday.’ I had learned that Neil had exceptional abilities, and I wasn’t about to tell him he couldn’t do anything.”
Three Rivers Stadium has given way to PNC Park, Kevin McClatchy yielded control to Bob Nutting, and a former No. 1 draft pick named Andrew McCutchen made the transformation from prospect to most valuable player candidate. He is receiving lots of support this summer from hometown boy and sidekick Neil Walker, who is doing his part to try to bring the Pirates their first .500 or better season and playoff appearance since 1992.
After a nondescript three months, Walker has benefited from some recent changes to shorten his swing and has been crushing everything in sight. He’s hitting .452 (19-for-42) with a 1.330 OPS in July, and he carries a 15-game hitting streak into Monday’s game in Colorado. Among big league second basemen, Walker’s 2.7 wins above replacement ties him with Cleveland’s Jason Kipnis for third behind Robinson Cano and Aaron Hill.
Walker has come a long way from his Pine-Richland High School days, not to mention the 2009 season, when he arrived from Triple-A ball in September and bunked in his old bedroom. The following summer, the Wall Street Journal wrote a story detailing how Walker and Oakland A’s pitcher Tyson Ross were the only big leaguers to live with their parents.
“That brought Neil a lot of grief right there,” Tom Walker said, laughing. “Oh my. His teammates were saying things like, ‘Hey Neil, do you mind if we send our wash home with you?’ Or, ‘What did your mom make you for breakfast this morning?’ I think that’s when Neil decided to get married — just so he would have a reason to get out of the house.”
A family thing
If there’s such a thing as a jock factory, the Walkers of western Pennsylvania would certainly apply.
Tom posted an 18-23 record in the big leagues with the Montreal Expos, Detroit Tigers, St. Louis Cardinals and California Angels. His biggest claim to fame came in the minors in 1971, when he played for Cal Ripken Sr. in the Texas League and threw a 15-inning no-hitter for the Dallas-Fort Worth Spurs to beat Albuquerque 1-0. Each year on Aug. 4, a few stray baseball cards trickle in to be signed, the occasional radio station makes a call and the Walkers hold a little celebration to commemorate the night that Tom threw 193 pitches and lived to tell about it.
“That’s probably why I can’t brush my teeth anymore,” he said.
Tom Walker’s brother-in-law, Chip Lang, pitched briefly for the Expos in the mid-1970s. One of Neil’s brothers, Matt, played outfield in the Detroit and Baltimore chains, and the other, Sean, pitched for George Mason University. Carrie, the sister, played professional basketball in Ireland and is married to Pittsburgh native and Tigers utility man Don Kelly. They have a son Brett, age 3, who can flat-out rake.
Neil Walker’s formative years as a Pirates fan came in “peanut heaven” at Three Rivers, when he watched his favorite player, Andy Van Slyke, chase down balls in the gap and rank among the league leaders in triples each year. In 1994, the family scored tickets to the All-Star Game, when Neil snagged the signatures of Ken Griffey Jr. and Frank Thomas. To this day, the balls are among his most prized baseball possessions.
Pittsburgh teammates Andrew McCutchen and Neil Walker are among the hottest hitters in the game in July.
Walker, 26, agonized with Pittsburgh fans every step of the way during the city’s descent from baseball hotbed to neverland. He watched Jim Leyland, Barry Bonds and Bobby Bonilla move on and the Pirates suffer a 100-loss season in 2001. When former manager Lloyd McClendon wasn’t tearing first base from its moorings and carrying it down the dugout steps in frustration, the Pirates were making the colossal mistake of investing the first pick in the draft on Ball State pitcher Bryan Bullington.
When the Pirates chose Walker with the 11th overall pick in 2004, the family gained a rare distinction. Tom and Neil joined Jeff and Sean Burroughs, Ben and Tom Grieve and Steve and Nick Swisher as the only father-son combinations to go in the first round of the draft. In recent years, John Mayberry Jr. and Delino DeShields Jr. increased the father-son club from four to six.
As a superior athlete, Neil Walker had every reason to think he was on the fast track. He had talked to Pittsburgh and Penn State about doubling in baseball and football, but he was concerned the Nittany Lions wanted him to bulk up, add 60 pounds and become a tight end, so he passed on that option. The Pirates gave him a $1.95 million bonus to dissuade him from playing baseball at Clemson.
“I think my dad, my brother and brother-in-law knew what I was getting into when I was drafted, but I certainly didn’t,” Walker said. “People in Pittsburgh assumed it would be like two years and you’ll be up with the Pirates. Me being an 18-year-old kid, I’m thinking, ‘Oh yeah, it’ll probably be three or four years.’ Then you get into the professional system and you’re like, ‘Did I get into this for the right reasons?'”
Walker’s trek through the minors was an odyssey of perseverance and self-doubt. The Pirates shifted him from catcher to third base, and he was forced to move again when the organization drafted third baseman Pedro Alvarez out of Vanderbilt with the second overall pick in 2008. Pittsburgh’s development people were concerned about Walker’s free-swinging approach, and he felt pressure to temper his aggressiveness at the plate.
Walker’s personal epiphany came during the 2009 season with Triple-A Indianapolis. Just as teammates and close friends McCutchen and Garrett Jones were being summoned to the parent club, Walker sprained his knee and left for Florida on a rehab assignment. The heat is oppressive and the workout room is lonely in Bradenton at that time of year, and Walker had lots of time for introspection between bench presses and biceps curls.
“Mentally, I kind of removed myself from the game and thought about where I was and what I needed to do as a player to get better,” Walker said. “I decided to approach everything with a clear mind and, as clichéd as it sounds, with a day-to-day mentality. When I did that, I guess my career started to take off.”
Walker continues to upgrade his game bit by painstaking bit. He has improved his walk rate each year, and he’s stolen seven bases in nine attempts this season. He’s gone from 29th to 22nd in the Fielding Bible plus-minus run prevention rankings since 2010, and he ranks third among NL second basemen with a .990 fielding percentage this season. The new defensive metrics may not love him, but he appears to pass the eye test: When Baseball America surveyed managers last season, Walker and the Marlins’ Omar Infante tied for second behind Cincinnati’s Brandon Phillips in the voting for best defensive second baseman in the NL.
As Barry Larkin, Joe Mauer and other local boys can attest, it can be a challenge playing for your hometown team. Between the ticket requests and birthday party invitations, it’s easy to start feeling like Jim Carrey in “The Truman Show.”
“When you talk to players who’ve done that, it’s not as easy as everybody thinks,” said former Pirates general manager Dave Littlefield, who was in charge when the team drafted Walker. “You’ve got friends from high school, and your mom’s friends, and your aunt and uncle, and ticket issues and appearances. And then there’s the pressure of working your way up. People say, ‘He was a great player at Pine-Richland, so naturally he’s going to be a great player for the Pirates.’ Well, there’s a lot of hard work in between there. That’s all part of the path they take.”
We call him ‘the Mayor.’ Walker’s the go-to guy if somebody wants to know where to go eat or get a new car. He’ll always tell you, ‘I’ve got a guy for that.’
— Pirates closer Joel Hanrahan
Neil Walker faces an additional challenge: As an inveterate nice guy, he has a natural aversion to saying “no.” So when he’s not pitching in for the latest Rotary Club initiative, he’s visiting kids in the hospital, signing bats and balls for local causes and organizing Catholic mass at the park on Saturday afternoons. He’s like a walking charity machine, chamber of commerce brochure and Zagat guide rolled into one.
“We call him ‘the Mayor,'” Pirates closer Joel Hanrahan said. “Sean Casey might get upset with that, but Walker’s the go-to guy if somebody wants to know where to go eat or get a new car. He’ll always tell you, ‘I’ve got a guy for that.'”
When Walker needs to decompress, his dad is always a phone call away. They’ll grab lunch at Jersey Mike’s sub shop or sneak away for a couple of hours to fish for striped bass at their favorite catch-and-release pond in the suburbs.
“When we talk, it’s more along the lines of the daily grind of baseball — battling it out and leadership qualities and things like that,” Neil said. “We talk quite a bit about how mentally exhausting baseball is, and how you have to keep your head up and not get too high or too low. My dad has been an incredible part of my baseball career from that standpoint.”
Both Walkers owe a debt of gratitude to the most revered player in Pirates history. Tom Walker played winter ball in Puerto Rico in 1972 and helped Roberto Clemente load a plane carrying relief supplies to earthquake survivors in Nicaragua after Christmas. He offered to accompany Clemente on the trip, but the plane was full and Clemente told him to stay behind and enjoy New Year’s Eve.
A few hours later, Tom Walker returned to his condo and saw the news reports that Clemente’s plane had crashed off the coast of Isla Verde, Puerto Rico. Four decades later he’s still awed by the notion that he would have perished without Clemente’s selfless gesture, and his four children never would have been born.
“The man saved my life,” Tom Walker said. “It’s ingrained in my memory to this day. I don’t know what Neil’s regimen is every day at the park, but I’m sure when he looks out to that Roberto Clemente wall in right field, he probably thinks about that too.”
A father, a son, a family and a city continue to cling to the same tradition. During an eventful baseball summer in Pittsburgh, Neil Walker is happy to welcome Pirates fans to share in his dream.
Crasnick: Walker a hometown hero for Pirates
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