We do things differently in Colorado, especially for baseball. We put our stamp on the game well before Larry Walker headed south from Maple Ridge, British Columbia, as a Rockies free agent signing in 1995. He turned an exciting team into a winning team, anchoring the Blake Street Bombers and taking Colorado to its first playoff appearance in just its third season of existence.
It’s that “doing it different” attitude that made Walker such a great fit in purple pinstripes. He didn’t just play here; he made his home here, 8,000 feet above sea level in the Front Range mountains, washing the city out of his system as he gained another 3,000 feet on the ride home every night.
“Living in the city wouldn’t be my cup of tea,” he once told me, choosing instead to ground himself in the natural world, whether riding his Harley Road King to the summit of 14,000-foot Mt. Evans or fishing with his daughters on Evergreen Lake.
But, man, could he play here! He rewrote Colorado’s freshly penned record books for a decade in the prime of his 17-year career, and on Tuesday afternoon, Walker elevated his game one more time, answering the call from the Hall of Fame in what felt like extra innings.
As the appointed hour passed without the congratulatory call, he figured time had run out in his 10th and final chance on the ballot.
“I had a round-about time when they were going to call, and that time had come and gone,” Walker said by phone from his home in Florida, barely an hour after the official announcement. “Then that number popped up on the phone, and I think I uttered the words, ‘Oh shit,’ and then maybe an ‘Oh my god’ before I actually answered the phone and said ‘Hello.’ To hear them ask if they could speak to Larry Walker … the rest was almost in disbelief to hear them say, ‘You didn’t come up short this year. You passed the 75 percent threshold (with 76.6 percent of the vote from the Baseball Writers Association of America). Welcome to the Hall of Fame.’ It was a surreal moment.”
A surreal moment long overdue. His peers, coaches and managers have long recognized that his abilities place him beside baseball’s immortals. His stats limit him to the most elite company — one of only four players, for example, to hit over .300 for his career with at least 300 homers and 200 stolen bases; a fraternity featuring Walker, Hank Aaron, George Brett and Willie Mays.
“Larry was the most complete player I ever saw. If there ever is a perfect player, he will be in the mold of Larry Walker. I’m glad he’s a Hall of Famer,” former Rockies teammate Dante Bichette said.
Fancy another foursome? How about Walker, Ty Cobb, Rogers Hornsby and Joe Jackson — the only men to post three straight seasons hitting .360 or better.
Walker brought respectability to the Rockies when he took them to the playoffs in ’95 and when he won the Most Valuable Player Award in 1997 (.366, 49 homers, 33 steals and 130 RBIs), and now he’s blazed the trail to Cooperstown, pioneering a path for future Rockies to follow.
“I think it’s a big help, especially in the here and now with Todd Helton and down the road with maybe Nolan Arenado,” Walker said of his impact on legitimizing baseball at altitude in the hall’s eyes. “It’s such a weird subject to talk about. I did really, really well there, and I’m grateful I did really, really well there, because it probably helped getting to where I’m at right now.”
And for those who dinged him for averaging “only” 117 games a year in a 162-game season, former Rockies manager Clint Hurdle points out that Walker won his first batting title in 1998 with “one-and-a-half arms,” hitting .363 with 23 homers and driving in 63.
“I remember wearing that godforsaken thing on my elbow which stopped me from extending out to cause the pain,” Walker recalled Tuesday. “A lot of guessing went on that year as far as pitches, because I could cheat on some pitches that maybe I thought were coming, and I’d get to them a lot easier. Other times it was just living with the fact that a base hit is all I can do right now.”
He won his second batting title a year later, posting a .379 average — 43 points higher than the next best hitter — with 37 homers and 115 RBIs,and what boggles the imagination is that his fielding seemed even further above the fray, igniting crowds with his glove and his arm. But to carve out a batting title in an injury-plagued season defined by “guessing?”
“The biggest thing for my whole career is that thing between your ears,” Walker said. “Mentally, I was able to beat the game at a young age, and I carried that with me. That was my biggest strength.”
Walker is the first Rockies player to make the hall, and just the second Canadian ever, following pitcher Ferguson Jenkins by 29 years. But as a Canuck kid, with ice hockey in his blood and veins, he barely knew the rules when he turned to baseball at age 16.
From his early years in Montreal pacing the playoff-bound Expos to a 74-40 record before the 1994 strike ended the season early, to his two final seasons in St. Louis, where he added two postseason appearances and his only World Series, hitting .357 as the Cardinals fell to the Red Sox, Walker was one of the most natural five-tool athletes the game has ever known. Former Cardinals manager Tony La Russa calls him the best player of his generation, and the late Rockies manager Don Baylor called him the most talented player he ever had.
“All you have to do is write his name down in the lineup, and he’ll take care of the rest,” Baylor said.
Walker was thrilling in the way most three-time batting champs, five-time All-Stars, seven-time Gold Glove winners and National League Most Valuable Players are, but he was also so much fun, because he had so much fun. He tapped into what first turned us onto the game on the sandlots of our youth. But he kept his cool, unfazed by the spectacle of stardom, comfortable in every setting and quick with a quip.
My favorite Walker stat may be the 50 percent pay cut he volunteered for at the peak of his career, deferring half his salary to be paid over a 20-year period, enabling the Rockies to invest in making their team better. When I asked him where he learned to negotiate, his response was succinct.
“We do things differently in Canada,” Walker deadpanned.
It’s that doing-it-different attitude that makes him such a refreshing fit in Cooperstown.