Friday, November 11, 2011

Homegrown Homecoming: Larry Walker

Who doesn't love Larry Walker? Nobody, that's who. The mullet, the purple bat, the Canadian-ness, he's just everything you could ask for in a number 33. He's also the Rockies only MVP in team history, taking the honor in 1997. For that he has all my gratitude, since there's no way to know how long it will take Troy Tulowitzki to finally win his.

Naturally, Walker wanted to be a hockey player as a kid, but fortunately for us that dream was dashed pretty fast. Rather than a great drop pass, he had a great left-handed swing, and that swing carried him into the record books. He started his career with the Montreal Expos (that team that the Nationals used to be) in 1989, impressing people right out of the gate with his speed and power. He was a plum acquisition for the Rockies in 1995, given the Blake Street Bomb Squad they were building.

Walker played nine full seasons with the Rockies and part of a tenth. In his MVP season, he hit .366 with 49 home runs and 130 RBI. Yes, this was pre-humidor, but he also stole 33 bases. I always wondered how he could get up so much speed when his batting stance made it look like he was about to dislocate his hip.

I have a couple of especially treasured Larry Walker memories. I went to a pre-season exhibition game in 1997 and got to sit much close than I ever sat in a regular season game. At one point, Walker seemed to be looking in my direction, so my dad and I started waving. He waved back. I might have died in that moment, but I can't be sure. The other is from the 1997 All-Star Game, when Randy Johnson sailed a pitch over Walker's head and Walker responded by turning his helmet around and taking a pitch from the right side. That sense of humor and playfulness followed Walker throughout his career as a Rockie, though he never lost his commitment to excellence.

Walker's reputation as a Rockie is a tiny bit tarnished because in 2004 he started to complain about wanting to be traded. I can't really blame him, much as I wish he'd finished his career in Colorado. He wound up playing a season and change with the St. Louis Cardinals, but retired in 2005, just a year shy of the Cards winning a World Series. And hardcore fans probably know this, but others may not: prior to the St. Louis trade, a deal with Texas was in the works that would have made Ian Kinsler a Rockie. Hard not to speculate how that might have turned out.

These days, Walker is active in Canada's baseball programs, which is fitting since he's the best player in history from north of the border. He's in the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame (of course), but hasn't yet managed to make Cooperstown. He's only been on the ballot once, though, so hopefully it's just a matter of time. He still makes appearances with the Rockies organization, and has said that he'd most like to be remembered as a Rockie. I imagine that's the legacy he's stuck with whether he likes it or not, thanks to the MVP. And that's all right with me.

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