With Pat Gillick being elected by the Veterans Committee, Roberto Alomar likely to be voted in by the writers and longtime Expos broadcaster Dave Van Horne to receive the Ford C. Frick Award, the 2011 National Baseball Hall of Fame induction ceremonies will have a distinctly Canadian flavor.
In his first year on the ballot, Maple Ridge, B.C. native, Larry Walker, is worthy of sharing the stage with this trio, but will likely have to wait to be enshrined.
Signed by the Montreal Expos in 1989, Walker was arguably the best all-around player of his era. Many feel, however, that his Hall of Fame case will be hampered by the fact that he didn’t record 500 home runs or 3,000 hits. That may be true, but I challenge baseball writers to try to find a weakness in Walker’s game?
A perennial Triple Crown threat, Walker won three batting titles – the same number as first ballot Cooperstowner George Brett – during his 17-year career. Baseball pundits often insist that a player has to be dominant for close to a decade to merit serious consideration. Well from 1994 to 2002, Walker hit .339, the only big leaguer with a better average during that stretch was Tony Gwynn.
Power? Walker averaged 31 home runs a season (better than Hall of Fame outfielders Andre Dawson, Jim Rice and Orlando Cepeda). In one of the best campaigns in big league history, Walker hit .366 with 49 home runs and 130 RBIs in 1997. For his efforts, he was named the National League MVP, the first time a Canadian has garnered the honour.
Most remarkable, however, is Walker’s career .565 slugging percentage, a stat that ranks him 14th all-time, ahead of Stan Musial, Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays and Hank Aaron. With a .965 career OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage), he sits 16th on the all-time list. Just behind him on that list are Mel Ott, Ty Cobb and Willie Mays.
But Walker wasn’t strictly a slugger. The proud Canuck swiped 33 bases in 1997, 230 in his career and was often lauded as one of the best baserunners in the game. He also garnered seven Gold Gloves and racked up 150 outfield assists (seventh on the all-time list for right fielders).
Critics say Walker’s stats were inflated because he played the bulk of his career at the hitter friendly Coors Field. But Walker’s OPS+ (an adjusted OPS figure that takes into account the ballpark he played in) is still a solid +140, which compares favorably with those registered by Hall of Famers Reggie Jackson, Eddie Collins and Duke Snider. Let’s also not forget that Babe Ruth was aided by the short porch in right field at Yankee Stadium and that Ted Williams benefited from playing at Fenway Park.
In an era rife with steroid allegations, Walker’s name was never dragged into the discussions. Various injuries denied the Canadian outfielder a shot at 500 homers and 3,000 hits, but had he been injury-free, there’s no question we would be talking about a first ballot Hall of Famer.
But setting his statistics aside, it’s safe to say that Walker has been the most influential player in Canadian baseball history. Ask Justin Morneau, Jason Bay or Joey Votto whom they idolized when they were growing up and whom they model their career after now? They will all tell you Larry Walker.
I don’t have a vote but I’m convinced that Walker is a first ballot Hall of Famer. Unfortunately, he’s unlikely to be sharing the stage with Gillick, Alomar and Van Horne in Cooperstown next July. I suspect his path to eventual enshrinement will be similar to Andre Dawson’s. It took The Hawk nine years on the ballot to finally be elected. Walker shouldn’t have to wait that long.