If former big league all-star Jason Dickson and Minnesota Twins slugger Justin Morneau were eligible to cast a ballot in the National Baseball Hall of Fame voting, they would definitely check the box beside Larry Walker’s name.
Unfortunately, when the votes were tallied last Wednesday, not enough baseball writers felt the same way and Walker’s support actually dropped by eight votes in his third year of eligibility.
The pride of Maple Ridge, B.C. was named on just 21.6 per cent of ballots submitted by members of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America (BBWAA). Candidates have to be selected on 75 per cent of ballots to gain enshrinement.
“He played in an era where obviously guys have been suspected of steroids . . . It’s hard when you look at some of the seasons that he had and then look at some of the guys that won the MVP (in those seasons). Larry could have had two or three MVPs with the years that he put up,” said the New Westminster, B.C.-born Morneau, prior to Saturday’s annual Baseball Canada National Teams Awards Banquet.
“Obviously, it is what it is, but you can make the argument about Jack Morris being one of the most dominant players of a generation or of a decade. And you can also look at Larry Walker and say he’s one of the most dominant, all-around players of his generation or of his decade. And you haven’t heard any cloud of (steroid) suspicion around him. So it’s hard for me to see why he wouldn’t be in the Hall of Fame.”
Dickson, a New Brunswick native who pitched against Walker in spring training and met him at the 1997 all-star game, agrees with Morneau.
“I see him as a Hall of Famer, but I’m obviously biased because I’m Canadian,” said Dickson, who’s now the vice-president of Baseball Canada. “Larry was a few years ahead of me and I watched him with the Expos, and just the numbers that he has put up. I definitely have a biased opinion, but if you look at the numbers, I mean why not. I think his numbers are there with anybody else’s.”
Those who don’t support Walker’s Hall candidacy will tell you that his offensive numbers were padded by playing 10 of his 17 big league seasons in hitter-friendly Coors Field in Colorado and that injuries prevented him from achieving many of the magical Hall-worthy milestones.
But Jim Leyland, who managed Walker with the Rockies, called him “the greatest player he had ever seen.” And that’s saying something, Leyland has been around the game for close to 50 years and pencilled Barry Bonds’ name into the Pittsburgh Pirates’ lineup for seven seasons.
Former Montreal manager Felipe Alou once called Walker the greatest baserunner he has ever seen – a lofty compliment when you consider that Alou was coaching for the Expos during the Tim Raines era.
Signed by the Expos in 1989, Walker was a perennial Triple Crown threat during his prime. He won three batting titles – the same number as first-ballot Cooperstowner George Brett – during his 17-year career.
According to BaseballReference.com, Walker also averaged 31 home runs per 162-game season (better than Hall of Fame outfielders Andre Dawson, Jim Rice and Orlando Cepeda). In one of the best seasons in big league history, Walker hit .366, while belting 49 homers and stealing 33 bases in 1997. For his efforts, he was named the National League MVP, the first time a Canadian had garnered the honour.
Most remarkable, however, is Walker’s career .565 slugging percentage, a stat that ranks him 13th all-time, ahead of Stan Musial, Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays and Hank Aaron.
And while it’s hard to deny that Walker’s offensive stats were boosted by the hitter friendly Coors Field, his OPS+ (an adjusted OPS figure that takes into account the ballpark he played in) was still a solid +140. This number compares favorably to the career OPS+ recorded by Hall of Famers Reggie Jackson, Eddie Collins and Duke Snider.
And if you remember Walker strictly as a hitter, you would be shortchanging him. There are only 11 players in baseball history who boast more than Walker’s combination of homers (383) and stolen bases (230). Defensively, he garnered seven Gold Gloves and racked up 150 outfield assists (seventh on the all-time list for right fielders).
And as Morneau noted, in an era rife with steroid allegations, Walker’s name was never dragged into those conversations.
And what Walker has come to mean to his country should also count for something A first-ballot Canadian Baseball Hall of Famer and the first member of Baseball Canada’s Wall of Excellence, Walker has been the most influential player in Canadian baseball history.
“I remember growing up and driving out to Maple Ridge and playing at Larry Walker Field,” recalled Morneau, who wears No. 33 largely in tribute to Walker. “I always thought that was pretty cool to go out there and play there. He was the best Canadian from our generation.”
Morneau also serendipitously made his major league debut against Walker and the Colorado Rockies in an interleague contest on June 10, 2003. As a welcome to The Show gesture, Walker sent Morneau an autographed bat with the inscription, “To Justin, Make Canada proud.” It was a thoughtful gift that Morneau still cherishes and the two have forged a strong friendship.
“He’s an awesome guy,” said Morneau. “Sometimes you meet the people you idolize and you’re kind of disappointed, but he’s not one of those guys. You won’t be disappointed when you walk away from having a conversation with him.”
Unfortunately for Walker, the Hall of Fame ballot will become even more crowded next year when ex-superstars like Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, Mike Mussina, Jeff Kent and Frank Thomas become eligible for the first time.
“When you’re talking about the Hall of Fame, you’re talking about the absolute best of the best over many years and it’s a tough go to get in, but obviously I’m hoping that Larry eventually gets in,” said Dickson.