By Kevin Glew
Cooperstowners in Canada
Fittingly, Larry Walker’s National Baseball Hall of Fame induction conference call began at 3:33 p.m. E.T. on Thursday.
The Canadian slugger’s love of the No. 3 is well-known.
His jersey number was 33. He swung the bat three times (or a multiple of three times) in the batter’s box before hitting. He was married on November 3rd at 3:33 p.m.
And in a case of perfect serendipity, he was 333rd person elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
These days, however, Walker would settle for three hours of sleep.
The Maple Ridge, B.C., native says worrying about his induction speech has been keeping him up at night. A question was posed on the conference call on Thursday as to whether he’s having more butterflies about his speech than he did facing Randy Johnson.
“Well, stepping into a batter’s box with 50,000 people in the stands, there’s really not many nerves,” said Walker on Thursday. “And if there are, they don’t last very long . . . But as we get closer and closer and now we’re within a week [of the induction ceremony], there are nights when I don’t go to sleep and if do go to sleep, it’s not for very long because I keep waking up and it’s all going through my head. So believe me, the butterflies are here right now and there are a lot of them.”
With his induction ceremony delayed a year because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Walker has had an extra year to prepare his speech, which he wrote himself and will keep short.
“I keep practising it,” said Walker. “I’m trying to just keep it short, simple, not going over the top on any one subject or any one person or any one team, I’m just trying to show how gracious I am for this opportunity without having everybody fall asleep in the middle of the speech.”
After 10 long years on the ballot, Walker’s name was checked on 76.6% of baseball writers’ ballots (75% was required to be elected) in his final year of eligibility. He received the phone call on January 21, 2020 that he would be inducted, alongside New York Yankees legendary shortstop Derek Jeter, former all-star catcher Ted Simmons and late ex-Major League Baseball Players Association executive director Marvin Miller.
With his induction, Walker becomes the second Canadian player – and the first Canadian position player – to be honoured with a plaque in Cooperstown. Pitcher Fergie Jenkins (Chatham, Ont.) was inducted in 1991.
“It’s beyond a big thrill to have the Maple Leaf tattooed on my arm and to be going into the Hall of Fame,” said Walker, adding that he was honoured to be mentioned alongside Jenkins.
It hasn’t been an easy road to enshrinement for Walker who belted 383 home runs in parts of 17 major league seasons with the Montreal Expos, Colorado Rockies and St. Louis Cardinals. After debuting on the ballot in 2011, he saw his support dip as low as 10.2% in 2014 before a huge social media push emphasizing his advanced statistics dramatically increased his support.
In 2019, he received 54.6% support and his 22% jump in 2020 represented the highest by a candidate in their final year of eligibility.
Being elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame is a tremendous accomplishment for the Canuck outfielder, especially when you consider that when Walker signed his first professional baseball contract in 1984, he still knew more about the Montreal Canadiens than he did about the Montreal Expos.
“As a Canadian, I didn’t really follow baseball growing up. I think as many Canadians, you grow up watching and playing hockey, so hockey was what I watched and paid most attention to,” said Walker.
When he was a kid, Walker channelled most of his athletic energy into being a hockey goalie. But after the aspiring NHLer was cut by the Junior A Western Hockey League’s Regina Pats for a second time, Walker returned home and decided to focus on the diamond.
Walker’s first contract with the Expos included a modest $1,500 signing bonus. He would toil for parts of four seasons in their minors, and persevere through a severe knee injury in 1988, before making his big league debut on August 16, 1989. A five-tool threat, Walker blossomed into an all-star outfielder in his six seasons with the Expos.
“The Expos years were where I basically learned everything,” said Walker. “I came into baseball very raw and a little behind everybody, so they gave me the opportunity to learn the game, to move up in my career and then I did one year at every level until I made it to the big leagues. You know without the Montreal Expos, we might not be having this conversation right now because baseball might not have been something that I did.”
After the strike-shortened, 1994 campaign, Walker inked a multi-year deal with the Colorado Rockies, where he enjoyed his greatest big league success. One of the reasons he chose to sign with Colorado was its scenery.
“Where Denver is situated, it reminded me of where I grew up,” said Walker. “I grew up in the mountains in British Columbia. There was snow-capped mountains all the time. There was that fresh mountain air [in Colorado].”
After two solid years to begin his tenure with the Rockies, he put together a season for the ages in 1997. In that storied campaign, Walker belted 49 homers, drove in 130 runs and hit .366 and became the first Canadian to win the National League MVP Award.
After more than nine seasons with the Rockies, the five-time all-star was dealt to St. Louis in August 2004. He played his final season with the Cardinals the following year.
In all, Walker suited up for 17 big league seasons and leads Canadian major leaguers in virtually every career offensive category, amassing 2,160 hits, 383 home runs, 471 doubles and 230 stolen bases. The seven-time Gold Glove Award winner also compiled a .313 career batting average, .565 slugging percentage and won the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame’s Tip O’Neill Award nine times.
For his efforts, Walker was inducted into Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame in 2007, the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame and the B.C. Sports Hall of Fame in 2009 and the Colorado Sports Hall of Fame in 2011.
Walker doesn’t believe he’ll be the last Canadian to be honoured in Cooperstown.
“Obviously there’s more coming from north of the border,” he said on Thursday “There’s some really good talent and I think obviously the first one is Joey Votto.”
But first things first, Canadians should enjoy and take pride in Walker’s historic induction on Wednesday. Hopefully, he’ll speak at 3:33 p.m. and after he’s done, he’ll finally be able to relax and get a decent night’s sleep.
And maybe in the near future, he’ll be able to return to his home province.
“I do have a cabin up in the mountains in British Columbia,” he said. “Unfortunately, I haven’t been back for two years because of COVID, so I’m looking forward to next year, to getting back to the mountains and to that cabin. That’s my comfort place.”