By Kevin Glew
Cooperstowners in Canada
Larry Walker batted third at the National Baseball Hall of Fame induction ceremony on Wednesday afternoon.
That had to give the nervous Maple Ridge, B.C., native, who had several sleepless nights thinking about his speech, some comfort. After all, his favourite number is three and he hit third in 754 big league games and belted 191 home runs from that spot in the order.
You could say he hit another one with his superb 14-minute induction speech on Wednesday. From behind the podium at the Clark Sports Center in Cooperstown, Walker eloquently expressed his gratitude to his coaches, his teammates, his fans, his family and his home country.
Walker could also take some solace in the fact that Chatham, Ont., native Fergie Jenkins, the only other Canadian with a plaque in Cooperstown, was seated directly behind him on the stage. So, it seemed fitting that one of the first people Walker acknowledged in his speech was Jenkins.
“I am Canadian,” said Walker from the stage on Wednesday. “A couple of years ago I fell short in the voting, and I don’t do much on social media, but I did one of those hashtags things on Twitter and it read ‘Fergie needs a friend.’ I was, of course, referring to Ferguson Jenkins who was the only Canadian in Cooperstown. Today, I finally get to join Fergie as the second Canadian in the Hall of Fame and the first Canadian position player. Fergie, it’s an honour.”
That acknowledgement sparked a round of applause from the large crowd, comprised mostly of New York Yankees fans. Unfortunately, COVID-19 border restrictions prevented many Montreal Expos fans from making the trek to Cooperstown. But some members of Walker’s family – including his father – were present and seated in the front row.
It was a long arduous road to induction for Walker. After 10 long years on the writers ballot, he finally received enough support in January 2020, but then the COVID-19 pandemic pushed the induction ceremony back nearly 19 months. Walker was inducted on Wednesday, alongside Yankees legendary shortstop Derek Jeter, former all-star catcher Ted Simmons and late ex-Major League Baseball Players Association executive director Marvin Miller.
After debuting on the writers’ ballot in 2011, Walker, who belted 383 home runs in parts of 17 major league seasons with the Montreal Expos, Colorado Rockies and St. Louis Cardinals, 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 remarkable 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, you were pretty much born with skates on and a stick in your hand,” said Walker in his speech.
As a child, Walker channelled most of his athletic energy into being a hockey goalie.
“Compared to the men sitting behind me, I didn’t play much ball growing up,” said Walker on Wednesday. “We didn’t have high school baseball or any serious travel ball. I played no more than 15 to 20 games a summer until I was 16.”
But Walker did play on a fast pitch team in Maple Ridge with his dad, Larry, and his three brothers, Barry, Carey and Gary.
“That was probably when my brothers would tell me they taught me everything I know about baseball,” Walker joked. “Some of my earliest memories include my mom sitting in the stands while we all played.”
Walker abandoned his NHL aspirations after he was cut by the Junior A Western Hockey League’s Regina Pats for a second time. He returned home and eventually was convinced to focus on a career on the diamond.
Starting in 1984, Walker honed his skills with the Coquitlam Reds, an elite squad in his home province, where coaches Don Archer, Bill Green and Wayne Martin taught him the fundamentals of the game. That same year, the athletic Walker was selected to play for the national team at the World Youth Baseball tournament in Kindersley, Sask., where he impressed former scout Bill MacKenzie who called Jim Fanning, the Expos farm director at the time. Fanning came to watch Walker play and then instructed Expos regional scout Bob Rogers to sign the young B.C. native.
In his speech on Wednesday, Walker recounted how when Rogers came to his house to offer him a pro contract with a $1,500 signing bonus, he signed it quickly with the support of his parents. He thanked his parents for their belief in him.
“You allowed me to hop in my Pathfinder and drive across North America from Maple Ridge to Florida and give it a try,” said Walker to his parents. “That $1,500 was about $2,000 Canadian at the time and I felt like I had just won the lottery.”
In his first year in the Expos’ system, he was assigned to the class-A Short Season Utica Blue Sox, where he quickly discovered he still had a lot to learn about the rules of the game. He shared one example of this in his speech.
“I was on first and Geno (Gene Glynn) was coaching third base and he put the hit and run on,” said Walker. “I took off for second and, of course, I didn’t peak in to see where the ball was hit and as I’m rounding second and heading to third, Geno’s screaming at me to get back. Well, it turned out the ball was hit in the air to right centre. So, I got back. I slid in and I was easily safe and was called out. I get up telling the ump [that] he’s blind and a bunch of other choice words. And Ken Brett, who was coaching first base that day, grabbed my arm and said, ‘Larry, you’re out.’ And I argued with him, too. It turns out getting back to first base you can not cut right behind the pitcher’s mound in the infield which is what I did. I thought, I already touched second once. Why do I have to touch it again? Needless to say, I learned the rules and eventually how to run the bases.”
Walker would toil for parts of four seasons in the Expos minors, but was a quick learner and he evolved into one of the club’s top prospects.
“I’ll always be grateful that the Montreal Expos took a chance on me and allowed me to play baseball professionally,” said Walker. “To all the Expos fans and people of Montreal, it was a great honour to put on the Expo uniform and represent my home country.”
After persevering through a severe knee injury in 1988, Walker made 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.
He admitted during his speech that he still thinks of what could’ve been for the 1994 Expos team that owned a 74-40 record and was handily atop the National League East division when a strike wiped out the rest of the season.
“I still imagine what it would’ve been like to bring a World Series to Quebec,” said Walker. “To the fans hoping for their team to return to Montreal, I join you in hoping that before long that Major League Baseball returns to your beautiful city.”
After that 1994 campaign, the cash-strapped Expos declined to offer Walker a contract and the star outfielder inked a multi-year deal with the Colorado Rockies, where he enjoyed his greatest big league success.
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 home runs, 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 has been 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. And as of today, he’s officially a National Baseball Hall of Fame inductee.
Towards the end of his speech on Wednesday, Walker thanked his family, including his three brothers, his daughters, his girlfriend Donna and his parents.
“To mom and dad, I’m the youngest of four boys and I think it’s safe to say that neither one of you had it easy in raising us, especially those other three clowns,” joked Walker. “You supported all of us in our sporting adventures — hockey, softball, volleyball, baseball, football, bowling, whatever it was, you always allowed us to give it a go. Looking back, I don’t even mind that I got the hand me downs after the other three wore them out . . . I thank you and love you both.”
Walker, who now lives in the U.S., also made it abundantly clear that he has not forgotten his roots.
“And, of course, thank you Canada for all the support I’ve received throughout the years from my home country,” said Walker. “I share this honour with every Canadian. And I hope that all you Canadian kids out there that have dreams of playing in the big leagues that see me here today [that this] gives you another reason to go after those dreams.”