Air Jordan! Walker makes father's day with first MLB homer

April 5th, 2023

ST. LOUIS -- Bummed a bit that the first home run of his MLB career came in a Cardinals loss, 20-year-old rookie got the perfect pick-me-up late Wednesday afternoon when he returned to the clubhouse and saw the baseball he smashed over the left-field wall was perched on the top shelf of his locker.

Though the day was mostly a forgettable one for the Cardinals, who lost 5-2 to the surging Braves in a 3-0 series sweep, the story of how the home run ball got back to Walker and what the rookie sensation planned to do with it had the feel-good vibes of a scene out of a Hollywood tearjerker.

Minutes after Walker’s 104.2 mph line drive left the park, Cardinals director of security Phil Melcher scurried to that section of fans to try and retrieve the ball. Melcher has made a practice of doing just that through the years, sometimes encountering difficult negotiations, but usually finding St. Louis fans amenable to a trade.

Fully aware of Walker’s status as one of baseball’s best prospects, Melcher had been anxiously awaiting the 6-foot-6, 245-pound rookie’s first long ball. When Walker’s solo smash came on a 2-2 pitch from Atlanta’s Michael Tonkin, Melcher sprang into action. What he encountered was a pleasant surprise.

“I had already been thinking about being on the lookout for Jordan’s first home run ball, because that’s something I do for a lot of our young players and some of the momentous home runs,” said Melcher, who negotiated for Paul Goldschmidt’s 300th home run ball last season and got pitcher Jack Flaherty’s home run ball from years earlier. “The gentleman who got Jordan’s home run ball was very nice. He was a city councilman from Washington, Mo., and he couldn’t have been more gracious.

“At first, he had given the ball to an usher when they told him it was Jordan’s first home run ball. But I went down and told him that he didn’t have to give it away for nothing. I came back and gave him a Jordan Walker autographed ball. He was very happy, and was like, ‘This is really autographed by [Walker]?’ I told him that he could trust me, and he was so happy.”

Walker, whose home run and double on Wednesday extended his hit streak to six through his first six MLB games, said he couldn’t fully enjoy the first homer because the Cardinals were losing and in the midst of a one-sided series against the Braves, the team Walker grew up rooting for as a child in suburban Atlanta.

“It was pretty good feeling, but we were kind of down, so I was trying to still lock in toward the game,” said Walker, who emerged from the first homestand of his career hitting .333 (8-for-24) with three extra-base hits and five RBIs. “So, maybe later I can enjoy the moment, but during the game, I was trying to focus and trying to come back against that team.”

Within an instant of seeing the home run ball in his locker, Walker said he knew immediately where that keepsake would be headed. Just like the balls from his first hit and first RBI -- both of which came in Walker’s MLB debut against the Blue Jays -- the home run ball will go to his father, Derek.

Derek Walker, the man who introduced him to baseball years earlier just as the previous three generations of the family had done and someone who stood by his son as football and basketball coaches tried to get him to stray from the sport, was in the Busch Stadium stands on Wednesday along with his wife, Katrina, and Jordan’s grandmother, Normarene Merritt, to witness the home run. It was the Walker family’s final game in attendance for a couple of weeks, and Derek was delighted to get to witness the milestone homer. Even more pleasing for Derek, he said, was the celebratory call from his son telling him that he was saving the ball for him.

“I told people at my [Cleveland-based software design firm] that I got the ball from his first hit and his RBI, and I thought if they could retrieve the home run ball, I might leave with three balls,” Derek said on Wednesday. “This was our last day [in St. Louis], so it was perfect.

“When he got called up and when he called me, I put on a Facebook post that I cried tears, but they were manly tears,” Derek added. “So, I know a lot about tears lately. But today, it’s all smiles and happiness. I couldn’t script a better first weekend for Jordan.”