GLENDALE, Ariz. -- When Keenyn Walker was selected by the White Sox with the 47th overall pick of the 2011 MLB Draft, the switch-hitting outfielder envisioned the start of a prosperous and successful baseball career.
Walker never imagined that 11 years later he would be treating people with gunshot wounds, trying to comfort and stabilize people with chest pain or even helping expectant mothers as an emergency medical technician for Maricopa Ambulance in Arizona, which is his current profession after retiring from baseball in 2018.
“I thought I would be in Chicago, or even if Chicago didn’t have me, I would be with another team playing in the big leagues,” said a smiling Walker during a recent interview with MLB.com. “I definitely thought I was going to be playing baseball for the rest of my life until I retired, where I could retire on a beach almost.”
From 2011-16, Walker produced 204 stolen bases over six Minor League seasons with the White Sox thanks to speed matched by few others, making stops from Rookie-level Great Falls all the way to Double-A Birmingham. He also batted .229 with 716 strikeouts in 2,129 career at-bats, possessing raw talent rivaling players from the top of the MLB Draft class, but lacking in baseball experience coming out of Central Arizona College.
This missing experience became evident as he moved up the system. In hindsight, Walker would have continued his education with a full-ride scholarship to the University of Utah instead of joining the White Sox.
“Really kind of focus on my craft and got more experience with more high-end pitching,” Walker said. “It definitely hampered me a little bit. At the same time, it’s like once I got drafted, I don’t think I fully understood the full work ethic that I needed [in order] to be able to compete at the big league level and be consistent and be someone that would get to the big leagues and stay up there.”
Birmingham won the 2013 Southern League title with Walker picking up 38 stolen bases, and the ring from that championship still fosters a great source of pride. He also hit just .201 and struck out 153 times that season, and doubts began to form behind those struggles.
“That was the worst baseball I’ve ever played in my life,” Walker said. “I felt lost. I felt like I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know who to turn to. … It was a whole different ballgame whenever I really started struggling.”
His White Sox run ended after the 2016 season with the Barons. He had stops with the Frontier League’s Windy City Thunderbolts in South Suburban Crestwood, Ill., in 2017 and Lancaster of the Atlantic League in 2018 before he made the tough decision to leave baseball.
With his son, Kingston, on the way, Walker held down a couple of jobs to pay the bills and avoid digging into his savings from his original White Sox signing bonus. It was his close friend Marvin Campbell, a firefighter in Henderson, Nev., who eventually got him interested in this field.
“He talked to me about kind of what to expect as far as a knowledge standpoint of an EMT and then on top of that, talked to me about the physical requirements of just being a firefighter and being able to pump along all that gear,” Walker said. “It’s probably more competitive than baseball. I kind of found out the hard way the first time I really started testing for a fire department.”
A current work week for Walker, 31, features 24-hour shifts, from 6 a.m. to 6 a.m., on Monday and Friday. He has witnessed “some pretty crazy stuff” during just over 1 1/2 years on the job, with “anything that required an emergency [that] we are responding to, day in and day out.” 18 calls and 15 transports marked his highest total in one 24-hour shift.
Kingston will turn 4 in October, and Walker picks up as much overtime as possible to help support his son. He has found a new career calling but misses the camaraderie of baseball, and he regrets that his son never got to see him in action.
“Honestly that’s one of the biggest burdens I think I’ll ever have in my life: He never got to see me do what I really truly love to do,” Walker said. “He’ll have pictures, and I think there are still some highlight videos and stuff on YouTube or whatever. That’s something I’ll hold dear. Whenever the time comes, I’ll make sure he knows exactly what I did.
“But this is very rewarding. Being there and being able to put them first and help them is awesome because you get to deal with people on a day-to-day basis on their possible worst day, and you get to try to make their day a little bit better.”