Walker humbled by 'honor and thrill' of Hall

September 8th, 2021

The year was 1985.

A 19-year-old ex-hockey player the Montreal Expos had signed out of British Columbia for $1,500 the prior winter was standing on third base during a New York-Pennsylvania League game in Utica, New York.

He was fast, having just flown from first to third on a hit-and-run play. But the ball was caught in the outfield, and he had to get back to first.

So did what came instinctually: He sprinted in a straight line across the diamond, right past the pitcher’s mound, going directly from third to first without retouching second. Needless to say, he was incredulous when the umpire called him out.

On Wednesday afternoon, that 19-year-old who didn’t know all the rules of the game when he became a professional baseball player nearly four decades ago will be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. He will be the first Rockies player and the second Canadian-born player (Fergie Jenkins in 1991) to be enshrined in Cooperstown.

MLB Network will have live coverage of the event beginning at 9 a.m. MDT, with the ceremony beginning at 11:30 a.m. MLB Network Radio will also broadcast the event, and MLB.com will have a live simulcast of the ceremony.

“I didn’t consider myself good enough to be a big league ballplayer,” Walker said of his earliest pro baseball years. “It wasn’t going through my head at that stage of my career. I was having fun playing baseball, doing fairly well at it, and I wasn’t expecting much.”

Walker and the Expos got much more than they were expecting, but it wasn’t an easy journey. Like so many adventurers in the Rocky Mountains that have served as the backdrop for much of his life, Walker had to scale mountain after mountain just to reach the Majors, let alone excel when he got there.

Beyond the difficulty of learning the game while playing professionally, Walker tore the ACL, MCL and LCL in his right knee while playing winter ball in Mexico in 1987, a catastrophic injury that could have ended his career before it got off the ground.

“If thoughts of being a Major Leaguer weren’t in my brain before the accident, they sure weren’t in it after,” Walker said. “Because I was laying on mom and dad’s sofa for a few months.”

After missing the entire 1988 season, Walker returned and stole 36 bases in 114 games for Triple-A Indianapolis in ’89, all while wearing a knee brace. Walker's rise continued.

“I came into baseball very raw and a little behind everybody,” Walker said. “The Expos gave me the opportunity to learn the game, to move up in my career, and then I did it one year at every level and I made it to the Major Leagues.”

Much like his improbable rise to the Majors, Walker faced a steep climb to Hall of Fame election. He received 34.1 percent of the vote on the Baseball Writers’ Association of America ballot in 2018, his eighth year of eligibility. By his 10th and final year, he eclipsed the 75 percent threshold for election by six votes, garnering 76.6 percent to complete the largest gain a candidate has ever made over his final two years on the ballot.

That was 3.3 percent more than Walker thought he’d get -- being superstitious about the number 3, he naturally settled at 73.3 percent as his projection.

“There was never any thought in my head that, ‘Yeah, this is gonna happen,’” Walker said. “To be completely honest, I didn’t pay much attention the first three years [on the ballot] because the percentages were going to be [low]. Then the last few years, it grabbed my attention pretty good.”

Why did it take a decade for Hall of Fame voters to elect Walker? And what changed?

Walker had more mountains to conquer, even after his playing days were over. He played in relatively small markets his entire career, which began in Montreal and ended in St. Louis, making it less likely that many writers would see or pay attention to what he did on the field. He also played 10 seasons with the Rockies, taking home at-bats in the altitude of the most hitter-friendly park in baseball, Coors Field.

In describing the “Coors effect” on his Hall candidacy, Walker sounded like a true hockey man.

“With the inflated stats Coors Field presented and brought everybody’s way, and still does, it creates a little bit of a black eye,” Walker said. “And people kind of see it as not deserving enough.”

Walker was often injured, playing in 150 or more games in just one of his 17 Major League seasons -- 153 in his 1997 NL MVP campaign. He didn’t have the round-number milestones so hallowed in baseball -- 3,000 hits and 500 home runs are not on his resume. He collected 2,160 hits and belted 383 home runs.

But thanks to the rise of advanced metrics, the voters were able to look beneath the surface-level numbers before it was too late. What they found was one of the best right fielders in baseball history.

Walker’s fellow Hall of Fame inductee, Yankees great Derek Jeter, was elected on his first ballot with 99.7 percent of the vote. Jeter put together a legendary career as the captain of a team that won five World Series championships on his watch. According to Baseball Reference, Jeter produced 71.3 WAR for his career.

Walker produced 72.7 WAR but did so in 759 fewer games than Jeter.

Walker was also a seven-time Gold Glove Award winner, won three batting titles over a four-year span from 1998-2001, and was the 1997 NL MVP in a season during which he had a higher OPS on the road (1.176) than in the thin air of Denver (1.169). He also stole 230 bases and was cited by many of his contemporaries as the best baserunner they had ever seen.

Walker never set out to become a baseball player. He dreamed of reaching the Hockey Hall of Fame someday, until his hockey-playing days ended when he was 17. On Wednesday, he will take his rightful place among baseball’s immortals.

And he still has trouble believing it.

“I don’t necessarily consider myself to be a Hall of Famer in anything,” Walker said. “To be in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown is quite the honor and thrill.”

Walker has come a long way from his basic baserunning mistake 36 years ago. Like the beeline he made from third base to first that day long ago in Utica, if you draw a straight line from Utica to nearby Cooperstown, the distance is 33 miles. That is the number that Walker wore throughout his career, a number that no Rockie will ever wear again after it is retired at Coors Field on Sept. 25.

It took 10 years, but Walker has said the wait was worth it for several reasons. One of them is that if he had been elected earlier, he wouldn’t have become the 333rd member of the Baseball Hall of Fame.