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Loyal Walker proud of hometown team

Pirates second baseman and Pittsburgh native living his dream

Born and bred. Tried and true.

You could call Neil Walker both of these things and a variety of other sports aphorisms.

You could call Walker hopeful. You could call him proud, confident or loyal.

The Pirates' second baseman is all of those things and more when it comes to the finally thriving baseball team in the heart of the Steel City.

The Pittsburgh native, drafted by the Bucs in the first round of the 2004 Draft, has every right to be all of those things. His hometown team is 29-27 and only two games behind the National League Central-leading Cincinnati Reds.

Let's be frank: No one expected the Pirates to be in second place, a fact Walker admits to. But here they are.

Walker attributes it to consistency.

Not luck (Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder leaving the division), not talent (ahem, pitching and Andrew McCutchen) -- although both are undoubtedly pieces of the puzzle -- but consistency.

"There are so many players that are, talent-wise, so very close that you have to be uncommon to be really good. So consistency is probably the biggest thing," Walker said. "Pitching to defense to hitting -- all of those small things you need to do. You have to win those games you're supposed to win and keep yourself in the games that are close; give yourself opportunities to win."

Walker discussed the transformation the Pirates have undergone in the past few years.

"We've come a long way, really, the last couple of years, and we have a nice young nucleus of players -- position players and pitchers," he said. "I think the biggest key for us is coming together and gelling together as a team and as one. And going out there knowing we can play with the best in the league, and we've done that so far."

The 26-year-old was quick to note the club's impact on the city of Pittsburgh, which hasn't seen its baseball team have a winning season since 1992.

"The city of Pittsburgh has been craving for a winner during the summertime," Walker said. "The Steelers [football] and the Penguins [hockey] and Pitt sports have always done well, and we know we're capable of getting back to winning ways. And we're real close to doing that. For now we've got to continue to improve and work hard, and we know that we'll be there."

On a more personal level, Walker said that he is indebted to the Pirates organization for the chance to live out every kid's dream: playing professional baseball for their hometown team.

"If you would ask pretty much any baseball player when they were kids what team would they want to play for, I bet almost 100 percent of them would say their hometown team," he said. "When I was drafted in 2004 by the Pirates, it felt like a Cinderella story. And here I am. I got the opportunity to play in my hometown. My parents get to come to games like it's Little League. And my friends and family get to come out watch me play every day."

Walker also said that the recent Draft evoked powerful memories for him.

"It's a lot of hard work that I put in -- your parents driving you all over in the United States to play against the best competition -- and you think about all the fun times you had with past teammates and all the hard work you put in," he said. "And then when you get drafted by your hometown team and they give you the opportunity, it's like a dream come true."

And although it remains to be seen whether or not the rest of Pittsburgh's season will be a dream come true, Walker certainly hopes so.

"I like our chances, I really do. We're on a roll right now, and we are in town playing the top team in our division and we've done pretty well against our division so far," Walker said before the Bucs' 5-4 getaway day win over the Reds.

"So as long as we stay healthy and continue to be confident and consistent, I think we've got a great chance."

So go ahead, call Walker proud. Call him loyal, call him confident.

And maybe, just maybe, come this October, you could call Mr. Neil Walker prophetic.

Meggie Zahneis, winner of the 2011 Breaking Barriers essay contest, earned the job of youth correspondent for in the fall of '11.
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