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Jeter, Walker forever linked by 'highest honor'

@feinsand
January 22, 2020

NEW YORK -- Different paths. Same destination. Derek Jeter and Larry Walker were formally introduced Wednesday as the two newest members of the Baseball Hall of Fame Class of 2020, rounding out the four-man group that also includes Marvin Miller and Ted Simmons.

NEW YORK -- Different paths. Same destination.

Derek Jeter and Larry Walker were formally introduced Wednesday as the two newest members of the Baseball Hall of Fame Class of 2020, rounding out the four-man group that also includes Marvin Miller and Ted Simmons.

Complete 2020 Hall of Fame election results

The two former All-Stars were all smiles as they tried on their new Hall of Fame jerseys and hats, joining one of the most exclusive clubs in all of sports.

“This is something that is not a part of the dream,” Jeter said. “I never sat down and just assumed that this was going to happen.”

“You don’t play your career thinking that this is going to happen,” echoed Walker. “It still doesn’t make sense that there’s ‘Hall of Fame’ everywhere on me right now. It hasn’t sunk in, honestly.”

Yet here they were, at the St. Regis Hotel in Manhattan, grinning ear-to-ear and exchanging one-liners at a standing-room-only news conference. The two will share the stage in Cooperstown this July, but their respective journeys to the Hall of Fame were polar opposites.

Jeter played for one team during his entire career; Walker suited up for three. More than three dozen men who have worn Yankees uniforms are represented in the Hall; Walker will be the first ever to have played for the Rockies, the team whose logo will adorn the hat on his plaque, he announced Wednesday.

“Derek doesn't have this issue,” Walker said.

Jeter never played even a single inning at a position other than shortstop; Walker spent the majority of his career in right field, but he also logged time in center and left, as well as at first base.

Jeter became the 57th player elected in his first year of eligibility, while Walker became just the seventh player to be voted in on his final attempt.

Jeter fell one vote shy of unanimous election. Walker, who only four years ago garnered just 15.5 percent of the vote, crossed the 75 percent mark by a mere six votes.

“It wasn’t quite as obvious [as Derek] that I was going to have Jack calling me,” Walker said, referring to the call he received Tuesday from the BBWAA’s Jack O’Connell informing him that he had been elected. “Once that phone call happened, the tears that came out, the joy; when I went to bed last night, I’d never realized how mentally tired I was, but I couldn’t sleep because everything was still spinning around with the happiness involved.”

Jeter was euphoric to receive his news, as well. While the rest of the world knew he would gain first-ballot entrance into the Hall, the long-time Yankees shortstop refused to accept that notion until it became official.

“I told everyone, not only throughout the course of my career, but the last five years up until yesterday, that I didn’t want to talk about it because I didn’t want to jinx any opportunities I may have,” Jeter said. “I never took this for granted. I just don’t know what to say. It’s an emotional time, it’s a time of reflection. A lot of hard work over a number of years have gone into this. It’s the highest honor.”

Yankees congratulate Jeter on Hall election

From the time he began playing baseball, Jeter had a singular dream. “The only thing I ever wanted to do, as long as I could remember, was to play shortstop for the New York Yankees,” he said.

In 1992, New York selected him with the sixth overall pick in the MLB Draft, allowing the highly touted prospect to make that dream a reality.

Walker didn’t play organized baseball until he was 16 years old, signing with the Montreal Expos as an amateur free agent in 1984. Canadian players were not eligible for the Draft back then, though given Walker's lack of experience, he likely would have gone undrafted anyway.

“I didn’t play high school baseball growing up,” Walker said. “When you’re born in Canada, you come into the world with a hockey stick and skates on. That’s what you do. Baseball is something I never really did. I played more softball than I did baseball growing up.”

One thing the pair had in common? Their struggles in the Minors. For Jeter, the level of competition was unlike anything he had seen before. A big fish in the small ponds of Kalamazoo, Mich., the teenager was suddenly thrust into the role of guppy, faced with the challenge of playing against professionals.

“I was completely overmatched,” Jeter said. “It was a learning experience. You go through some growing pains you have to overcome. I had to learn how to deal with failure. When you’re younger, a lot of times you don’t have to deal with that. It helped prepare me for what was to come in New York.”

The Minors presented a completely different kind of test for Walker, who barely knew the rules of the game and had never before seen anything quite like a slider or a forkball.

“The Minor Leagues was what I used to figure out how to do the game, how to play it,” Walker said. “It was the road that paved the way for me.”

Jeter, clearly learning something about his fellow Hall of Famer, chimed in.

“That’s a true Hall of Famer,” Jeter said. “He didn’t even have to play the game to make it [to the Hall of Fame]. He didn’t even play baseball growing up.”

Five years after signing with Montreal, Walker received the call to the Majors, debuting with the Expos in August 1989. He logged just 56 plate appearances that season, but he returned in 1990 and slugged 19 home runs in his rookie season, the first of his 383 career blasts.

Jeter made his Yankees debut less than three years after being drafted, but like many great players, he was demoted back to the Minors before ultimately sticking with the big club.

At the time, neither considered the idea that they were launching Hall of Fame careers.

“You’re playing and just trying to keep the job; that's first and foremost,” Jeter said. “You’re trying to compete year in and year out, trying to win.”

“You go out there, you bust your butt, you battle with your teammates to take on the team in the other dugout,” added Walker. “Winning is the most important thing that you strive for your whole career.”

Jeter did more winning than Walker, earning five World Series rings during his two decades with the Yankees. Walker helped the Cardinals -- his third and final team, following successful stints in Montreal and Colorado -- get to the 2004 Fall Classic, where St. Louis fell to the Boston Red Sox. On the other hand, Walker earned an MVP Award in 1997, an honor that eluded Jeter during his 20 seasons.

Jeter and Walker authored storied careers during the same era, yet as they sat together Wednesday, the peers had somehow barely crossed paths through all these years.

The two played in the Majors at the same time for more than a decade, yet they competed against each other a grand total of six times. They faced off in three All-Star Games, bringing the total number of times they stood on the same field to nine.

“There was one time in the Bahamas playing blackjack,” Walker said. “We sat down for a little while with Matt Damon.”

Their road to upstate New York may have had vastly different directions, but from this day forward, Jeter and Walker will forever be linked together.

“I knew him as a player; I’m just getting to know him as an individual,” Jeter said. “I’m sure we’ll spend a lot of time together over the next few months.”

For these two great players, it’s long overdue.

Mark Feinsand, an executive reporter, originally joined MLB.com as a reporter in 2001.