If an athlete's magnitude as a national sporting icon is measured by the number of fellow big-name stars who pat him on the back, Larry Walker has scaled the mountaintop.
Walker, among four people to be inducted into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in St. Mary's, Ont., before a crowd of about 1,000 on Saturday, received congratulatory messages from the likes of Wayne Gretzky, Patrick Roy, Mike Weir and Steve Nash.
The 42-year-old from Maple Ridge, B.C., broke into the big leagues with the Montreal Expos 20 years ago, became a major star with the Colorado Rockies and played in the 2004 World Series with the St. Louis Cardinals.
He played 17 seasons and breezed into the hall on the first ballot with fellow inductees Ernie Whitt, the former Toronto Blue Jay catcher and Team Canada manager, long-time Windsor volunteer Bernie Soulliere and the late Roy (Doc) Miller, a Chatham, Ont., native who lost the 1911 National League batting title by one point to Honus Wagner.
Former pitching great Fergie Jenkins, the only Canadian in the baseball halls of fame on both sides of the border, presented the inductees with their jackets.
"I just got a tattoo on my arm — it's pretty much stolen from Molson Canadian," Walker said. "It's a maple leaf with the words 'I am.' I'm a Canadian and I'm damn proud of it."
Seven-time Gold Glove winner
Walker won the 1997 National League MVP after compiling a staggering offensive season, nearly winning the first triple crown in 60 years.
Whether it was belching the alphabet for impressed bat boys, turning his helmet around and batting from the right side in a famous, and staged, all-star game encounter with Randy Johnson, or rocking out to heavy metal, Walker was a natural — a five-tool player who compiled a .313 career batting average and seven gold gloves in an injury-filled career that he feels will leave his stats short of Cooperstown.
"I don't know if it's athletic ability or what but I've always been able to pick up any sport pretty quick," Walker said. "I started out as a goalie in hockey and I never had new equipment. It was always my older brother's hand-me-downs. I remember going to Regina Pats training camp in my old gear and during the break, I'd be putting the stuffing back into my pads.
"Back then when I played baseball, when a pro scout was in the stands, we'd get all excited. Now, it's different for the Canadian kids. There are scouts watching every game. Some of them even live here."
He often wears the 2006 World Series ring he was given by the St. Louis Cardinals, even though he retired the previous season.
"I had gone down to spring training with St. Louis as a guest coach and met them on the road a couple of times that season and they had a meeting one day and presented rings to me and (pitcher) Cal Eldred," Walker said. "I was making this speech about how nice that was and maybe I should've returned for one more year and I see Jim Edmonds stand up in the back and say, 'It's a good thing you didn't because maybe we wouldn't have won it if you did."'
Whitt says Walker's Cooperstown-worthy
Walker refers to the strike-shortened 1994 season -- his last in Montreal -- as "the one where we would've won it all."
Presenter and former Montreal GM/manager Jim Fanning said the $1,500 it took to sign Walker was "the best money the Expos ever spent." Walker went on to make over $110 million in his career.
There's no doubt in Whitt's mind that his co-inductee belongs in Cooperstown.
"To me, he has Hall of Fame numbers," he said. "No question about it. He's one of the greats."
Whitt, who now manages Philadelphia's Class-A affiliate in Clearwater, Fla., was claimed by Toronto in the 1976 expansion draft from the Boston Red Sox.
He became the longest serving original Blue Jay and was presented to the hall by Pat Gillick, the architect of Toronto's baseball glory years, who is now a consultant for the Philadelphia Phillies.
"Now that I'm working for the Phillies and Pat, I know it's only a matter of time before I have a World Series ring on my finger," said Whitt. "I loved my time in Toronto and I can tell you the most proud I've ever been was walking during the opening ceremonies of the 2004 Olympics in Athens with Canada across my chest.
"This is home."
The weekend started on a sombre note when hall of famer Ron Piche was injured in a serious car accident on the way to St. Mary's for Friday's golf tournament and had to be airlifted to a London hospital. He injured his arm and ribs and apologized through hall of fame CEO Tom Valcke for not being able to make it out in time.
The ceremony was broadcast for the first time overseas by Skype so Whitt's son E.J., currently working for the U.S. Department of Defence, could watch it in Baghdad, Iraq.