'He deserves to be there': Canadian baseball community wants Larry Walker in the Hall of Fame
B.C.-born former major leaguer might finally get recognition many feel he has earned
Larry Walker's climb toward induction into the hallowed halls of the National Baseball Hall of Fame has been a slow one.
The gatekeepers to Cooperstown, the baseball journalists who cast the votes that determine which players go in and which ones don't, have been slow to embrace the Canadian outfielder's career and his indelible mark on America's game.
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But at a recent banquet in Toronto, where a roster of Canadian baseball legends gathered for the Canadian National Team Awards, the verdict on Larry Walker was unanimous.
"You ask people in this room and he is the greatest," says Vancouver's Jeff Francis, a pitcher who spent 11 years in the major leagues, including eight with the Colorado Rockies, the team Walker had his best years after starting his career with the Montreal Expos. "Of course we're all biased and we want to see a Canadian get in, but I think the numbers speak for themselves."
"He has all of the personal accolades you could ask for for a guy to be in the Hall of Fame. He deserves to be there," adds former first baseman Justin Morneau, who along with Walker is one of only three Canadians to be named league MVP. Joey Votto, first baseman with the Cincinnati Reds, is the other. "Whether he is Canadian, American, Puerto Rican, he is a guy whose numbers stand up and his play stands up against anybody in the history of baseball."
WATCH | Jamie Strashin makes the case for Larry Walker on The National:
If he is inducted, Walker, now 53, would be just the second Canadian and first position player so honoured. Pitcher Ferguson Jenkins, from Chatham, Ont., was inducted in 1991.
On Tuesday, hours before the announcement, Walker said in a tweet that he might again come up short, and thanked people for their support.
Although I believe I’m going to come up a little short today I still wanna thank all you that have been pulling for me and showing your support. I’m grateful for all of you! It’s been fun leading up to today reading everyone’s thoughts. Cheers 🍻 LW—@Cdnmooselips33
For the native of Maple Ridge, B.C., this year is his last chance to join the exclusive club. To this point, Walker's candidacy since being put on the ballot in 2011 — he retired in 2005 — has been treated with relative indifference by voters, never coming close to the required 75 per cent needed for entry.
But this year could be different. According to Ryan Thibodaux, whose website tracks eligible voters, Walker is on pace for more than 85 per cent support of voters who have made their ballots public.
Baseball is game of numbers and statistics and Walker's have always been a source of controversy.
His most successful offensive seasons were played in the thin air of Coors Field in Denver, where the ball travels further, inflating offensive statistics. During Walker's decade-long run in Colorado he hit .384 at home, compared with only .280 on the road. But a deeper dive into Walker's numbers is illuminating and surprising at almost every turn.
Walker is one of only 21 players in history to be a member of the 300/400/500 club, finishing his 17 seasons with a .313 career batting average, a .400 on-base percentage and .565 slugging percentage.
He also amassed a long list of personal accolades:
- three batting titles (1998, 1999, 2001)
- seven Gold Gloves for his defence
- 383 home runs, including 49 in 1997
- the 1997 National League MVP award
He could also run the bases, totalling 230 stolen bases for his career.
"He was the kind of player who did everything well. We all knew he could hit, but he hit home runs, hit for average," Francis says. "I played for a lot of the same coaches growing up and they could never say enough about his defensive ability, his base-running ability, his baseball instincts."
His statistics would be much loftier but for the injuries that sidelined Walker for lengthy stretches during the prime of his career. From 1996-2004, Walker missed 375 games, the equivalent of more than two seasons.
No needles went in my ass, I played the game clean. It's almost like Coors Field is my PED.- Larry Walker in 2019
Most of Walker's career was played during an era that subsequently came to be defined by performance-enhancing drugs, something Walker has never been accused of or linked to. Walker has rarely talked about his candidacy for the Hall of Fame, but after coming up short last year with just 54.6 per cent of the ballots, his frustration was clear in an interview with a Montreal radio station.
"I played for a major-league team that happened to be in Denver," Walker said. "If that's a problem, and there's going to be an issue, then get rid of the team and move it elsewhere if it's going to be that big of an issue. No needles went in my ass, I played the game clean. It's almost like Coors Field is my PED."
That Walker is even in a position to be inducted into the Hall of Fame is improbable. In an era where most players arrive as polished products, the result of years of specialized training, Walker spent as much time growing up in Maple Ridge playing hockey, dreaming of being an NHL goaltender, as he did playing baseball.
"Hockey was my first love," Walker told CBC in 1993. "We played maybe 20 [baseball] games a season when I was a youngster."
There was no baseball team at his high school, and even when he did play, it was mostly fast pitch, where pitchers throw the ball underhand with top speeds around 70 mph, as opposed to the 90 mph-plus that's typical in baseball.
Walker was never drafted, instead signing as a free agent with the Montreal Expos for a meagre $1,500 US bonus after attracting the attention of scouts at the 1984 World Youth Baseball Championships in Saskatchewan.
His rise through the minors was hardly meteoric as he struggled to adjust to professional baseball.
"Back home all I really saw were fastballs and what were supposed to be curveballs but didn't do anything but really spin," Walker told CBC. "I had to learn a lot of new pitches — the slider, the forkball, the splitter. The pitchers were just so much more advanced because they had high school and college ball. I was able to play at their level but I had to work a lot harder."
Walker was always easy to cheer for. It's hard to find an unkind word written or said about him, and always maintaining the quintessential Canadian humility.
Former pitcher Jason Dickson, now president of Baseball Canada, remembers meeting Walker during the outfielder's 1997 MVP season.
"I obviously spot him as soon as I see him because of the Canadian connection. He's an established big-league guy and of course I've been watching him when he played with the Expos," Dickson says. "And he came right over to me and we had a chance to talk. And I remember telling my dad that night that I had a chance to meet Larry Walker. We all know the numbers side but he was the person I had always hoped he would be and he was exactly that way"
"I have never been let down by Larry," says Morneau, who wore Walker's No. 33 in tribute when he played in Colorado in 2014-15. "When you're around him you realize how much he cares about people, how much he looks out for his fellow Canadians. He has a big personality but his ego doesn't match it. It's amazing how humble he is, what he does for other people."
Even if Walker falls short of the Hall of Fame, his impact on Canadian baseball continues to run deep. Since his retirement, Walker has appeared as a coach numerous times for Team Canada at various international competitions.
"With our young players he is still very relevant in what he says and sharing everything he knows about the game, how to play it the right way," Dickson says. "The kids love working with him. He is easy to approach, talk about hitting, he's seen it all, he means a lot for us."
Above all, he has given a generation of Canadian baseball players hope that anything is possible. Maybe even the Hall of Fame.
"Maybe it will influence some younger Canadians to pick baseball over another sport," Morneau says. "We have tremendous athletes in this country and if we can steer more towards baseball we'll hopefully have more guys like Larry in the future."