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The Accidental Ballplayer

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The following is a true story. Though certain similarities might exist between Larry Walker and Sidd Finch, the fictional subject of an SI April Fools' Day story eight years ago, Walker is an actual person who plays baseball for the Montreal Expos. He runs, bats, throws, eats, sleeps and takes road trips. He also is not a character played in any baseball movie starring Robert Redford, though again there are certain similarities.

The town was Maple Ridge, B.C., 20 miles outside Vancouver. One of those places a little too far away from the big city to be considered a suburb, but close enough not to be considered rural. The game, of course, was hockey. What else? Larry Walker was a hockey player. He was a goalie.

His dream was to play in the NHL. One of his idols was Billy Smith, the cantankerous netminder for the New York Islanders who seemed to skate around some rink holding the Stanley Cup over his head every year. Walker was going to be the next Billy Smith. He had a beat-up set of pads donated by an older brother, a fiberglass mask molded by his father and a butterfly style he had developed because he figured that, as a big guy, when he went down to block a shot he still had a lot of bulk in front of the net. If anyone could lift a rebound past all that bulk and into the top corner, more power to him.

"The mask had a big W painted on the front," Walker says. "It worked pretty well until one day a guy hit it, dead on, with a slap shot. Right in the middle of the forehead. The mask broke in two. The W split exactly in the middle. There was a V on each piece now. I switched to a birdcage mask."

"Probably should have put another layer of fiberglass on," his father says. "I wasn't an expert or anything. I was just trying things out."

Walker's father is also named Larry, and his mother is named Mary, and his brothers are named Gary, Carey and Barry...true, all true. It just worked out that way. The parents gave the first couple of kids rhyming names and got a kick out of it, so they kept going. Larry is the youngest, nine years the youngest. The boys would start playing all kinds of games in the basement and the phone would ring and the older Larry or Mary would shout down the stairs and all anyone would hear was "—ry, telephone!"

A lot of street hockey was played in the driveway and backyard of a kid named Rick Herbert. The kids made up rules and standings and all the rest of the stuff that kids do. One of the kids was Cam Neely, the best of the lot, the one who would go on to be an All-Star with the Boston Bruins. True, all true. In the organized age-level games at the local arena, all the kids in the neighborhood were on the same team, skating for the honor of Maple Ridge. Walker would look through his birdcage bars and see Neely knocking down everyone in sight.

The important jump, of course, was to Junior A. Leave home, make a team and get noticed, and in a few years you would be sitting in the Montreal Forum or someplace, wearing a cheap suit, waiting for your name to be called in the NHL draft. It all would have been perfect except, well, Walker didn't make the team. He was invited to a tryout by the Regina Pats in 1983 and was cut, the last goaltender cut, and was told to come back the next year.

"Rick Herbert's father drove him and me to the tryout," Walker says. "Rick made the team. I didn't. I drove back with his father, 15 hours from Saskatchewan."

Walker went back the following year and was cut again. There was an offer to play for a Junior B team, but that didn't work out either, and suddenly Walker's vision of being the next Billy Smith seemed to evaporate into the clear Canadian air. Walker was 16, and already he needed a new future. The idea of an academic career was also long gone; school had never seemed very important, outside of lunch and maybe gym. What to do?

The town was Utica, N.Y. The team was the Utica Blue Sox, an independent baseball team made up of leftover rookie-league prospects. The players with real potential, highly rated by their organizations, had been sent to minor league teams run by their organizations. The extra players, the long shots, were parceled out to independents like Utica. The longest of the long shots this year, 1985, was this Canadian kid, Walker.

He said "Mum" instead of "Mom" and added "eh?" at the end of his sentences and stuck out even in this diverse group of players. Canadian? He was big, at 6'2", 185 pounds, and had an earnestness and an athleticism about him, but had anyone ever been more befuddled by the sight of a thrown baseball? He swung as if he had never seen a thrown baseball. In fact, he never had seen a baseball thrown this way.

"I'd never seen a forkball, never seen a slider," he says. "I didn't know they existed. I had never really seen a good curveball. In Canada, as a kid, we'd play 10 baseball games a year. Fifteen, tops. Some pitchers had a thing they called a spinner, but nothing like this. Baseball just wasn't big. The weather was against it. Nobody ever played baseball thinking about making the major leagues. It was just a game, just something to do."

After the sad experience in Regina, Walker's interest in baseball had increased, but mostly as recreation. The following summer he had gone to Vancouver to play for one of the few area teams that played often, 72 games. Swinging hard at fastballs, he had learned he could hit them a long distance sometimes. This led to a spot on a Canadian junior team and an invitation to a national training camp in Saskatchewan. There were big league scouts at the camp, and when he used a wooden bat instead of the metal bats on hand, simply because he felt more comfortable with a wooden bat, the scouts noticed. When he hit one particularly long home run, well, he received an offer.

"Sure, we're always looking for the Canadian kid," Montreal Expo general manager Dan Duquette says. "But I'm sure we weren't thinking Larry was going to be anything great. He was signed before I got here, but I looked at his contract and I think it was a $1,500 bonus. Sending him to Utica certainly wasn't a good sign."

Walker's first real look at the mysteries of the thrown baseball came at the Expos' 1985 minor league camp. He swung at everything. He swung at balls that bounced on the plate. He swung at balls that bounced 10 feet in front of the plate. He told himself every pitch would be a fastball and swung accordingly. Once in a while he actually saw a fastball. There was a month and a half between camp and the start of Utica's season, and so he went home. He couldn't find a team to join for practice, since he now was a pro, so he played fast-pitch softball for a team sponsored by a bowling alley, to get ready for his big run at baseball. Not a great help.

The manager of the Blue Sox was Ken Brett, the former major league pitcher who is now a broadcaster for the California Angels. Brett was Walker's salvation. He said he was looking for athletes and wanted to teach them baseball. That was the role of the rookie leagues. He looked at Walker and didn't see the bad swings and the day-to-day befuddlement. He saw the large body and the coordination and the aggressiveness. He said Walker would play for him every day, even if Walker didn't get a hit during the entire season. "He was just so tough," Brett says.

At the end of the season Walker had a .223 batting average and had hit two home runs. He figured all 48 of his base hits came off fastballs, damn near the only fastballs he saw. He heard he was going to be released, but then an Expo hitting coach named Ralph Rowe successfully argued that Walker should be sent to the Florida Instructional League.

The town is West Palm Beach, Fla. Walker lives here now, owns a house and is buying a bigger one, because his wife, Christa, is pregnant with their first child and they need more room anyway, because you never know when someone from Canada is going to come down to visit. Last season he hit .301 for the Expos, with 23 home runs and 93 runs batted in. He also won a Gold Glove and had a pinch-hit single for the National League in the All-Star Game. In the off-season he signed a one-year contract for a reported $3 million.

He is 26 years old, a solid 215 pounds now, and even he has a hard time believing this is true, all true. How did this game that he played as a kid the same way he played, say, checkers or Parcheesi, just for fun, turn out to be such a gold mine? How can a heart be broken in a game he loved, then mended in a game he adopted? He makes more money than Neely. He stopped not long ago in Boston to see Neely, who joked that they had each had a choice of games to play and "you chose the right one and I chose the wrong one." How?

Getting such a late start in baseball meant that he had to do a lot of extra work. That instructional-league season led to another rookie-league season, which led to another instructional-league season, which led to another.... There has been a lot of hitting, hitting, hitting. Brett says one of Walker's best assets was "good ears." He listened. He learned. There was one scary moment, major surgery to his right knee that kept him out of the entire 1988 season, but the rest of his growth chart has shown a consistent rise. The rise has been built on hard work.

"I'd be back here every year in the instructional league," Walker says, sitting in the bullpen at Municipal Stadium in West Palm. "The heat in the locker room would be about 180 degrees. No air-conditioning. You'd put on dirty uniforms, go back out there. They'd give you a cup of soup and an orange every day for lunch. One cup of juice. No more. We'd go down to that dirt diamond in the back, just work forever. We called the place Iwo Jima."

Walker is a superstitious man, especially about the number 3, and maybe that has helped. He wears number 33 and he was married on Nov. 3 at 3:33 and his phone number has as many threes in it as he can get the phone company to give him, and he takes three swings in the batter's box before he hits, six if he feels tight, or nine or 12, any multiple of three. Whatever. Something has worked. He has the $3 million, and there will probably be a lot more money in the future.

"Barry Bonds had a great season last year, and Gary Sheffield had a great season, but Larry Walker can put together numbers as good as any of them," Duquette says. "He's in that class. He's the type of player who can win a team a pennant. He's getting better and better."

In 1990, his first full season with the Expos, Walker read a comment from Buck Rodgers, who was then the manager. A reporter had said to Rodgers that this Walker kid looked as if he belonged in the big leagues. Rodgers said, "No, he doesn't belong. Not yet. The day will come, though, and he'll know he belongs, and he'll be something to watch." Walker was shocked when he read those words, thought he was being criticized, but now thinks they were absolutely right.

"It was two years ago, Opening Day," he says, no trace of a Canadian accent left, a tan on his face in the middle of the winter. "I looked around the ballpark and felt good about the opening of the season. I said to myself, Hey this is where I should be. I belong. I really felt it. I belong."

True, all true.