The big deal? How about this: Walker never played high school baseball, never played college baseball, never thought baseball was anything but a way to kill time with a few summer league games between hockey seasons. He says he didn't see an off-speed pitch until he was 17, when the Montreal Expos signed him, in 1985, for a $1,500 bonus and sent him to Class A Utica. "He was very fast, very strong, and he just had a fire in him that made you think he was going to make it," says Gene Glynn, the Rockies' third base coach, who managed Walker in Utica.
First, however, there was the matter of learning the rules. Once while with Utica, Walker broke for second on a hit-and-run and nearly reached third before realizing the batter had flied out to center. When Glynn, coaching third, told him to hustle back to first, Walker did just that, and beat the throw. One thing, though: He never touched second on the way back; instead he sprinted across the diamond and over the pitcher's mound and slid into first. When the ump called him out, Walker bounced up and argued the call. Says Glynn, "When I explained that he had to touch second, he said, 'Why? I already did.' I just said, 'Son, you've got a long way to go.' But that's the thing with Larry: He was as fast a learner as I've ever seen. He never made the same mistake twice."
Now, 12 years later, Walker is considered among the most natural players in the game. "The best baserunning instincts I've ever seen," says Weiss. "Paul Molitor is the only guy I've ever seen like him."
Walker, a two-time Gold Glove winner in rightfield, has a reputation as a classic five-tool player—with the ability to run, hit, hit with power, field and throw—but he insists those days are gone. "My arm is shot," he says. "I can't throw like I used to." But he can hit like never before. "Sometimes this year I've even surprised myself," he says. "I'll hit one down the leftfield line in one at bat and down the rightfield line the next. Sometimes it's like, Wow, how'd I do that?"
To watch Walker play is to wonder what would have happened if he had been born and raised on dusty diamonds in Houston or Tampa or San Diego. Would his skills have surpassed even those of the game's great prodigies, Ken Griffey Jr. and Barry Bonds? "Probably would have been a football player," says Glynn.
Walker was somewhat of a homeland hero during his five seasons with Montreal, before signing a four-year, $22.5 million contract with Colorado as a free agent in April 1995. He had some productive years for the Expos, especially in the strike-shortened '94 season when he hit .322 with 19 home runs and 86 RBIs, but never flirted with the numbers he's putting up this summer. He says there's a simple explanation for his success this year: He finally is meeting his one and only goal. "All I try to do is stay healthy," he says. "And let's face it: I've been horse——at that."
In addition to missing the entire 1988 season after he had major surgery to reconstruct his right knee, Walker has been on the disabled list three other times and played more than 140 games just once. In his first year with Colorado he hit 36 homers and drove in 101 runs in 131 games. In his second season with the Rockies he ran into the centerfield fence on June 9 and snapped his collarbone. He missed 60 games and was not even close to full speed when he returned in August. He hit .276 for the season, just .142 on the road. The disaster of '96 made Walker more determined than ever to earn his money in '97. "I owed it to the organization, I owed it to the fans," he says. "I get paid a lot to play this game, and I didn't want to sit on the bench this year—at least not every day."
He vowed to be more cautious after the last injury, but when he returned to Vancouver last winter, he couldn't help himself. He went crazy. He went wild. He went fishing. Some guys just can't resist life on the edge. "It was four in the morning, and we were just heading out," he says. "I slipped on a rock and—boom—separated my shoulder. Just a freak thing."
Walker recovered in time for the start of the season, but he and manager Don Baylor agreed that he would not play every inning of every game. Walker has left a number of games early, including two in the homestand before the trip to Seattle, and had decided even before Opening Day to sit out against Johnson. His prolonged stretch above the Ted Williams Line did nothing to deter his plans for a day off. "All the stuff that's been written is b.s.," says Baylor. "When I played, a lot of guys didn't face Nolan Ryan. And how many other guys aren't facing Johnson? John Olerud.... Rafael Palmiero.... A lot of guys don't."
No one else has accused Olerud or Palmiero of dodging Johnson, but Baylor is right in one sense. Remarkably, only 10 lefthanded hitters have faced Johnson in his 18 starts this season. So Walker has company. "I know I'm not the only one," he says, "but I'm not going to rat out everyone else." When Walker was voted a starter for the All-Star Game, he was immediately needled: Would he duck Johnson again? He assured everyone he would not.