The sign was the first sign of trouble. When the handmade placard appeared in the centerfield seats of the Kingdome early in the game, Larry Walker realized that Friday, June 13, was not going to be his lucky day. WHERE'S WALKER? the sign read, and the question still haunts him. Where was he? On the Colorado Rockies' bench, protecting his wounded knee from the artificial turf and his .400 average from the most lethal lefthanded pitcher in the game. It was not the first day off nor the last this season for the oft-injured Walker, but it was the most controversial. He knew it would be dangerous to step into the box against Seattle Mariners ace Randy Johnson, but he hadn't realized how perilous it could be to stay out of it.
"I couldn't turn on ESPN or pick up a paper without hearing about what a piece of crap I was," Walker says. "I feel like I started World War III or something. I could have lied and said my knee hurt, but I told the truth. Randy Johnson is the best pitcher in the game, and I didn't want to face him. A lot of guys don't face him. I didn't think it was that big a deal." He quickly learned otherwise. Ferris Bueller took a day off with less fanfare.
On the nights following the visit to Seattle, Walker logged on to the Internet with his laptop and anonymously absorbed the drive-by blows from assorted cyberhecklers. One person called him "a candy ass" for ducking Johnson, while others said he should have an asterisk next to his name in the lists of National League statistical leaders. The sports pages were filled with nasty letters and columns questioning his manhood, and The Denver Post conducted a phone-in poll in which a third of the hometown callers thought Walker should have faced Johnson. It was the first time in his career he had faced such criticism—Me? A candy ass?—and he couldn't ignore it.
Walker is generally an easygoing, approachable guy, a throwback player who feels more comfortable bellying up to a bar than lounging in a limo. But this time he reached his breaking point. One week after the infamous night off, he was sitting at a hotel bar in San Diego with his brother, Gary, when a stranger leaned across an empty stool and said snidely, "So how about that Randy Johnson?" Walker was on the guy like Tyson on Holyfield, only Walker bit off the entire face. "I laid a million swear words on the guy, and I was ready to go at it," says Walker. "People had to step in between us. I asked him what gave him the right to say something like that to me. I wanted to know. He said he was a youth soccer coach who admired the way I played. He said he didn't know why he said something to me, and he apologized."
Walker stands 6'3", weighs 225 pounds and looks as if he could eat glass. The bigmouth in the San Diego bar was big, says Walker, breaking into a smile, "but not as big as Randy Johnson. So I wasn't scared of him."
Larry Walker is dead last in the majors in pretentiousness. He's 30, but when he looks in the mirror, he still sees a dirty-faced kid from Maple Ridge, B.C., a failed goaltender who stumbled into a baseball career and savors every minute he spends in the big leagues. When someone uses the word superstar in his presence, he looks around the room like one of the Three Stooges and wonders who has walked in. It can't be him. He's still waiting for the dream to end and someone to tell him it's time to go to work for his father selling lumber in Vancouver. "The people back home will say to me, 'Boy, you haven't changed at all,' " he says. "To me, that's the nicest thing anyone can say to you."
He has a crooked smile and hair that usually looks as if he combed it with a lit firecracker. He dresses as if he were always about to paint the porch, and he takes a shower every few days whether he needs one or not. Rockies shortstop Walt Weiss hung the nickname Dirtbag on him, and, naturally, Walker wears it proudly. "I have lots of nice clothes," says Walker, after showing up for a recent game in an untucked T-shirt and baggy shorts. "I just don't wear them." He earns more than $5 million a year, but it recently dawned on him that during the season he rarely uses his house on a golf course in West Palm Beach, Fla. So he called the cable company there and canceled HBO.
The furor that followed the game he sat out made Walker feel like the class clown who has been asked to dance by the homecoming queen. You want me? He couldn't believe everyone had been there to see him hit. "It made me realize that people are really watching what I'm doing now," says Walker. "Which is good, I guess. If I wasn't doing anything, nobody would've noticed whether I was in the lineup."
So where is Walker, anyway? These days, near the top of almost every offensive category in the National League. Going into the All-Star break, he was batting a major-league-high .398 and had 25 home runs and 68 RBIs. He also led the majors in total bases, slugging percentage, on-base percentage and extra-base hits. He was clearly the National League MVP for the first half of the season and a genuine gate attraction in a sport that needs all it can get.
Walker is considered among the most complete players in baseball, but he says one result of his success continues to give him fits. Sometimes he just doesn't understand what all the fuss is about. "I have people come up to me and shake my hand and say, 'Oh, god, I'm never going to wash this hand again!' " says Walker. "I'm sorry, I just don't get it. I'm just a person, no different than your brother or your father. What's the big deal?"