It's not only his upbringing in western Canada, where baseball was something you did during those 14 weeks you didn't play hockey, that keeps Walker's sporting ego in check. Maybe he'd be distrustful of his position in the game anyway. He's especially wary because of the unpredictability of baseball, which tends to leave him high and dry for extended parts of seasons. He's 34 this year, his 12th full season in the majors, and in only one season has he been healthy enough to play more than 143 games. Inasmuch as that one year, when he played 153 games, was one of the most remarkable MVP seasons ever (a near Triple Crown: .366, 49 home runs and 130 RBIs), his supporters are left to wonder what his career might be like if he avoided injury. They wonder away because in the years since that MVP season, Walker has played in 130 games, then 127 and last year only 87.
It's always been something different. Walker, at 6'3", 233 pounds, is not especially frail and, contrary to whispers throughout the league, is willing to play in pain, to the point that he might embarrass himself. Yet, nearly every year, he is sabotaged by injuries and must sit out prolonged stretches, nursing a nice .379 average and wondering what if.
It began early in his career, when Walker was still finding his way in this goofy U.S. sport. The Montreal Expos signed him as an undrafted free agent in 1984, and he blew out his right knee in 1988 while playing winter ball in Mexico's Pacific League. He made the big club for good in 1990, but in '94 he tore the rotator cuff in his right (throwing) shoulder and required surgery. He signed with the Rockies as a free agent in 1995 and broke his collarbone a year later. He had that dream season in '97, but in '98 he missed eight starts with a sprained right middle finger (and still won the batting crown). In 1999, after signing a six-year contract extension, he missed considerable time with a strained muscle in his rib cage and, later, frayed cartilage in his left knee that eventually required surgery (and he still won the batting crown).
Finally, last season he was put on the disabled list twice, with elbow ailments so severe that he could not win a batting title (he hit only .309) or, according to his wife, Angela, lift a coffee cup. "Was he hurting?" she says. "I remember him tossing our daughter, Canaan, in the air—she was five, six months old—and crumpling in agony when he caught her."
That injury was nearly the last straw for Walker, who had been stoic about his time on the DL. This time he asked himself, "Who's doing this? Who do I see about this?" It was as close as he's come to self-pity. The injury was presumably repaired in surgery on Sept. 8, but he received no immunization from bad luck.
Given all the time he's missed, is it any wonder Walker refuses to bask in his rightful glory, dismisses each achievement, hides behind his normality? Why tempt fate further? Better to keep his five Gold Gloves scattered about his basement than risk the inevitable payback for the slightest bravado. Maybe if he refuses to enjoy the game, he'll be allowed to play it.
So far this year he's been allowed. Maybe it was the trainer he worked with in the off-season, maybe the live-in nutritionist who dishes up grilled chicken for lunch instead of something fried. Why take any more chances than he has to? How many more tries at this is he going to get? Through Sunday Walker was hitting a pain-free .346 with 19 home runs and 56 RBIs, including three homers—one a game-winner—and six RBIs last weekend. A possible MVP season was looming, and the cruelty of baseball was in at least temporary abeyance.
"If he plays 135 games," says Rockies hitting coach Clint Hurdle, "he'll be MVP. Not a lot of things I'd bet on, but that's something I've seen with my own eyes." On the other hand Hurdle has been around the block enough to know that neither good health nor awards are guaranteed and that Walker, no matter what those security guys think, is not a shoo-in for the Hall of Fame. "If he'd been healthy all those years, the numbers would be staggering," says Hurdle. "But they're not, and that's what separates the elite from the great." That's harsh, right? "Who's to say life's fair?"
Walker, by any reckoning, shouldn't be in the big leagues, much less terrorizing them. Growing up in Maple Ridge, 20 miles east of Vancouver, all he wanted to do was play in the NHL, like his hero, Mike Bossy of the New York Islanders. Walker's father, Larry, had played baseball. His three brothers—Barry, Carey and Gary (no lie!)—dabbled in it. Hockey, though, was his thing. "I collected hockey cards," Walker says, not baseball cards. "I didn't even know the Yankees were supposed to be good."
He might have played 15 to 20 baseball games a summer, but it was only a way of killing time until he could get on with the dramatic back-story to a legendary NHL goaltending career. Except, in 1982 the first Junior A team he tried out for cut him. Next year, invited back to work with the Regina ( Sask.) Pats, he got cut again. "And I consider myself a pretty good goaltender," he says, still mystified.