The next year he and a friend went back to Saskatchewan for one more try. His friend made the team; Walker did not. It was suggested that he try to land a spot on the Junior B team in Swift Current, which was on the way home but still 16 hours from Maple Ridge. Walker agreed, but when he reached Swift Current, walked around the town and realized he was about to be orphaned for the sake of taking a puck in the teeth every lonely night, he reconsidered his dreams. "Not my cup of tea," he finally decided, "although I still think I could have made it."
So he went at baseball a little bit, although not a version of baseball that many of us would recognize. He never saw a forkball, a slider or even much of a curveball, and was so poorly grounded in fundamentals that, well, we'll tell that story in a bit. After his bitter journey through Saskatchewan, Walker found an amateur league in Vancouver that offered a 72-game season, and he discovered that he could knock a fastball over the fence every once in a while. That earned him a spot on the Canadian junior team (not in the sport he wanted, but still) and a return visit to Saskatchewan in the summer of 1984 to play at the national training camp.
Some major league scouts were there, and Walker might have caught their eye when he got ahold of a fastball, but let it be known here that a bidding war did not break out. The Montreal organization signed him to a $1,500 bonus and then lumped him with all its other long shots on an independent team in Utica, N.Y. It was a kind of cold storage for every kid who couldn't quite shake the notion that he was going to be a valuable rookie card. This was supposed to be Walker's baseball Swift Current. To prepare, he joined his father's Softball team, Maple Ridge Lanes, which was heavy on Walkers (all five men were in the lineup), and was named MVP.
MVP aside, it wasn't much preparation. In Utica he was astounded by the level of play, even in this ragtag outfit. They threw breaking balls, off-speed pitches. It was hardly fair. "I couldn't get a ball out of the batting cage," he says. And the rules! One of the times he did get on base, Walker flew around second on a hit-and-run and then had to retreat to first when the ball was caught. He cut across the pitcher's mound, to save time, and his coach lit into him, telling him he had to touch second. Walker didn't see the logic: "I already did, the first time." He hit a crisp .223, and only because the pitchers had to mix in a fastball every now and then.
The upshot was that Walker was not going to be hustled through the organization—which, when you think about it, is what saved him. One instructional league after another, where he'd get a cup of soup and an orange every day for lunch, the scouts forgiving his lamentable performance in light of his physical gifts. What's more, he got the baseball mileage he needed. "I worked my ass off," he says. "I took a jillion fly balls, hit till my hands bled." Finally, he began to get it.
Now everything he does seems so instinctive, so natural, it's hard to believe he wasn't born on the diamond. Walt Weiss, the Colorado teammate who hung Dirtbag on him ("It could have been worse," says Weiss, now retired), was surprised to learn that Walker hadn't been playing the game since he was five. "That ability to make split-second decisions on the fly the way Larry does," he says, "that's what's amazing."
Walker's teammates are, to a man, admiring. "Jealous, more like it," says Helton. They all have their favorite moment, whether it's Walker pretending to settle under an easy fly ball, then suddenly breaking back to take it off the wall and gun down the poor sap at second, or Walker making a leap in the outfield to rob somebody of a home run. "I took film of him jumping against that wall in Dodger Stadium back to my trainer in Tennessee," says Helton. "I told him, 'I want to do that.' "
He can't, though. The things Walker does, nobody else can. Even when he's hurt, he's scary. "What I remember most about Larry," says Helton, who is fast becoming Gehrig to Walker's Ruth, "is last year when he couldn't throw. His arm was in bandages, white strips flying—and they still wouldn't send runners on him."
Although there seems to be a feeling around the league that he could play hurt more often, it's Walker's playing hurt that Hurdle singles out. Hurdle, a former teammate of George Brett's, always tells Walker how Brett, at 80%, was more important to the team than a healthy replacement. "One of the most amazing things I've seen Larry accomplish," says Hurdle, "was during those two seasons after '97, when, hurt as he was, he hit for a high average. He had to take daily inventory of what was going good and come up with a stroke that would work within the parameters of his health. It was never dramatic—a layman's eye would never notice. But he'd raise his hands on the bat or open his stance, just to have a stroke that was pain-free. It was different every night for two years."
Sometimes his effort is invisible to the expert's eye as well, and the resulting impression is that Walker is indifferent to the game, as if he'd rather be playing hockey. (He would, but that's beside the point.) "He plays his ass off," says Rockies manager Buddy Bell. "The problem I have is that...when he runs the bases he looks like he's not trying." That's the other knock on him, if it's a knock. "He does make things look easy," says Helton.