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Handy Man
Richard Hoffer
June 11, 2001
The Rockies' Larry Walker has all the major league tools, and he wields them like a master craftsman
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June 11, 2001

Handy Man

The Rockies' Larry Walker has all the major league tools, and he wields them like a master craftsman

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Too easy. Walker recognizes it too. "I've watched myself play on tape," he admits, "and even I think I'm not trying."

It's the curse of the gifted, to infuriate lesser mortals. "We've gone into a bar," says Angela, "and there'll be a dartboard. Bull's-eye. Drives you crazy."

Walker exaggerates this impression in about a hundred, entirely unnecessary, ways. His teammates might be pounding their fists into their gloves, acting intense and competitive, and Walker is chatting with the fans in the outfield bleachers. He's sorry they have to watch a sport as slow as baseball, and he's trying to help them pass the time. Everything he does seems casual, at times to the point of comedy, at others to the point of, well, you have to scratch your head.

Like the stories that he rarely takes batting practice, preferring to hang out in the clubhouse and sort his teammates' mail. That anecdote is embedded in every feature on Walker and, while colorful enough, is misleading. Sometimes he does take BP (the day after he polled the security guards, he was at the park early for extra work with Hurdle), and he always warms up before the game in the indoor cage with 15 or so swings. He will also study film when things aren't going right. His teammates know he's more grit than quirk, or else he wouldn't be hitting .360 for years at a stretch, even playing half his games in Coors Field. "He doesn't seem to be taking anything seriously," says Neagle, "which is my kind of guy. On the other hand you've got to watch out for flying bats. Larry can snap with the best in the league."

For the most part, however, Walker masks this desire behind a wry flippancy, using humor acquired in the Walker household. By brother Gary's reckoning, that in itself is "kind of comical." You wouldn't expect much else from parents named Larry and Mary who called their first two sons Barry and Carey before (they say) they noticed a pattern (They rhyme!) "That snuck up on us," says Larry Sr., sort of seriously. "We weren't doing it for belly laughs." Larry Jr. shakes his head. That was the high level of humor, with the four boys pulling hilarious pranks on their mother. How hilarious? "You know," says Gary, "sneaking up behind her, stuff like that."

Larry's clubhouse behavior is hardly more sophisticated. It's common for him to walk around with a sanitary stocking tied around his head. It was considered highly cerebral of him when, in an All- Star Game at bat against Randy Johnson (whom Walker had been ridiculed for ducking), he turned his cap around and batted righty. "I almost wet myself on that one," says his dad.

Walker's insistence on the holiness of the numeral three does not give you much confidence in his sanity either. His uniform number is 33, he takes three practice swings, sets his alarm clock for three minutes past the hour...it goes on and on. "Let's see," he says, "my first marriage was on Nov. 3 at 3:33, lasted three years—it ended in '93—and cost me $3 million." So that's your lucky number, huh? "It can't work every time. Anyway, I've got other superstitions you don't know about."

That low-grade flakiness is much appreciated everywhere he goes, baseball being as sober as it is. It's the kind of thing that makes players colorful without being dangerously interesting. But if it's part of a larger attitude, then you have to wonder. What does it mean when Walker has three home runs in a game in 1997 and, instead of going for number 4, takes himself out?

If it means he doesn't care, then he's not a tragic figure dogged by bad luck but something much worse. To be such a poor steward of talent that the limits of achievement are left untested is to sin mortally in this society of ambition. What the rest of us wouldn't give to hit a 50th home run, to pick up a dart and throw a bull's-eye, to renegotiate that pitiful $75 million contract. How dare he?

However, if it means he has mastered a nonchalance that insulates him from the stupid fatigue of stardom, then that's something else. It's hard to hit .379. It's almost impossible to do it and retain that Maple Ridge normality, even if he's calling his brother Gary every day. ("Girl talk," Angela guesses.) Anyway, what does he need with a better contract? When he learned that negotiations had stalled two years ago, Walker barked at his agent, "I won't spend $75 million in a lifetime," and had him close the deal. And what did Walker need with that fourth home run? "It was in a game against the Expos," recalls Baylor. "We had a huge lead, and he was not going to embarrass his former team. It didn't matter to him."

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