The constant self-deprecation is not nearly as annoying as you'd think. He goes 1 for 4 (with two RBIs), dropping his average to .351, and on the way out of the clubhouse he asks a couple of security guys if they know how to hit, 'cause he could use some help right about now. "I mean it," he says. If they have ideas on a new stroke, they should pipe up before he has to leave the sport in shame. The security guys exchange helpless looks, shrug and wave him by. As if they could tell Larry Walker anything about hitting. Or fielding. Or throwing, or baserunning. They've just gotta laugh. Isn't he headed for the Hall of Fame?
Luckily they don't say as much, or they'd likely be drenched in a spit take on Walker's way out. Anybody who tries to frame his credentials in a historical perspective, as a reporter did earlier that day, is rewarded with Travis Bickle patter. "You talking to me?" Walker says, swiveling his head around the Colorado Rockies clubhouse, as if questions of baseball immortality ought to be directed across the room to slugger Todd Helton. "My legacy?"
It's not said in rebuke or in false modesty, which would be annoying beyond belief, considering the size and variety of his talents. It's said in bafflement. There's an odd charm to that when you realize how detached Walker is from his achievements, how clueless he remains after all these years. His is not a cloying humility, the very hollowness of it meant to trumpet his triumphs. His is the absolute amazement of a failed hockey player who, by some accounts, may be the best player in baseball.
You knew he was different. This spring, when players sitting on megamillion-dollar contracts were whining that they were underpaid, Walker approved a deferment of his own income so the Rockies could come up with some scratch for a pair of pitchers. It was a big deal in Denver—everywhere, actually. Not many players lend back $18 million in salary, which is essentially what Walker did. That favor granted, the Rockies could sign free agents Mike Hampton and Denny Neagle. "Probably took me all of three seconds to decide," says Walker, who, as you will see, does everything in threes. Our turn to be incredulous. "I've got money," he says.
He's got a lot of it, to tell the truth, and it's not as if he gave the Rockies their money back. He will bank $57 million over six years, then get back the $18 million, with interest, over 20 years. So the sacrifice is not quite of Mother Teresa quality. Still, for a baseball player, you have to conclude that this guy has no sense of self-worth. Frank Thomas complained this spring that $9.9 million wasn't worth the hassle of playing for the Chicago White Sox, and Walker decides he can live on less. Won't be easy, of course, but if he doesn't suddenly upgrade his wardrobe to string ties, it's doable.
This is all by way of saying that Walker follows a different path, although he would tell you he's not on any path at all, just zigzagging through life. He has no use for the usual hullabaloo of celebrity and has found a way to achieve his minimal self-validation without the usual financial yardsticks. He won't do endorsements because he can't stand the idea "of turning on the TV and seeing my mug, doing something stupid," and he won't stoop to pick up every dime that's available to him simply because he's famous. The other day his agent came to him with a proposal to sign 1,000 items in a guy's living room and make $38,000. "I can't be bothered," Walker says.
The problem, you can see, is that all this ability is wasted on somebody with no inclination to exploit it fully. He was the National League MVP in 1997, had a nice three-year run ('97 to '99) batting above .360 each season, twice winning batting titles, and is generally considered among the best five-tool players in the game. That's a lot of tools for somebody who doesn't host This Old House, but when it comes to all-around play—hitting for power and average, fielding, throwing and baserunning—Walker may be peerless. "He's better than one of the best," Atlanta Braves manager Bobby Cox once said. "He is the best."
Add his otherworldly instincts—when to run and when to fake to draw a throw from an outfielder—and you have somebody who is severely overqualified for his job. "He's a six-tool guy," decides Chicago Cubs manager Don Baylor, who managed Walker in Colorado from 1995 to '98. "Most talented player I've ever had."
All this for an unmade bed of a slob who answers to Dirtbag (an upgrade from his tag in Montreal: Booger), who'd rather be tooling (seven-tool guy?) through the Rockies on his Fatboy or watching the Colorado Avalanche in his den than flaunting his fame (or watching another baseball game—too boring, he says). Can he really be that down-to-earth? "What I really enjoy," says Walker, "is people not looking at me."
He's not been so inoculated to the perks of stardom that he won't consider using pull to get front-row tickets this fall when Janet Jackson comes to Denver. (A picture of Janet shares space above his locker with one of his oldest daughter, seven-year-old Brittany, from his first marriage.) Other than that, though, Walker can't understand why a little extra eye-hand coordination ought to provide special privilege. "It's just that I enjoy fitting in," he says. "I like it when my buddies back home in Maple Ridge [ B.C.] say I haven't changed one bit, when they say I'm still an idiot."