The following is a true story. Though certain similarities might exist between Larry Walker and Sidd Finch, the fictional subject of an SI April Fools' Day story eight years ago, Walker is an actual person who plays baseball for the Montreal Expos. He runs, bats, throws, eats, sleeps and takes road trips. He also is not a character played in any baseball movie starring Robert Redford, though again there are certain similarities.
The town was Maple Ridge, B.C., 20 miles outside Vancouver. One of those places a little too far away from the big city to be considered a suburb, but close enough not to be considered rural. The game, of course, was hockey. What else? Larry Walker was a hockey player. He was a goalie.
His dream was to play in the NHL. One of his idols was Billy Smith, the cantankerous netminder for the New York Islanders who seemed to skate around some rink holding the Stanley Cup over his head every year. Walker was going to be the next Billy Smith. He had a beat-up set of pads donated by an older brother, a fiberglass mask molded by his father and a butterfly style he had developed because he figured that, as a big guy, when he went down to block a shot he still had a lot of bulk in front of the net. If anyone could lift a rebound past all that bulk and into the top corner, more power to him.
"The mask had a big W painted on the front," Walker says. "It worked pretty well until one day a guy hit it, dead on, with a slap shot. Right in the middle of the forehead. The mask broke in two. The W split exactly in the middle. There was a V on each piece now. I switched to a birdcage mask."
"Probably should have put another layer of fiberglass on," his father says. "I wasn't an expert or anything. I was just trying things out."
Walker's father is also named Larry, and his mother is named Mary, and his brothers are named Gary, Carey and Barry...true, all true. It just worked out that way. The parents gave the first couple of kids rhyming names and got a kick out of it, so they kept going. Larry is the youngest, nine years the youngest. The boys would start playing all kinds of games in the basement and the phone would ring and the older Larry or Mary would shout down the stairs and all anyone would hear was "—ry, telephone!"
A lot of street hockey was played in the driveway and backyard of a kid named Rick Herbert. The kids made up rules and standings and all the rest of the stuff that kids do. One of the kids was Cam Neely, the best of the lot, the one who would go on to be an All-Star with the Boston Bruins. True, all true. In the organized age-level games at the local arena, all the kids in the neighborhood were on the same team, skating for the honor of Maple Ridge. Walker would look through his birdcage bars and see Neely knocking down everyone in sight.
The important jump, of course, was to Junior A. Leave home, make a team and get noticed, and in a few years you would be sitting in the Montreal Forum or someplace, wearing a cheap suit, waiting for your name to be called in the NHL draft. It all would have been perfect except, well, Walker didn't make the team. He was invited to a tryout by the Regina Pats in 1983 and was cut, the last goaltender cut, and was told to come back the next year.
"Rick Herbert's father drove him and me to the tryout," Walker says. "Rick made the team. I didn't. I drove back with his father, 15 hours from Saskatchewan."
Walker went back the following year and was cut again. There was an offer to play for a Junior B team, but that didn't work out either, and suddenly Walker's vision of being the next Billy Smith seemed to evaporate into the clear Canadian air. Walker was 16, and already he needed a new future. The idea of an academic career was also long gone; school had never seemed very important, outside of lunch and maybe gym. What to do?